By Barney Blakeney
When construction crews renovating the Gailliard Auditorium in 2013 uncovered the remains of 36 Africans and individuals of African descent buried during the 1700s – the earliest found in Charleston so far – an inquisition began that created a student-led grassroots effort aimed at awakening the consciousness of the community in recognizing the enslaved Africans that built this city. Saturday, November 7, the College of Charleston community will describe the ‘Hidden Hands initiative’ as part of a series of ‘Community Conversations’ about DNA research and a study of genetic diversity in Charleston.
Charleston’s rich history too seldom offers information about the Africans and their descendants who contributed so much to that history. “We are excited about this powerful event and the role that the community will play in determining how the ancestors will be honored and remembered,” said Joanna Gilmore, adjunct professor of Sociology and Anthropology at the College of Charleston.
Since the remains were discovered, Gilmore and Dr. Ajani Ade Ofunniyin, adjunct professor of Anthropology, African American Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies at the College of Charleston and founder of The Gullah Society, have joined forces in develop a team facilitated through National Geographic Society grants. The team has analyzed the DNA from the 36 people buried near Anson Street, collected a total of 80 DNA samples from people of African descent living in Charleston and conducted DNA analysis this summer at University of Pennsylvania.
The results of the analysis of modern DNA variation will provide an initial view of genetic diversity in Charleston that can be compared with that obtained from the Anson Street burials and will allow community members to learn about their genetic ancestry. And the team has received funding from the Coastal Community Foundation to work with the Redux Contemporary Art Center on an arts engagement program to have young people involved in creating art for a reinterment ceremony.
The November 7 program will feature Dr. Theodore Schurr and Raquel Fleskes (from the University of Pennsylvania) and Adeyemi Oduwole (CofC student and National Geographic Early Career Grant recipient) discussing the results of DNA analyses. Most important is community participation in the planning for the reinternment ceremony and for a memorial to mark the reburial site.
Students studying the ‘Architecture of Memory’ with Prof. Nathaniel Walker will present proposed designs for a memorial for the Anson Street ancestors based on the DNA research and public feedback. Student designs will be followed by a panel discussion with Joe McGill of The Slave Dwelling Project; Heather Hodges, Director of the Gullah Geechee Heritage Corridor Commission; and Dr. Julia Eichelberger, of the new Center for the Study of Slavery in Charleston at the College of Charleston. Also, the program will include commentary on modern-day institutions that perpetuate racial inequities.
Through community engagement, school and art programs, the team hopes to explore what the public would like to see for the memorial; how the community’s understanding of the identity of the people buried at this site and those of African descent living in Charleston today affect the reinterment ceremony and the design of a memorial for the reburial site. The program is slated to begin 5 p.m. at Randolph Hall, 66 George St., on the College of Charleston campus.