A Memorial for the Ancestors
Over the past six years plans to build a permanent memorial for the Ancestors, who uncovered near the Gaillard Center in 2013, have gained momentum. Here is the story of that process.
In 2017, when Charleston Mayor Tecklenburg asked the Gullah Society to guide the reinterment and memorialization process, we began to host regular Community Conversations and visit schools. During our conversations we asked community members of all ages what they would like to learn about the Ancestors, how they would like to honor them and how they would like to feel when they visited a memorial that would recognize their lives. We asked this last question because we wanted as much community input as possible but at the same time we knew that it might be difficult to come to a consensus regarding a specific memorial design. Therefore, we felt that a more meaningful question that could help an artist create a design would be to learn about the feelings that community members wanted the memorial to evoke.
In the fall semester of 2018, we collaborated with College of Charleston Professor of Art and Architectural History, Dr. Nathaniel Walker to engage college students in proposing memorial designs. Dr. Walker taught a class that focused on Landscapes of Memory. In his class, the students studied monuments and memorials from around the world, with a focus on African design traditions and the many contested monuments in the U.S. South. The students presented their proposed designs for a memorial for the Anson Street Ancestors at the Rise Up: Summoning the Power and Presence of African Ancestors in Charleston event that we hosted at the College of Charleston on November 7th, 2018. Following the event, the students updated their designs based upon community feedback that they had received and these proposed designs were exhibited at the Addlestone Library at the College of Charleston and at the City of Charleston's Cannon Street Arts Center in 2019.
In February 2019, we continued our conversations about a permanent memorial and hosted Egungun Tunji: Ancestors Rise Again! at the Cannon Street Arts Center. During this event we shared the results of DNA research with community participants and the renowned architect of the New York African Burial Ground, Rodney Leon. Mr. Leon gave a talk about his work designing the burial ground memorial and the “Ark of the Return,” a permanent memorial that recognizes the millions of African people who endured the transatlantic slave trade and the subsequent horrors of enslavement upon their arrival in the “New World” for the United Nations in New York.
When the Anson Street Ancestors were reinterred on May 4th, 2019, Mayor John Tecklenburg promised that a memorial would be built to honor them. At the time, a small bronze plaque was placed by the vault on George Street where the Ancestors are now buried.
The Covid-19 pandemic disrupted plans. In October, Gullah Society founding director Dr. Ade Ofunniyin passed away. The Gullah Society, Inc. (501c3) was dissolved in 2021.
At the end of August 2021, Mayor Tecklenburg invited twenty-four people, some representing specific organizations, others civic leaders to a meeting to discuss the project. Organizations represented included the City of Charleston, the College of Charleston, the International African American Museum, the Anson Street African Burial Ground Project, the Gullah Geechee Heritage Corridor Commission, Spoleto Festival USA, the Gibbes Museum of Art, the Charleston Gaillard Center, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, the Preservation Society of Charleston and St. John’s Reformed Episcopal Church. Community leader Maxine Smith also convened another group of concerned citizens to discuss a possible memorial. Brenda Lauderback, the chair of Denny’s, agreed to chair a fund-raising effort and Nigel Redden, the former General Director of Spoleto Festival USA who had recently retired, offered to staff it.
The groups agreed to commission the noted sculptor Stephen Hayes Jr. to develop a plan for the memorial. Stephen Hayes proposed a fountain whose basin will be earth-formed from the earth in which the thirty-six Ancestors were buried and from earth taken from the approximately 80 burial sites of Africans/African Americans on the Charleston peninsula most of which are unmarked. Each of the 36 individuals will be memorialized by a pair of hands extending from the basin. The hands will be cast from living individuals whose age, gender and ancestral background match those of the deceased. Behind each hand will be an individual jet of water. Some hands will hold the scant material possessions buried with the individuals – beads, ceramics, two coins, etc.
Stephen’s proposal has met with unanimous enthusiasm.
Wells Fargo has become the founding partner of this project, providing leadership support for the Memorial. The City of Charleston is also a major contributor and the fountain and the memorial garden around it will be owned and maintained by the City. Denny’s, the Spaulding Paolozzi Foundation, the Samuel Freeman Charitable Trust, and the Wolverine Worldwide Foundation have become initial contributors to the Memorial.
Over the coming months, La'Sheia Oubré and Joanna Gilmore will be working to engage community members in the process of creating the memorial. They will identify individuals in the African American community who match the demographic profiles of the thirty-six Ancestors to provide models for the hands of the Ancestors. The hands of the selected individuals will be moulded in alginate (a natural substance) and later cast in bronze and then attached to the basin. The Ancestors included infants, children, teenagers, and adult women and men.
How can I get involved?
We are looking for people to volunteer who match the demographic profiles of the Ancestors to have their hands cast. Volunteers will be asked to meet with Stephen Hayes for the molding of their hands between February 16 and 18, 2023.
Oubré and Gilmore will also work with individuals, churches and organizations to collect soil from African descendant burial grounds in Charleston. The collected soil will be used in the fabrication of the basin to symbolize the many enslaved and free Africans who lived, toiled and were buried in the earth upon which our city is built.
If you know of a particular burial ground or your church or family members are connected to a sacred burial ground and you would like to collect soil to be used in the memorial design please contact us.
To register your interest in serving as a hand model or to volunteer to collect soil from a burial ground that is meaningful for you or your community, please click on the links below.