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Tracing Charleston’s History of Slavery, From a Burial Ground to a DNA Swab

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A quest to find living descendants of 36 enslaved people has transformed into a project that gives Black residents new clues to their ancestry, wherever it may lead.

Caroline Gutman and

Reporting from Charleston, S.C.

When Edward Lee heard about a project collecting DNA from Black residents like him in Charleston, S.C., he had reason to be skeptical. Knowing that African Americans have been exploited before financially and in medical experiments, he feared that handing over his genetic identity could leave him vulnerable.

But he knew the people behind the Anson Street African Burial Ground Project, having worked with many of them before on similar efforts to preserve the region’s Black history.

And they came to him with a unique proposal: With DNA extracted from 36 enslaved people whose bones had been unearthed by a construction crew downtown, researchers were now searching for their living descendants.

Even if he wasn’t related to any of them, Mr. Lee figured, maybe a DNA test could still provide other answers that had eluded him. He could trace his ancestry to a great-great-grandmother on one side, but no further. So last spring, he sat still as a researcher gently swabbed the inside of his cheek.

“I had to have guarantees that we control the results — that’s the only reason I did it,” Mr. Lee said.

Now, dozens of Black residents have agreed to play their part in this genetic detective work. Their catalyst came in 2013, when workers building a concert hall stumbled upon what is believed to be the oldest known burial ground of enslaved people in Charleston.

The project’s supporters believe it can serve as a blueprint for how to handle the preservation of neglected aspects of Black history across the country, before development and time erode more of it.

That history is particularly poignant in Charleston, where ships once docked with hundreds of kidnapped Africans onboard, and where community leaders like Mr. Lee have spent years fighting to protect the graveyards of enslaved people.

“It feels like every piece of ground you step on — it is seeped with that history,” said Joanna Gilmore, an anthropologist and a member of the project who has devoted much of her career to chronicling African burial grounds.

In the decade since the burial ground was discovered, Ms. Gilmore and other researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, the College of Charleston and the Charleston community have shed light on the African and Indigenous ancestry of the 36 people buried along Anson Street in the late 18th century — several men, most likely a mother and a child among them.

Six were most likely born in Africa, and others were born in Charleston or nearby. While the graves had no markings, the bodies were carefully spaced, buried with shrouds or with coins meant to cover their eyes.

The “Ancestors” — as they are collectively known — have since been reinterred, and there are plans to construct a fountain ringed with bronze hands, all modeled from Black residents of similar ages to the 36 people found.

But another question remained: Were there any living descendants still in Charleston?

That quest, however, required persuading as many people as possible from the region to participate. Some agreed because they saw it as a way to safely answer fundamental questions about their family history, or to trace their roots beyond the Carolina shores.

“Time is not on our side, and I feel like if somebody doesn’t take a stand to actually bring the attention to the family ties, the younger generation, they’re not going to do it,” said Karen Wright-Chisolm, after submitting her swab in spring 2023. “In order to be able to teach them, then I need to know the information, so that I can pass it on.”

Others came as a way to pay their respects to the enslaved Africans, or simply because friends suggested giving it a try.

“It’s just a vessel to connect,” said Clifton R. Polite Jr., who also participated in the creation of hand casts for the fountain.

So far, no direct descendants have been found, something researchers acknowledge may never happen. But the project has shown that each individual result has the possibility to transform people’s understanding of their heritage.

La’Sheia Oubré, a teacher who has led community engagement for the project, saw not only different regions of Africa reflected in her results, but also markers of German and Asian ancestry.

“For the first time in my life, I know where I came from,” she said. “If everybody could do this, they would then realize that you’re related to somebody in one way or another.”

Months after their swabs were taken, dozens of participants gathered again in a darkened auditorium. Ms. Gilmore, Dr. Schurr and Dr. Raquel Fleskes, another anthropologist, dove into their findings and dissected how to interpret each sliver of genetic data.

Hushed in silence, audience members snapped photos of screens and jotted down the occasional note as Dr. Schurr described how to see which lineage was represented where in their results.

“Just as a reminder, we’re all 99.99 alike — everybody in this room, we’re all alike because we’re a very recent species,” Dr. Schurr told the room, adding that the results would not “reflect the deep divisions between human populations in genetic terms, because that’s not true.”

And then, finally, the participants had a turn to see their results in full.

Mr. Lee was among those claiming a manila envelope with a broad summary of his DNA results. There was a surprise — a small, but unexpected, percentage of Middle Eastern ancestry.

“When the doctor said we’re all 99.9 percent the same, that hits you,” he said.

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