Dr. Ade Ajani Ofunniyin (left), affectionately known as Dr. O, founder of the Gullah Society, who passed away in October 2020, leads a procession to the Intracoastal Waterway on Sullivan’s Island where an offering of flowers and fruit to the African ancestors was placed in the waterway. Dr. O was active in the remembrance ceremony. | Photos by Herb Frazier

Twenty-five years ago, three friends met in Charleston to plan an event on the beach at Sullivan’s Island to honor and restore the humanity of countless Africans who died during the Middle Passage.

This Saturday, their efforts will continue with libations, drumming and prayers during the 25th Annual Remembrance Program. This is the first ceremony held since the pandemic interrupted in-person events in 2020. Ceremonies in 2020 and 2021 were held virtually.

The four-hour event will begin promptly at 9:15 a.m. in the Fort Moultrie Auditorium.

Wright

The idea for the inaugural event came when Deborah Wright moved to Charleston in November 1997 from Brooklyn, New York. She then met radio host Osei Chandler who connected her with newly elected Charleston City Council member Kwadjo Campbell. They began to plan an event in Charleston modeled after the remembrance ceremony Wright attended in Brooklyn, now in its 33rd year.  

“Understanding that this would be an ideal program for Charleston, we three met, discussed and approached the National Parks Service as a venue for this event,” said Wright, who later became a reference archivist at the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture.

Former Park Service superintendent John Tucker, former park service rangers Michael Allen and Carlin Timmons and others “have all been so supremely supportive over these 25 years,” Wright added.

The planners chose Sullivan’s Island because it was the site of a quarantine station where enslaved Africans and others were held in pest houses on land and boats offshore to ensure they weren’t carrying contagious diseases before they entered Charleston.

Because enslaved Africans were brought through Sullivan’s Island, the site is often called the Ellis Island for African Americans. It is a crude comparison, some might say, because Africans came not by choice, but by force. For them, Sullivan’s was an island of horrors. 

The remembrance committee of the Charleston Branch of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) sponsors the event. After ASALH remembrance committee coordinator Regina Williams brings the greeting, Donald West, instructor and coordinator of  history and humanities at Trident Technical College, will discuss the “Forced Migration of Millions: The Atlantic Slave Trade and Middle Passage, Why This History Matters.” The program includes a drum procession to the beach and to “The Bench by the Road” for remarks by Charleston ASALH president Jerome Harris, Marcus McDonald of Charleston Black Lives Matter and other community members. The Bench by the Road was installed in July 2008 at Fort Moultrie by the Toni Morrison Society as a reminder of the Africans captured during the slave trade.

At noon, the libation ceremony, conducted by Yoruba priestess Osun Wonuola Efun Layo, will be timed with similar events in Brooklyn, Washington, D.C., Georgetown, Hampton, Va., New Orleans, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Calif., Montgomery, Ala., Miami, Detroit and abroad.

The Charleston remembrance program is a part of the International Coalition to Commemorate the African Ancestors of the Middle Passage (remembertheancestors.com).   

When Campbell met Wright to plan the first remembrance ceremony he was a 24-year-old newly elected member of Charleston City Council. “The Charleston Middle Passage Remembrance Ceremony has had a significant spiritual meaning for me over the past 25 years,” said Campbell, who now lives in Greenville. “It’s a sort of New Year for me, as I reaffirm my commitment to the upliftment of my community. I can actually feel the spiritual energy from my ancestors as I make my affirmations to fight and support their descendants.”

Chandler

Since 1979, Osei Terry Chandler has hosted South Carolina Public Radio’s Roots Musik Karamu. “I am honored to have assisted the Charleston Remembrance Committee in instituting the annual event that connects me to my unknown ancestors and links those ancestors to their unknown legacy,” he said. “Our program is held at the very same waters that brought those ships to Charleston. We get to wade in those waters and we get to offer prayers, flowers and tribute in the very same location.”


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