In a little more than two months, the remains of 36 African-Americans will be reburied in a small patch of ground near George and Anson streets.

Exactly what the May 4 reinternment event should look like and how these individuals may be related to present-day Charlestonions was all up for discussion Wednesday night.

About 100 people gathered in Charleston's new arts center at 134 Cannon St. for "Egungun Tunji: Ancestors Rise Again!," the Gullah Society's most recent event in its ongoing effort to learn more about the lives of the city's earlier African-Americans and preserve their stories.

What's clear is that the 36 sets of remains, unearthed by surprise in 2013 during the renovation of the Gaillard Center, have started a broader community conversation that goes well beyond the remains found on the site.

"It's certainly is a signifier for a bigger effort," said Scott Watson with Charleston's Cultural Affairs Department. "It recalls how many countless building sites here that have been disturbed where we didn't take time to stop and do the archaeology, do the science and pay due respect."

The conversation Wednesday brought many diverse voices, including architect Rodney Leon, who designed New York's African Burial Ground National Monument, the oldest and largest known excavated burial ground in North America for both free and enslaved Africans. And it involved Theodore Schurr, a researcher with the University of Pennsylvania's Anthropology Department.

And it involved dozens of local residents, many of whom received the results from DNA testing done on them recently.

'The dead have been woke'

The Gullah Society's effort has brought funding and attention from National Geographic, which featured the project in December and helped pay for research that analyzed not only the DNA from the remains but also from living residents. 

Previous forensic analysis showed those buried at the Gaillard site likely died between 1760 and 1800 and had ancestors who came from Africa. The land was never marked as a burial ground.

Schurr said the approximately 80 residents who volunteered for the DNA testing had a strong African lineage, about 86.5 percent on average.

“It may not come as a surprise, but the majority show quite substantial African ancestry from all sorts of genetic perspectives — material, paternal, DNA markers from both parents," he said. "There’s some variation of non-African heritage in some, but it’s not usually all that substantial.”

Ragina Scott Saunders learned her DNA reflected a 93 percent concentration from Africa, mostly around the nation of Niger. "I knew Africa," she said. "I just didn't know what areas."

She and Kim Williams Odom of Charleston joked that they might be cousins. Odom's results also showed a strong concentration from western and central Africa. She said seeing them made her teary-eyed because her grandmother recently passed.

Meanwhile, Schurr and graduate student Raquel Fleskes said they succeeded in extracting DNA from the remains and should have those results soon.

"We hope this is the start of a somewhat larger conversation about these results and what they mean," Schurr said. "Not many studies like this have been undertaken in the United States.”

Ade Ofunniyin, a College of Charleston anthropologist and Gullah Society founder, said it's no accident the remains were found at the Gaillard: "The dead have been woke in service of the living."

"Those bones could have been any of our ancestors," he added. "And even if they are not our ancestors, they're bones of ancestors of a city we love so much."

'Really powerful testament'

The Gaillard discovery was not unlike a 1991 discovery in lower Manhattan where preliminary work on a federal office building found remains from African-Americans buried in the 17th and 18th centuries.

That find triggered a broad, years-long conversation that ultimately led to its designation as a National Landmark and then the African Burial Ground National Monument, which opened in 2007.

Architect Rodney Leon designed that multi-faceted monument and gave an overview of it Wednesday.

He urged those who would work toward a larger memorial at the Gaillard to consider its educational message, urban presence, cultural context, spirituality, international accessibility and how people might interact with it. 

A temporary plaque will mark the Gaillard spot after the May 4 ceremony. Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg said it might take everyone involved in that project a little time to figure out a plan for a more formal memorial, "but we want to have a permanent honor to our ancestors there."

He noted a future Gaillard memorial would be just blocks from a planned memorial for the victims of the Emanuel AME Church shooting as well as the future International African American Museum. 

"Altogether, it's going to be a really, really powerful testament as to where we're going and where we came from," he said.

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Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771. Follow him on Twitter @RobertFBehre.

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