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Tears and celebration mark Charleston reburial of skeletal remains of 36 people

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The bones were to return to the ground. But not before they made one last journey.

They were the skeletal remains of six people. Two women, two men and two children. Held in white boxes, wrapped in indigo-colored blankets and riding in a horse-drawn hearse. 

The bones were headed to what is now the site of Charleston's performing arts building, the Gaillard Center. It was near that same dirt, six years ago, that workers found them, more than 250 years after they were first buried. Saturday's solemn ceremony wasn't just for them: It also served as a civic act of remembrance for many, many like them. 

The 36 whose remains were uncovered mostly had roots in west and central Africa. Others were from the Caribbean and South Carolina. 

Led by the hearse, dozens of followers crossed George and King streets in downtown Charleston. Many wore flowing robes, shirts and pants of golds and purples. Whites and yellows. Browns, oranges and greens. Onlookers gathered as the swell of people, some children and others up in years, passed by. 

For a city still grappling with its dark and unequal racial history, the celebration of the remains presented a moment. The walkers' clothing, the metronomic drumming that guided them and the chanting that lifted them was purposefully rooted in Africa, in honor of the enslaved ancestors forced to toil its land.

In death, those same people were often forgotten in grave sites that were later covered up, forgotten or destroyed. The 36 people were found in what was another of those unmarked burying places.

As the walkers crossed Anson Street to join the 30 other remains already inside an open burial vault, a hundred or so people packed in close under towering oak trees. Crowding around the vault, they took pictures of the remains inside and the top that was about to seal them. 

Gaillard Reburial

People use their phones to take photos of the names of the 36 people that were found during the renovation of the Gaillard Center during a reburial ceremony Saturday, May 4, 2019. Brad Nettles/Staff

The rectangular top featured the names given, at an earlier ceremony a week ago, to each of the people found in the burial ground. 

Each name was a nod to their African heritage. Written above them, on the top, were the words: "Into heaven your spirits we now release, we bless you and we thank you and pray your souls may know peace."  

One by one, pallbearers clutching white wooden carriers moved the remaining boxes from the hearse toward the vault, near a freshly opened grave. 

Dr. Ade Ajani Ofunniyin, founder and director of the Gullah Society, helped bring them through an opening in the crowd, placing each of the boxes inside the vault with the others. Ofunniyin followed by placing cards on top of the indigo blankets that covered the boxes, with messages written for the dead.

"To my beloved ancestors, thank you for life and making your journey to Charleston, SC," offered one person. "You are honored and may God bless your souls." It was signed "with love." 

Gaillard Reburial

Two of the messages for the ancestors that were placed in a vault holding the remains of 36 people that were found during the renovation of the Gaillard Center Saturday, May 4, 2019. Brad Nettles/Staff

The drumming paused as the Rev. Willie Hill, from the nearby St. John's Reformed Episcopal Church, gave a brief sermon. The bones of the people in the boxes in front of them were free, he said. Nothing could set them in bondage again. 

Ofunniyin, followed by reading each of their names listed on the vault, which people repeated in response. 

Coosaw. Risu. Kwabena. Kuto. Talata. Nina. Lisa. Pele. Ganda. Kidzera. Ajana. Nana. Rere. Juba. Kiana. Jode. Anika. Daba. Babatunde. Zimbu. Welela. Fumu. Amina. Leke. Lima. Tima. Pita. Banza. Ola. Omo. Mbangi. Isi. Wuta. Ulume. Yawo. Ori. 

The drumbeat, singing voices in unison and swaying bodies continued as the final clods of dirt later thumped on the sealed vault, after it was lowered into the earth.

With names anew, they were returning to the Charleston soil once again. 

Reach Stephen Hobbs at 843-937-5428. Follow him on Twitter @bystephenhobbs.

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