Professor’s research helps shed light on 18th-century African remains found at Gaillard Center

February 24, 2023

In 2013, the site of the renovation project at the Charleston Gaillard Center became Charleston’s oldest archaeologically excavated burial ground when the remains of 36 people of African descent were unearthed there. The discovery grabbed the nation’s attention and led to healing and understanding through collaboration, research and outreach in Charleston and beyond.

It’s also what led Joanna Gilmore, an adjunct faculty member in the College of Charleston Department of Sociology and Anthropology, to join the late Ade Ofunniyin, CofC professor of African American studies, as director of research and interpretation for the nonprofit organization, the Gullah Society Inc.

Together, Ofunniyin and Gilmore collaborated with DNA researchers to examine the remains and determined that the burials dated from 1760 to 1790, making the site the oldest known cemetery of likely enslaved Africans in Charleston.

The bioarchaeological research continues, with Gilmore co-authoring a study recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The findings are “the largest number of ancient genomes from African-descended persons in North America, substantially increasing our understanding of African diversity and history in colonial America.”

The College Today sat down with Gilmore to learn about these new recent findings and the latest developments of the Anson Street African Burial Ground Project.

How did you get involved with the Anson Street African Burial Ground Project? 

My work on this project began after joining Ade Ofunniyin, also known as Dr. O, at the Gullah Society, Inc. where our work focused on documenting burial grounds and writing reports that enabled community members to better manage and access their historical resources.

In 2017, Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg requested that the Gullah Society guide the memorialization and reinterment process for the human remains that had been disturbed during construction at the Charleston Gaillard Center. The remains of 36 individuals were uncovered by archaeologists working for Brockington and Associates in 2013. The burials were dated between 1760 and 1790 CE based on burial artifacts and archival records. Analysis of the human remains showed that men, women and children were buried at the site and that the individuals were likely of African descent.

What did the research involve?

In May 2017, we began hosting regular community conversations to ask members of the African American community what they wanted to learn from their collective ancestors and how they should be reburied and honored. Community members were interested in learning more about the ancestry of these individuals via DNA research. In the fall of 2017, Dr. O and I presented an action plan for the research and memorialization process to the National Geographic Society, and we were introduced to two genetic anthropologists at the University of Pennsylvania, Raquel Fleskes and Theodore Schurr. Together, we applied for and were awarded three National Geographic grants for the project. One grant covered the costs associated with the ancient DNA research for the 36 Ancestors, another supported the community engagement program and a third grant enabled CofC biology major Adeyemi Oduwole ’19 to complete an internship at the University of Pennsylvania. The total budget for the project of around $150,000 was also provided by the City of Charleston, the University of Pennsylvania, the College of Charleston, the Coastal Community Foundation and the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation.

It was critical that the community guide the memorialization process, so encouraging participation was a main component of our work. Between 2017 and 2019, we partnered with the Redux Contemporary Art Center to work with five African American artists; we curated an exhibition of artwork created by community members of all ages; we visited 12 schools in Charleston County; and former CofC art and architectural history professor Nathaniel Walker taught a course where students proposed a design for a permanent memorial for the ancestors. Students in Dr. O’s African American studies course helped us curate an exhibition entitled “WOKE: Rattling Bones, Conversations, Sacred Rites and Holy Places” at the City Gallery. We also offered free DNA tests for people of African descent living in Charleston today. The ancestors were named during a traditional Yoruba naming ceremony and were reinterred in a ceremony that started with a procession from the College campus to the Gaillard on May 4, 2019, marking the culmination of two years’ worth of community engagement.

For the ancient DNA research, Raquel Fleskes sequenced the mitochondrial DNA of 31 individuals to determine their maternal ancestry (published in the American Journal for Biological Anthropology). We found that a majority of the individuals had mtDNAs that are found in contemporary African populations today. Two individuals shared the same mtDNA type; an adult female (Isi) and a child (Welela), who were buried right next to each other. This fact may suggest that they shared a mother-child relationship. For the second part of the study, we sequenced the whole genomes of 18 ancestors (recently published in the Proceedings for the National Academy of Sciences).

Why is this project important to the College and the city of Charleston?

This project is significant for the College and city because it provided a unique opportunity for faculty, students and community members to collectively recognize and honor the lives of people of African descent in Charleston. The bioarcheological and genetic research has shed light on the important history and legacy of African-descended persons in Charleston and the United States more broadly.

What are the most recent findings?

We discovered that the Anson Street ancestors were very diverse and reflected genetic ancestry from all over the western coast of Africa. Some ancestors were more similar to populations in the Gambia, such as Lisa, and others were more closely related to the population in the Upper Gold Coast, such as Daba and Nana. One individual, Coosaw, had Native American ancestry. His genomic information indicated that approximately one-third of his ancestry was affiliated with Native American populations, with the rest being African in ancestry. These findings mean that a few generations ago one of his maternal grandparents was of Native American descent. This study is important in that it helps us understand the genetic ancestry and origins of the Anson Street ancestors and provides critical insight into the histories of African-descended persons in colonial North America.

What’s next? 

Last year Dr. Fleskes and Dr. Schurr, in collaboration with researchers at the University of Oklahoma, began to analyze samples of calcified dental plaque (calculus) collected from 14 individuals. Analysis of dental calculus provides information about the ancestors’ oral microbiome, potential pathogens and diet. Fleskes and Schurr will be presenting the findings of this research in the late spring.

Since the reinterment, we have continued our community engagement and have worked with the Gaillard Center to incorporate the Anson Street African Burial Ground research into their education programsStephen L. Hayes Jr., a noted creator of public art, has been commissioned to create a permanent memorial for the ancestors. He has designed a fountain whose basin will be formed in part from earth taken from African-descendant burial sites in Charleston. Surrounding the basin will be 36 pairs of hands to commemorate the ancestors. The bronze hands will be cast from the hands of volunteers who share the same age, gender and ancestry of the ancestors. Over the coming months, my colleague La’Sheia Oubré and I will be finding people of African descent to serve as hand models. We are also asking individuals, churches and organizations to collect soil with us from African-descendant burial grounds in Charleston, which will be used to form the fountain basin.