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Gullah heritage: Bones pose cultural dilemma

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

Reinterment of a collection of bones unearthed two years ago at a Hagley construction site might be more complex than county officials originally expected.

The bones, which are being studied in Richland County, are believed to have belonged to slaves who lived on Hagley Plantation.

The problem is that the displacement and study of the bones “would be viewed as a gross violation of the dead” among the Gullah culture those slaves would likely have been part of, said Veronica Gerald, a commissioner with the Gullah/Geeche Cultural Heritage Corridor.

That could hinder Georgetown County Coroner Kenny Johnson’s efforts to get members of the Gullah community to take an active role in the project and help the coroner’s office do the reburial right, Gerald said Saturday.

She spoke about the Gullah culture and burial practices at a public forum Johnson held to inform folks about the progress that has been made in the study and what will happen next.

“When I was asked to come today and I was reading the information they sent me, I was thinking that as an academician, I can understand this, but as a member of the Gullah culture, I was like, ‘whoa, this is difficult,’ ” Gerald said. “The Gullah culture has certain views about the dead and burial grounds. The dead are very sacred, because we believe in the ancestors — that once a person passes over, that person continues to participate in the community with us; they’re just on the other side.”

As a result, she said, getting members of the Gullah community to “buy into” the project won’t be easy. But it is possible, she believes.

Johnson said he’d like for the entire community, not just the Gullah portion, to get involved with this project. He’s particularly hoping to generate interest from folks who might be able to help with genealogical and historical research.

The forum was the first step in a campaign to reach out to folks who might be interested and willing to help. It was attended by only a handful of people, but Johnson said he hopes a similar event in the fall will be more successful.

“It’s important to recognize there will be biological descendents of these people,” Johnson said. “Their families are walking around somewhere today and just don’t know who they are.”

While it’s unlikely anyone will be able to determine who the bones actually belonged to based on historic records, Johnson said he believes the bones will provide a wealth of information about the area’s past.

Bill Stevens, a deputy coroner in Richland County and a professor of anthropology at the University of South Carolina, has been building biological profiles for the bones. His study is expected to take at least another year.

There are 303 bones, which he said come from a minimum of 21 people. He estimates about 70 percent of the bones came from males, but said that may be skewed, as the heavy labor slaves would have done would have increased their muscle and skeletal mass. That could make it possible for female bones to be mistaken for those of a man.

The bones Stevens is examining were at the former site of St. Mary’s Church, which was built around 1860. In the early 1970s, after development of Hagley Estates started, the cemetery on the grounds was relocated.

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