DNA Studies of Gaillard Tomb Remains Reveal Compelling New Information | News

The scientific research and discovery launched in 2013 by the defunct Gullah Society after the remains of 36 people who were probably enslaved were discovered near the Gaillard Center are bearing fruit.

The information is so convincing that articles have been published in prestigious scientific journals. The researchers studied not only DNA samples taken from the human remains, but also DNA samples from the bacteria that lived in the mouths of those buried at the Anson Street site.

Studying this dental calculus gives the team insight into the general health of these black ancestors, as well as clues to what they ate. This type of investigation has never been done before on the remains of Africans and African descendants dating back to the 18th century, the researchers said.

They also examined isotopes for levels of strontium, found in tooth enamel and bone, which help them pinpoint the geographic origins of these ancestors.

Over the past nine years, an image has emerged revealing some details about this group of people buried in Charleston between 1760 and 1790. At a May 3 public meeting, researchers Raquel Fleskes and Theodore Schurr described their findings.

The dead were all laid east to west in four separate rows, suggesting they were carefully buried. Artifacts discovered in the graves included old coins, which helped date the cemetery, pieces of clay pipes, buttons and brass nails and pins indicating shroud wrappers. A button was mother-of-pearl, a precious object probably left by a mourner.

Gaillard cemetery (copy)

Ade Ofunniyin (left) greets Inna Burns Moore and Eric Poplin at Center Gaillard where archaeologists are digging at the site of a possible reburial of remains discovered in 2013. File/Adam Parker/Staff

Some miners were among the dead. Six adults were African, the others were born in the Charleston area. Two died shortly after arriving in North America, but the others lived at least 10 more years.

Whole-genome analysis of 18 remains has allowed researchers to trace the genetic origins of these ancestors to places in West and Central Africa, from Senegal in the north to Namibia in the south. One sample revealed a specific connection to the Fula/Fulani people of West Africa. Another showed ties to indigenous populations in North America.

The team partnered with the University of Oklahoma to perform dental bacteria analysis; that work is just starting to show results, Schurr said. As information is collected, it will be shared.

Charleston found their remains 6 years ago.  From now on, 36 people will be named and reburied.

The public meeting was organized in part to mark the third anniversary of the reburial. On May 4, 2019, the remains were transported by horse-drawn carriage through the streets to the Center Gaillard site as those attending the ceremony sang and beat drums.

Notes of appreciation written by members of the community have been placed in the vault.

An effort is underway to erect a permanent memorial. The idea was first broached after the reburial, said Joanna Gilmore, director of research and interpretation for the Anson Street African Burial Ground project.

pc-050519-ne-reburial-notes-TWOC1114.jpg (copy)

Messages from local residents accompanied the remains of 36 people reburied near the Center Gaillard May 4, 2019. File/Matthew Fortner/Staff

In February 2019, New York architect Rodney Leon, who had designed a memorial for the cemetery in Lower Manhattan, came to Charleston for a presentation. Then COVID hit. Then the founder of the Gullah Society, Ade Ofunniyin, died. The project has entered limbo, Gilmore said.

It was revived in 2021 when the Charleston mayor’s office called a meeting at which former Spoleto Festival USA general manager Nigel Redden appeared. The Spoleto Festival was interested in joining the Gaillard Center’s effort to create a permanent memorial and suggested North Carolina-based artist Stephen Heyes as the designer.

Heyes had the idea to create a fountain with 36 pairs of hands, inspired by the inhabitants of the Charleston area who surround it. The water element would refer to the Middle Passage. The hands would humanize the dead.

Ade Ofunniyin, founder of the Gullah Society, dies at 67

Although community members were involved in developing the idea for the memorial (32 people are on the memorial committee), some felt there was insufficient public engagement, Gilmore said.

At the town hall meeting moderated by the project’s Director of Education and Outreach, La’Sheia Oubre, panelists discussed what they perceived to be failures in the selection process. Educator and author Al Fraser asked why there was no formal call for submissions and why the community was simply notified that an artist had been nominated.

Tamara Butler, Director of the Avery Research Center, suggested writing a document detailing how the community engagement process should work.

Now the project team is looking for ways to continue the commemorative effort and address the ideas and concerns of more people, Gilmore said.

Memorial fountain honoring slaves found buried at the Gaillard Center in Charleston

About Paul Cox

Check Also

Chippewa Valley Theater Guild Hosts 11th Annual Fairy Tale Ball

CLEAR WATER, Wis. (WEAU) – An Enchanted Night Full of Disney Characters aims to raise …