Cemetery Preservation: A Growing Concern
All cemeteries lose things over time as natural elements take their toll – headstones may deteriorate due to growth of algae, lichen or fungus, headstone inscriptions may wear down and become less readable, growth of trees and underbrush may cause gravestones to be uprooted, broken or displaced.
Entire cemeteries may become endangered due to neglect and lack of maintenance. African American cemeteries are particularly susceptible to endangerment from neglect because many of these sacred places have historically been undervalued, unrecognized and unpreserved.
One nonprofit organization based in Charleston, South Carolina seeks to protect and preserve the sacred burial grounds of African and African American ancestors.
The Gullah Society
Since 2013, the Gullah Society, a nonprofit organization based in Charleston, South Carolina, has worked to document burial grounds at a number of locations in Charleston and the surrounding Lowcountry. At each site, Gullah Society’s efforts focus on assessing, mapping, documenting and stabilizing burials and their environment.
The society also works with communities and Church groups to assist in their preservation, management and maintenance of burial grounds, and in the collection of oral histories and documents related to those buried there.
The Gullah Society seeks to:
- Create partnerships with local, regional and national organizations to promote the preservation of African/African-American burial grounds.
- Increase public awareness of neglected African/African-American burial grounds, train communities and provide citizens with skills and access to resources for the preservation and maintenance of burial grounds.
- Work with schools and colleges to engage students and interns in public history and preservation.
A Word From Dr. Ade Ofunniyin, Founder of the Gullah Society
How we remember our ancestors says a lot about our humanity. When we consider that an ancestor is someone from whom you descended, your forerunner, a human being that preceded you, we realize that ancestors are personal and familial. That person might have been a parent or grandparent; they could have been an aunt or uncle. The link includes recent ancestors and those who extend deep into the past; it spans countless generations, multiple continents, and intersects ethnicities. There are ancient ancestors, and in the case of so many of us, those that we call collective ancestors.
Annually on the second Saturday in the month of June groups of people in different global locales come together to honor those ancestors that perished in the Middle Passage. We don’t know their identities or which specific ancestral group they came from; we honor them as collective ancestors.
In my hometown of Charleston, South Carolina we Gullah Geechee people come together at Sullivan Island and Fort Moultrie to make offerings of libation, fruits, flowers, praise, and dance to the spirits of our collective forebears. We have celebrated this occasion for nearly twenty-five years. The crowd changes and have over the years grown to include more young people.
The affair lasts approximately three hours. It has always been emotional and jubilant; like most experiences when African people come together with drums, voice and worship. When the event ends, we depart in our separate cars having accomplished not more than a good feeling; for some it is a healing. Most of us leave feeling that we have given the ancestors their due; that we have in fact paid homage to those who suffered and endured the horrendous Middle Passage.
For several years now, I have joined my Charleston community in this ritual. On occasions, I have been invited to pour the libations and lead the activities. I always felt joy and satisfaction in what we were doing for our collective ancestors; like so many others, I continue to look forward to this annual event. But through my work with Gullah Society’s Sacred Burial Grounds project, I have come to know that there is so much more that must be done for our ancestors.
Since 2013, I have visited several dozen burial grounds where the remains of our ancestors have been laid to rest (some might have been on the ship that transported those collective ancestors; some may be descendants). Many of the graves have markers and headstones that identify the interred; a good number of them have no markers; many of the graves have collapsed, and some are at sites that are not accessible to families or the community, due to overgrown shrubbery, bushes, fallen trees, debris, and trash. Many ancestral sacred burial grounds have become wastelands for rubbish and junk.
Internet access and increased publicity has spawned a great interest in genealogy and family histories. Family members are finding relatives and are forging remarkable relationships. Sometimes these discoveries lead to a burial ground. I recently learned of a young woman who followed the trail to a cemetery where her ancestors were buried. After a long search and discovery, she was unable to visit the grave because of overgrowth and fallen trees. She hired someone to help her work her way into the site, but was still unable to find her loved ones; this is not uncommon.
In some instances, burial grounds cannot be found because they no longer exist. Large numbers of burial grounds and cemeteries have been displaced by development or in some case the creation of our massive interstate highway system. Some are buried deep beneath private homes, public buildings, and parking lots. Many of the older burial grounds are located on plantations or on developments that once served as a plantation. Gullah Society has also found graveyards that were once associated with churches that no longer exist or that was sold to a new group of parishioners, who have no knowledge of the burial site; they likely have ho records of who is buried at the site.
Locating, reclaiming, and mapping sacred burial grounds is one of the many tasks that Gullah Society engages in to reconnect families and bring awareness to the public about the richness of Gullah Geechee heritage and traditions. We invite you to join us in this work. If you are aware of a burial site that looks abandoned, please contact us. You can also organize volunteers and family members to cleanup and maintain the burial grounds.
More recently, municipalities, sensitive homeowners and developers are responding positively to requests from family members for access to sacred burial grounds. Get involved adopt a burial ground! Make paying homage to our ancestors an activity that we participate in daily. Let us actively remember those who sacrificed so much for so long, on our behalf, to improve the qualities of our lives. Let us do for our ancestors what we hope others will do for us, when it is our turn to be someone’s beloved ancestor.
This News Channel 2 video highlights the work of The Gullah Society: What Lies Beneath; Charleston’s Forgotten Graveyards.