Nonprofit with Daniel Island roots giving voice to the voiceless
"It is time to honor this place – and the people laid to rest here.”
Those were the words Dr. Ade Ofunniyin remembers his ancestors convey to him while visiting Grove Cemetery, an African-American burial ground on Daniel Island, in 2012. At the time, the sacred site was overgrown with weeds, littered with fallen tree branches, and difficult to enter due to a long fence with no gate to welcome visitors.
Dr. Ofunniyin, or “Dr. O” as his friends call him, is the grandson of the late renowned master blacksmith Philip Simmons, who was born on the island in 1912. His great-great grandfather, William Simmons, helped raised Philip while he was a young boy on Daniel Island and is buried in this cemetery, alongside other relatives.
That pivotal visit to the cemetery some seven years ago served as an awakening of sorts for Dr. O, who went on to form a nonprofit known as the Gullah Society. Beginning with the Grove Cemetery project, the group launched with a mission to help identify and preserve burial grounds such as this one, while collecting historical data and cultural artifacts for the benefit and education of all. As an adjunct professor of anthropology at the College of Charleston, Dr. O invited his students to come and study the site, along with other African-American burial grounds on the island.
Gullah Society has garnered noteworthy attention for its accomplishments since then – the reinternment of 36 souls discovered during construction of the Gaillard Auditorium in downtown Charleston in 2013, as well as restoration work on historic cemeteries on Anson Street and Monrovia Street. The group has also studied a sacred burial site at New First Missionary Baptist Church on Edisto Island, where they mapped burial plots and conducted genealogical, archival and oral history research. Most recently, as the founder of Gullah Society, Dr. O took part in a worship service for the momentous groundbreaking of the International African American Museum on Oct. 24 — pouring African ancestral libations and presenting an inspiring message to those gathered for the occasion.
But with the Gullah Society’s many successes to reflect and build on, Dr. O is especially thankful for the work that has been done at his beloved Grove Cemetery. Earlier this year, after a successful community-wide effort led by the Shaw family — who also have ancestors buried at the site — the Daniel Island Property Owners Association, and other local groups and businesses, a new fence and ornamental metal gate (inspired by a design provided by Dr. O) were installed at the cemetery. The grounds were also cleaned and cleared of debris.
Dr. O paid a visit to the restored site last month, on Veterans Day, along with two of his colleagues who serve as advisors for the Gullah Society — Grant Gilmore, director of historic preservation and community planning at the College of Charleston, and Joanna Gilmore, adjunct professor at the College of Charleston and the Gullah Society’s project coordinator for research and interpretation.
“We’re looking so much better,” Dr. O noted, as he surveyed the grounds. “…I think it’s pretty amazing what the developer, Matt Sloan and the Daniel Island Company, the Daniel Island homeowners’ association, the (Daniel Island) Historical Society, and the families have done.”
He stopped and reflected as he passed by the tombstones for William Simmons, his great-great grandfather; Eva Simmons, his aunt; and Rosa Simmons, his great-grandmother. Next, he spotted a stone for his cousin, Edward Simmons, a WWI veteran.
“Thank you for your service,” added Dr. O while gazing down at his ancestor’s grave marker.
There are approximately 17 marked graves here and potentially dozens more that are unmarked, which Dr. O and his colleagues believe speaks to the site’s significance.
“The higher percentage of unmarked burials is indicative of the status of the folks that were buried here,” said Grant as the trio walked the grounds.
“By status do you mean not being important?” asked Dr. O.
“Correct,” responded Grant. “Socially, economically, politically.”
And that is among the many reasons the Gullah Society is pushing to document and restore these sites – so the stories of those laid to rest are not forgotten.
“That’s exactly what these guys are doing — recording before it goes away,” added Grant.
Sites like Grove Cemetery, which likely contain the remains of enslaved African Americans, were once considered “places of discard,” said Dr. O. But no more.
“We’re changing that,” he added.
“They were placed by friends or family, with care,” added Joanna, when commenting on the unmarked graves. “And (these sites) serve as historical resources for genealogical research as well.”
But the work of cemetery preservation has its challenges in today’s modern era, noted Dr. O, who stated that many sites have been desecrated, neglected, and abandoned, or built on by developers. The Gullah Society, currently involved in its first membership drive, is pushing to expand its reach into Charleston and surrounding areas. The burial grounds, such as those on Daniel Island, can be of great importance to communities in terms of understanding who and what came before them.
“The (former) homes, etcetera, might be all gone but often the cemetery space is the memorial,” said Grant. “It links a community to its past. It’s a tangible presence of your history.”
On Daniel Island, there is more to be done, added Dr. O. During their recent visit, Grant offered to ask a colleague who teaches a joint Clemson/College of Charleston graduate program to have her students help make repairs to the tombstones at Grove Cemetery. They also discussed the possibility of conducting ground penetrating radar to collect data on what lies beneath the surface.
And Dr. O hopes that communities all across the Lowcountry and beyond will take ownership of the sacred sites that may be in their midst and take steps to preserve them. He is especially grateful for the care Grove Cemetery has received.
“It’s so peaceful here now,” he said. “My hope now is that we could get families and people to come here and to notice this place and that there are still others that need our work.”
And Dr. O believes his ancestors are continuing to speak to him. A few weeks ago, he had a tarot card reading at the Halsey Gallery in downtown Charleston that filled him with emotion.
“The woman that did the reading, one of her cards was ‘the ancestors’ and she said the ancestors are dancing — they’re celebrating you for your work,” he recalled. “I started crying.”
That validation has certainly propelled Dr. O and the Gullah Society forward to continue their quest to give a voice to the voiceless.
“Who were these unidentified, very important people, and what did they contribute to the fabric of their church, their community?” asked Dr. O. “… I think those people’s stories need to be heard.”
For more information on the Gullah Society, visit www.the gullahsociety.com.