History of the Gullah Society
Answering the Call of the Ancestors
A Powerful Legacy
The Gullah Society was established in 2012 by Dr. Ade Ofunniyin (pictured), with the aim of providing Gullah Geechee people with skills in identifying and preserving sites, historical data, artifacts, and objects associated with Gullah Geechee people and culture, for the benefit and education of all. We worked with communities to raise awareness and to preserve African descendant burial grounds, identity and history. The organization was dissolved in 2021, following the transition of Dr. O to be with the Ancestors in October, 2020.
History of the Organization, 2012-2021
In 2014, Dr. Ade Ofunniyin (known to students as Dr. O) worked with Historic Preservation and Community Planning Professor, James Ward, and students in their 'Design with Culture: Documenting Interpreting, and Preserving Charleston Gullah Traditions in Cemeteries' course to document the physical landscape at three burial grounds on Daniel Island. The project was intended to improve the awareness of the cultural and historical significance of the Daniel Island sacred burial grounds and community. Dr. O worked with the Daniel Island Historical Society to ensure that the Grove Cemetery, where his Ancestors are buried, was cleared of overgrown vegetation and now has a new fence and hand-wrought iron gate. Also in 2014, Dr. O brought together a group of local Gullah artists; Hampton R. Olfus, Jr., James Denmark, Winston Kennedy, Arianne King-Comer, and Addelle Sanders to create an exhibition "African Diaspora: Convergence and Reclamation", at the Charleston City Gallery at Waterfront Park.
In 2015, Dr. O, working with College of Charleston students, began to map the burial ground at New First Missionary Baptist Church on Edisto Island. In 2016, archaeologist, Joanna Gilmore began working with Dr. O. They began by fully documenting the burials at the New First Missionary Baptist Church, at Zion Presbyterian and Union burial grounds on Monrovia Street, and researching the history of the Pacific Box and Crate property in Charleston Neck, with the support of the Coastal Community Foundation. This year, Dr. O and Jody Berman co-curated another exhibition at the City Gallery, "Sixteen Crowns: Manifestations of Ase", which examined the artwork of eleven artists of the Yoruba diaspora. Archaeologists Jeremy Miller and Taryn Ricciardelli, assisted Dr. O and Joanna in mapping burials on Edisto Island and with a project to document the DeReef Park neighborhood, in 2017.
Working with the City of Charleston and the National Park Service, the DeReef Park project focused on collecting an d preserving oral histories and ephemera from this once vibrant African-American community, with deep roots in Charleston’s historical mosaic. The preservation of the neighborhood’s history was crucial for the historical and cultural consciousness of Charleston, and also played an integral role in re-establishing trust between old and new community members so that further development is undertaken in an ethical and efficient process. Also in 2017, genealogist, Grant Mishoe, joined the team, researching and documenting burial grounds throughout the lowcountry. In the fall, Dr. O curated "The Dance of the Ancestors: Egungun Masquerade" exhibition at the City Gallery, which featured sculptures of various sizes, called ere, or spirit vessels. Focusing primarily on Yoruba masquerade, the many styles reflected the diversity and creativity of the culture through the artistic eye of Orisanmi Kehinde Odesanya.
In the summer of 2017, Dr. O and Joanna began meeting with City of Charleston representatives and community members to develop an action plan for reinterment of the thirty-six Ancestors who had been uncovered in 2013 during renovations to the Gaillard Center. In November 2017, Joanna and Dr. O presented the action plan to the National Geographic Society in Washington D.C. Between December 2017-July 2018, they worked with University of Pennsylvania anthropological geneticists, Dr. Theodore Schurr and PhD candidate, Raquel Fleskes, to write three National Geographic grants to support the action plan.
Between May 2018 - May 2019, we conducted groundbreaking DNA research to learn about the ancestry of the 36 ancestors and 78 people of African-descent living in Charleston today. In January 2019, La'Sheia Oubré joined the team and visited 12 schools, teaching the students about the archaeological, historical and scientific research into the lives of the ancestors. During the two-year memorialization process Dr. O, Joanna, Grant, Raquel, Theodore and La'Sheia, hosted 13 Community Conversations, created an internship at the University of Pennsylvania and worked with Redux Contemporary Art Center to create an arts engagement program for all ages, working with 5 African-American artists. We garnered support from the City of Charleston, the National Geographic Society, the University of Pennsylvania, the College of Charleston, the Coastal Community Foundation and the Donnelley Foundation, among others. We also curated WOKE: Rattling Bones, Conversations, Sacred Rites and Holy Places at the City Gallery and a Community Art exhibition at the Civic Design Center in 2019 and at McLeod Plantation Historic Site in 2021.
Following the passing of Dr. O, the Gullah Society team had a number of ongoing projects that we had spent many hours working on together. We continue to generate creative ideas about better ways to serve our various communities through the sharing of the stories of the lives of the Ancestors and their relevance today.