The scientific research and discovery kicked off in 2013 by the now-defunct Gullah Society after the remains of 36 likely enslaved people were discovered near the Gaillard Center is bearing fruit.
The information is so compelling that articles have been published in prestigious scientific journals. Researchers have been studying not only DNA samples captured from the human remains, but DNA samples of the bacteria that lived in the mouths of the people who were buried at the Anson Street site.
Studying this dental calculus is giving the team insights about the general health of these Black ancestors, as well as clues about what they ate. This kind of inquiry has not been done before on the remains of Africans and African descendants that date to the 18th century, the researchers said.
They also examined isotopes to gauge levels of the mineral strontium, found in teeth enamel and bones. That helps them locate the geographical origins of these ancestors.
Over the course of the last nine years, a picture has emerged revealing some details about this group of people interred in Charleston between 1760 and 1790. At a May 3 public meeting, researchers Raquel Fleskes and Theodore Schurr described their findings.
The dead all were laid east-to-west in four distinct rows, suggesting they were interred with care. Artifacts discovered in the graves included old coins, which helped to date the burial ground; pieces of clay pipes; buttons; and nails and brass pins indicative of shroud wraps. One button was made of mother-of-pearl, a precious item likely left by someone in mourning.
Some juveniles were among the dead. Six adults were African, the rest were born in the Charleston area. Two died soon after arrival in North America, but the rest lived at least another 10 years.
Whole-genome analysis of 18 remains enabled researchers to trace the genetic origins of these ancestors to places across West and Central Africa, from Senegal in the north to Namibia in the south. One sample revealed a specific connection to Fula/Fulani populations of West Africa. Another showed links to indigenous populations of North America.
The team partnered with the University of Oklahoma to conduct analysis of dental bacteria; that work is just beginning to deliver results, Schurr said. As information is gathered it will be shared.
The public meeting was organized in part to mark the third anniversary of the reinterment. On May 4, 2019, remains were carried by horse-drawn carriage through the streets to the Gaillard Center site as participants in the ceremony chanted and beat drums.
Notes of appreciation written by members of the community were placed in the burial vault.
An effort is underway to erect a permanent memorial. The idea was first broached after the reinterment, said Joanna Gilmore, director of research and interpretation for the Anson Street African Burial Ground project.
In February 2019, New York-based architect Rodney Leon, who had designed a burial ground memorial for lower Manhattan in New York, came to Charleston for a presentation. Then COVID hit. Then Gullah Society founder Ade Ofunniyin died. The project went into limbo, Gilmore said.
It was revived in 2021 when the Charleston mayor’s office agreed to a meeting at which then-Spoleto Festival USA General Director Nigel Redden appeared. Spoleto Festival was interested in joining the effort to create a permanent memorial by the Gaillard Center and suggested North Carolina-based artist Stephen Hayes as the designer.
Hayes came up with the idea of creating a fountain with 36 pairs of hands, modeled after living people in the Charleston area, surrounding it. The water element would reference the middle passage. The hands would humanize the dead.
Although members of the community were involved in the development of the memorial idea (32 people are part of the ad hoc memorial committee), some felt that there was insufficient public engagement, Gilmore said.
At the public meeting moderated by the project’s director of education and outreach, La’Sheia Oubre, panelists discussed what they perceived as failures in the selection process. Educator and author Al Fraser questioned why there hadn’t been an official call for proposals, and why the community was simply informed that an artist had been recommended.
Tamara Butler, director of the Avery Research Center, suggested putting together a document that spelled out in detail how the community engagement process should work.
Now the project team is seeking ways to further the memorial effort and accommodate the ideas and concerns of more people, Gilmore said.