It has been nearly five years since I began my work with Gullah Society and African Burial Grounds. My interest was spurred by a visit to the gravesite of my ancestor William Simmons Senior. The late Mr. Simmons is the grandfather of my grandfather Philip Simmons. William Simmons Sr., his son William Simmons Jr., and his daughter Rosa Burns are all buried on Daniel Island at the Grove Cemetery. Rosa is my grandfather’s mother. William Simmons Senior’s wife, Sarah Buncum Simmons, is also buried on Daniel Island, at Alston Cemetery. I don’t know why William and Sarah were buried at different sites. I do know that William deceased before Sarah. I believe that Sarah’s family and church were left with the responsibility of attending to her burial rites and they buried her at the family and church’s cemetery.
I knew nothing about where my ancestors were buried and had no knowledge about the burial grounds until I read Herb Frazier’s book, ‘Behind God’s Back’. After a book signing at my studio, Herb informed me that my grandfather told him that his grandfather was buried behind the tennis stadium on Daniel Island. Granddad and I had many conversations about his time as a boy on the Island with his grandparents, but he never mentioned to me where they were buried. I even visited the island with granddad and family members to attend a ceremony for the dedication of the Philip Simmons Park. The park is not far from the burial ground; but the resting place of our ancestors was never mentioned while we were gathered as a family only blocks away.
I was exceedingly happy to learn the whereabouts of my ancestral burial ground and the very next morning I awoke early to go and find them. It was a rainy Sunday morning; with umbrella in hand, I walked the trail adjacent the stadium until I saw what appeared to be a cemetery. I couldn’t see it clearly because of the overgrown bushes and fallen trees; but I was able to see a few headstones. There was no gate for me to enter. The grounds were protected by a wooden fence. I climbed over the fence and proceeded to walk the site looking for William Simmons Senior’s tombstone. After passing several sunken graves, pushing my way through overgrown shrubbery, and fallen trees, I found the stone; it read FATHER William Simmons Senior. On the right-hand side of his stone was another headstone that read William Simmons Jr., and on the left-hand side another headstone read Rosa Burns.
While it is true that I did not discover the sacred burial sites of my ancestors until I had grandchildren of my own, I cried like a child when I was able to look upon the tombstones of my progenitors. My search for my ancestral connections was encouraged by my grandfather’s stories about home and family; for him home was Dan’s Island and family were his grandparents, William and Sarah. My grandfather lived until he was ninety-seven years old; his stories were long-lasting and often repeated. He was my link to my family’s past. I was very fortunate!
Nowadays, countless people are doing genealogical research, hiring investigators, spending money, long hours, days, weeks, months, and years, trying to connect to their family’s history. The process is less tedious with the internet and social media, but some people are never able to make the connection. Why are so many people trying to reconnect to their ancestral past? Why has genealogy become so important? What can our past teach us, about ourselves, and the world that we live in? Are the living linked to the spirits of the dead?
Burial grounds, cemeteries, graves, and memorials are intended to be mnemonic; they are created to assist our memory. African descended people throughout the diaspora are struggling to reconstruct a past (memory) that was disrupted and re-devised by the wills of the colonial empire builders. African people and their descendants were captured like animals, kidnapped, and transported to unfamiliar territories. They were forced to deny their true identities; unable to speak their native languages, worship their natural God(s), practice longstanding traditions, and were required to submit to the will of their imperial enslavers. Unarmed, they resisted and fought back; for generations they fought back; and after centuries of resistance, their descendants continue to fight back. Our ancestors were brutalized with every attempt to remember themselves. Those that refused to relinquish their humanity, dignity, and power were tortured, maimed, or killed; many were sold or traded to other enslavers. Families were torn apart, memories were lost.
But all was not lost. Some memories were hidden in stories, others in traditions; important ideas, plans, gestures, and cultural nuances were stored in signs and symbols. Tinges were brewed into stews, weaved into basket patterns, and sewn into quilts.
Ancestral burial grounds are repositories for treasured memories, gems that await discovery. They stand alone as places where peace and unrest, truth and deception are at constant odds. Ancestors whose souls have been assigned to rest eternally in these places, are distressed by their abandonment. They are insulted at the constant turbulence at their sacred settlements. They too, bear witness to the fruits of “development” and “progress.”
It was after I found William Simmons’ final resting place that I noticed the unrest and absence of peace at African burial grounds. Finding Grove Cemetery in the state that I found it saddened and angered me. I knew that something had to be done immediately.
With the support of Daniel Island Historic Society members, Daniel Island Corporation, and College of Charleston students, Gullah Society was able to conduct research, map the cemetery and began the cleanup of Grove Cemetery. Five years have past since that first experience with the Cemetery. Some family members of the people who are interred at Grove have come together and are now negotiating ways of enhancing and beautifying the sacred burial site.
Although she was not far from her beloved husband, I did not find Sarah Buncum Simmons, until two years after I was directed to William Senior. I was driving down I-26 with a colleague and my spirit spurred me to invite her to join me while I visited my ancestor’s gravesite. After we visited the grave, I offered her a quick tour of the development that was taking place in the area known as Daniel Island Park. We drove past what appeared to be a fenced in wooded area. At my request, she stopped the car. I looked deeper into the shrubbery and noticed a few tombstones. I told my colleague, that I believed that we were at a cemetery. I quickly got out of the car.
The graveyard is protected by a wooden fence identical to the fence at Grove Cemetery. Unlike Grove, Alston Cemetery has an awkwardly hung rusty gate. I opened the gate, saluted the spirits and asked for their permission to enter. Once inside, the third stone that I met read, Sarah Simmons, MOTHER, 1870-1943. I fell to my knees in prayer and salutation. I was deeply humbled by her approach to strengthening my understanding of patience and faith. Over the preceding weeks she had shown so many signs that she was ready to reveal her whereabouts to me. She hid herself from my startled glance until her appearance could be witnessed by more eyes than mine. I am thankful to my dear sister Toni Carrier (LowCountry Africana) for being that witness. Sarah smiled and embraced the two of us.
Today is Mother’s Day 2017. I will remove leaves and broken limbs from Sarah’s grave and place some fresh flowers at her headstone. Visiting Sarah has become a constant for me. Her spirit nurtured and comforted my grandfather Philip throughout his life and she has done the same for me. My grandfather and I are both the firstborn grandsons of first-born daughters. She now watches over my children and I pray that she will be a light for their children. Yes, the living are linked to loved ones, who are now resting. We are blessed to have it so.
Whenever I complained to my grandfather about the changing landscape of Charleston and the surrounding islands, he would admonish me to “stop complaining” and would tell me how he witnessed Charleston’s growth from a “horse and buggy” town, to the tourist attraction that it had become. He called that kind of development progress. He had no idea that progress would remove his neighbors, friends, and family from neighborhoods that he loved and frequented. Perhaps he did not notice that they were removing tombstones from the Brown Fellowship Cemetery to make way for the construction of the College of Charleston Addlestone Library. He had never heard the stories told by College of Charleston students about the strange occurrences in their dormitory rooms in McAlister Hall.
I am sure that my grandfather and his generation were aware that it was their enslaved ancestors that built the city of Charleston and provided the labor that made it a wealthy city. I always got the sense from them that they were tired and had grown weary of the fight. They believed that the promise of civil rights and integration would finally bring progress that would be inclusive. The African descended people in the City of Charleston are still waiting and fighting, fighting and waiting, and trusting that one day real progress will come. Yes, there is unrest at burial sites in the city of Charleston and across this country, because the living and the deceased are still fighting for justice, fair treatment, and a place to live and rest.
I watched my grandfather as he aged, He never expressed anger at the approach of the grim-reaper; he sometimes would joke that his friends and loved ones were expecting him; as if to suggest that he was going to a wonderful party. That is what African people and their descendants believe about the afterlife; that it exists in a familiar place, a place that they are returning to; a place where memories are good and joy is everlasting; a place where they are in communion with the almighty and our eternal ancestors.
Sacred burial grounds and cemeteries are places where the living go to remember, reflect and be with the memories of their loved ones. Charleston, South Carolina, once had twenty-seven African graveyards and cemeteries; now there are seven. There may be more if we include those graveyards that are attached to local churches. Those that are not attached to churches are endangered. They lie in the path of development and progress. The stories that they can tell are deemed unnecessary. The newly arrived residents have no use for stories about the suffering, pain, and torture that was inflicted upon those whose graves they disregard and destroy. The new tenants are interested in places to live, work and socialize. Spiritual respite never seems to be given much thought. Tombstones and bones are transportable. “The dead don’t care where you put them”!
The City of Charleston is now responding to that mistaken notion. It is slowly realizing that the dead do care and that the living care as well. Mayor John Tecklenburg’s office has invited Gullah Society to provide an action plan, with recommendations and directions as to how to best proceed with the reinterment of the bones that were removed from the Gaillard Auditorium construction site during the building of the Gaillard Center. The bones were discovered in February 2013 near George and Anson Street.
Gullah Society’s recommendations include, returning the bones to the Gaillard Center property; that the City of Charleston follow the appropriate archaeological treatment during the reinterment process; that the City provide the required funding for the development of a memorial that will acknowledge the magnitude of this discovery; and that the City of Charleston will use this opportunity to acknowledge and memorialize the many graves in Charleston, that have been displaced and/or destroyed due to development.
Gullah Society also recommended that a public screening of The New York African Burial Ground documentary be held at the Charleston County Library on Calhoun Street. The film screening is scheduled for Monday May 22 at 6:30pm and Thursday June 2 at 6:30pm.
This educational screening of the 2009 documentary about the 18th century African burial ground discovered in New York City in 1991 will be followed by a discussion about the future commemoration of the African graves discovered at Charleston Gaillard Center in 2013, including a possible location for the reinterment of the thirty seven individuals once buried at the site.
To learn more about Gullah Society, visit our website: www.thegullahsociety.com and like us on our Facebook page!