The unexpected discovery of 36 human remains next to the Gaillard Auditorium seven years ago was always going to result in their legal, respectful reinterment, but Ade Ajani Ofunniyin made sure Charleston provided much more than that. He ensured the city took full advantage of the moment to think more deeply about the lives of these long-deceased African Americans and what the city owes them.
Sadly, now it is time for this community to respectfully lay to rest Dr. Ofunniyin — known to many simply as Dr. O — after his sudden death Wednesday from a health crisis at age 67.
Dr. Ofunniyin founded The Gullah Society to identify and preserve historic African American burial grounds, many of which never carried permanent markers and faded from public consciousness over time.
He was born in Charleston, moved to New York with his mother early in life and then returned here at age 32 planning to follow in the footsteps of his legendary grandfather, blacksmith Philip Simmons. After the young man didn't take to the hammer and anvil, he turned to an even weightier tool, an education, earning a doctorate in anthropology.
Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg and many others got to know Dr. Ofunniyin well after the Gaillard discovery led to deep, citywide discussions about ancestors, particularly those who were enslaved. "He was a step into the spiritual world," the mayor told The Post and Courier's Adam Parker. "He had this spiritual awareness about human nature, and specifically African American humanity, that was just so unique and insightful and beautiful."
The Gullah Society was a natural outgrowth of that insight, but Dr. Ofunniyin also contributed through starting a Gullah theater studio and teaching courses on cultural preservation at College of Charleston. He and his students recorded and restored burial grounds around the area.
The Gullah Society's work will continue; it shares a small office with the African American Settlement Community Historic Commission in Mount Pleasant, and its work is as pressing as ever. Shortly before his death, Dr. Ofunniyin was working on a brighter, more respectful future for a former African American burial ground that long ago became a residence along Smith Street.
Dr. Ofunniyin also will be remembered for leading libation ceremonies off Sullivan's Island, where some enslaved Africans were quarantined before they stepped foot onto Charleston's wharves. During this ritual, he would summon ancestral spirits as awestruck students and others looked on. Undoubtedly, he is with those spirits now.