The greater Charleston community is mourning the loss of one its most tireless advocates for the Gullah Geechee culture and the preservation of African descendent burial grounds. Dr. Ade Ofunniyin, who had close ties to Daniel Island and called the Cainhoy peninsula home in recent years, passed away last Thursday, Oct. 7, surrounded by his family.
“Our father was a great man,” stated a post made by members of the Ofunniyin family on his Facebook page the day after his death. “He was a beacon of light in any room, a deep conversation in any coffee shop, a stimulating question in passing in the hall and a warm smile across the room…For his children, we knew him as the guy that would walk in the room and take his place and his presence was immediately graciously felt.”
That gentle spirit and warmth extended to the causes he was passionate about - such as ensuring that enslaved African Americans and their ancestors were remembered and honored.
Dr. O, as many knew him, had deep connections to his ancestors and spoke of them often. He was the grandson of the late Master Blacksmith Philip Simmons, who was born on Daniel Island in 1912. Several of Dr. O’s family members are buried in Daniel Island’s
Grove Cemetery. After visiting the burial ground eight years ago, he was troubled to find it neglected, overgrown with brush, and difficult to navigate. Dr. O made it his mission, with help from the Daniel Island Property Owners Association and the Daniel Island
Historical Society, to restore the sacred space and others like it. He formed a non-profit called The Gullah Society in 2015 with the aim of helping to identify and preserve sites, historical data, artifacts, and objects associated with Gullah Geechee people and
Years later, with the groundwork laid by Dr. O, a community effort led by the Shaw family, who also have ancestors buried in the Grove Cemetery, helped clean and restore the sacred site. Dr. O praised the newly enhanced grounds on a visit to Daniel Island last December.
“It’s so peaceful here now,” he said at the time. “My hope now is that we can get families and people to come here and to notice this place and that there are others that still need our work.”
Dr. O and his team at The Gullah Society continuously sought to give voice to the voiceless, particularly those in unmarked graves. Many African American burial grounds are neglected or considered “places of discard,” noted Dr. O, and he vowed to change that.
He could not have foreseen his own passing while walking through the cemetery last December, but his words then have added poignancy now.
“Which cemetery am I going to wind up in that’s going to be overgrown and unidentified?” he asked then. “…I hope that won’t be my reality.”
According to an article in The Post and Courier about Dr. O’s passing, there are plans to bury him on Daniel Island, perhaps in his beloved Grove Cemetery. But as of press time, official funeral and burial arrangements had not yet been announced. In the meantime, The Gullah Society has pledged to continue his important endeavors.
“If I believe and perpetuate that this is my work, if I fall off the planet today the work will stop,” said Dr. O, standing amongst the graves of his Daniel Island ancestors last December. “But if I perpetuate that this is our collective work, it will continue beyond me – and it’s important it continues beyond me.”