In 2013, construction workers in Charleston unearthed the remains of 36 enslaved Black people. Six years later, the Gullah Society will hold a processional and ceremony to re-inter the bones of some of the city’s earlier residents.
In a weekend-long celebration, May 3-5, the Gullah Society, founded by Ade Ofunniyin, a cultural anthropologist, prepares to facilitate activities throughout the three days. The preeminent event is a full-service ceremony in downtown Charleston, on Anson Street and George Street, on May 4. The small patch, not far from where the remains sat for over two centuries, holds artifacts connected to an African past and the Black experience in the US such as ironworks, Adinkra symbols, obelisks and a spirit tree.
Before the funeral, a naming ceremony for the 36 departed will be conducted, while the internment service plans to employ funerary African traditions and rituals involving drumming, singing, dancing and masquerade. Now, the grave site is recognized as the oldest Black burial in the city.
One part of the ceremony will use cotton or linen fabric dyed in indigo to drape the boxes where the remains will be placed. Ceremony organizers sent out a call, asking indigo dyers if they could donate fabric to the burial. They want handcrafted fabrics that are biodegradable. An art that few still do by hand, indigo dyed fabric tells a profound history of Charleston and the people enslaved to make the deep blue textile.
The rich blue color of indigo is derived from a plant with the same name that was one of South Carolina’s most profitable cash crops. A rare commodity in Europe until the turn of the fifteenth century, indigo textiles exploded after explorers paved the way for its mass production in an ensuing slave trade. The popularity of indigo-dyed fabric in Europe then America, from the 1500s to 1900s, shot up the importation of Africans to work the production of the deep-blue cottons to over a million pounds per year in the U.S.
While historians identify a 16-year-old, Eliza Lucas, of a South Carolina slave-owning family in 1700s, as having to cultivate the first indigo plant and process the dye, it is most likely that enslaved Africans used their knowledge to successfully harvest and produce the chemical for dyeing.
Indigo culture in Africa is traced to west and central parts for its uses as a cosmetic and medicinal plant. From its employment as sunscreen to tattoos, indigenous nomadic people maintain an antiquated indigo culture today. While the Berbers of Morocco or the Kel Tamacheq, also known as the Tauregs, in Niger, Algeria, Burkino Faso and Mali have indigo-centric aesthetic, the oldest dye pit in Africa is in Kano, Nigeria. The dye pit of Kofar Mata was built in 1498 and its hand-dying culture continues there.
The dye practices and traditions of Africa trace their way to the bones found in Charleston. According to researchers, the remains of those discovered were Blacks who lived in Charleston from the mid-to-late 1700s. Buried between 1770 and 1790 their ages ranged from infants to 40. They were traced as coming from areas known today as Nigeria, Morocco, Namibia and even, Madagascar—areas where indigo dye practices percolated.
Unmarked sacred ground: Black burial sites
For almost 250 years, the bones of Charleston’s earlier Black residents sat in a modest unmarked graveyard. At the very least, all signs indicating the cemetery had eroded over time. Until construction workers for the city’s rebuilding of its premier performance venue, the Gaillard Center, accidentally dug up their remnants.
The site was excluded from the official mapping of the city, a practice not shocking—enslaved and free Black lives were not important. Even after the 1865 Emancipation that ended slavery, whites banned grave sites of blacks in official cemeteries of the city; hence, white-only graveyards throughout the US.
Still today, most Black burial sites are without tombstones or indelible markings because a tombstone was not affordable or even acceptable for Black graves. Some grounds were ad hoc sites, while others were family-owned or church-owned plots that have been abandoned voluntarily or by force, over time. Other burials were done in haste or hidden. At some points, burial grounds were potter’s fields where the mass interring of black bodies resembled the dumping of garbage or animal carcasses.
Although the resting place for African Americans have been troubling, descendants and advocates are fighting to leave them undisturbed. Throughout South Carolina, Blacks who are descendants of those enslaved advocate to maintain the small plot graveyards throughout a state carrying out encroaching development on lands, including Gullah Geechee coastal islands once occupied and owned by African-Americans. Charleston’s 36 ancestors is one of many incidents.
Before the exhuming of the Charleston remains, New York still holds the most prolific find of a graveyard of enslaved and freed Blacks. During a construction project in Manhattan, workers came upon a cemetery. Found was a 6-acre burial ground containing 15,000 intact skeletal remains laid to rest in ways that showed African rituals and symbolism. Like Charleston, it shows the presence of Blacks who built the physical infrastructure of major cities through their different artisan and tradesperson skills such as ironwork, masonry, architecture and culinary arts.
Back in South Carolina, the Gullah Society works to ensure that the remains of those ancestors before them are properly laid to rest. More so, given a funeral using rituals that honor their sacrifices and contributions to build the major metropolises and former slave ports like Charleston.
Ofunniyin, a cultural anthropologist born in Charleston, but reared in Harlem says that the Gullah Society is committed to “restoring, rehabilitating, and maintaining structures, sites, historic districts, and cultural landscapes.” Since its opening in 2012, the organization does much of its work in preserving the culture, artifacts and land centering the Gullah Geechee culture, a way of life from the Africans who came to the area.
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