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Honoring Charleston’s Ancestors on May 4

Posted by: Julia Eichelberger | May 3, 2019 | No Comment |

The following post was also published on May 3 in the Post and Courier. However, they left out the quotations I included at the beginning and ends of the article, so I have included those here.

Honoring Charleston’s Ancestors

Julia Eichelberger

And some there be, which have no memorial; who are perished, as though they had never been; and are become as though they had never been born; and their children after them.                  Ecclesiasticus 44:9

There’s a lot of history to study in Charleston, but isn’t it mostly the history of wealthy white families, the people whose records fill most of our archives and whose homes are most carefully preserved? Their names are on streets and buildings; their oil portraits and antique furniture are most often on display; theirs are the few families who had the means to write and preserve their letters, diaries, plantation ledgers. We’re grateful their artifacts survive. To be able to handle and walk through these bits of the past is exciting, even magical, making us feel transported to another era. And yet these archival remnants deceive us if we imagine they offer a complete, representative picture of our past. The hands who built and tended these historic structures, the bodies compelled to create these households’ wealth, are all but invisible in Charleston’s picturesque streets, unless we know what to look for: fingerprints in bricks, “servant” quarters, benne seed wafers.


This week we will re-inter 36 African-descended people whose remains were discovered in 2013 near the corner of George and Anson Streets.  When the city was renovating the Gaillard Auditorium, no one expected to find a burial ground there. One early owner of this property, George Anson, gave the streets his names, but neither he nor subsequent owners left records of the cemetery that clearly existed there. That’s not surprising. Once dead and no longer able to work or bear children, the bodies of enslaved people who could yield no further profit would have held little interest to most white Charlestonians. Someone, probably a community of enslaved people, carefully laid these dead to rest, but within a few decades, they disappeared beneath the earth, joining the many thousands gone whose unfree labor built so much of our beautiful city.


Thanks to efforts by the City, the Gullah Society, the National Geographic Society, University of Pennsylvania, and C of C student researcher Adeyemi Oduwole, these human remains have been carefully excavated and analyzed.  DNA indicates the areas in Africa where most people came from, and isotope analysis even suggests how many years they’d spent on this side of the Atlantic. Researchers are now comparing these findings with DNA samples taken from present-day Charleston residents.


So these ancestors, having enriched the city with their labor centuries before, are now increasing our knowledge of who we are and how we’re connected. The bodies of the living are joining these rediscovered dead in an enlarged archive of historical information and human understanding. In providing this knowledge, the ancestors continue an old tradition in which the living receive guidance and encouragement from the dead. In the Kongo cultures from which some enslaved people came, there were two realms of existence,  “the visible and the invisible intertwined in the same space,” writes Ras Michael Brown (African-Atlantic Cultures and the South Carolina Lowcountry). Burial grounds, where ancestors are embedded in the landscape, give the living a link to the invisible realm of the dead. For people brought to a strange new land where they were enslaved, ancestors would have been especially important. Brown and other scholars even posit that the famous tale of the Flying Africans at Ibo Landing may have been a tale of self-sacrifice: those enslaved people may have chosen to drown themselves, transforming an alien land into a sustaining home. In Brown’s words, those dead gave themselves as “a sacrifice, an offering to the land and waters to consecrate the landscape of the Lowcountry with the lives and spirits of captive Africans brought in chains to this shore.”


Whatever you may believe about visible or invisible realms, it’s clear that the Anson Street burial ground is enriching 21st-century Charleston with new knowledge and inspiration. On May 4, the City and the Gullah Society will return the remains of these individuals very near to their original resting place on the Gaillard grounds.


If you’d like to join the procession down George Street and the celebration that follows, meet at the College of Charleston, 58 George, between 9:30 and 10:30. The Center for the Study of Slavery is hosting the procession’s starting point. Before we set out at 10:30, you may also write a personal message to be buried with the ancestors.  Thanks to them, we’ll walk down a beautiful Charleston street, together.


We have come over a way that with tears has been watered;

We have come treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered.

Out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last,

Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

James Weldon Johnson


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