Gretchen Johnson is a biologist conducting research on human skeletal and dental remains of previously enslaved, mid-19th-century Africans who were liberated by British antislavery efforts but subsequently died on the South Atlantic island of St. Helena. Her research is unlocking and preserving the history of this population on St. Helena island by researching the DNA of their skeletal remains.
In honor of last week’s Juneteenth, we talked to Gretchen about what this day means to her, and how her perception of Juneteenth changed as she began uncovering stories of liberated Africans on Saint Helena.
How did you celebrate Juneteenth this year?
Amidst a clashing of COVID-19, with data citing the impact on black and brown people the hardest; police brutality in black communities is juxtaposed with targeted calls for justice via the endless marches and protests. All of these turmoils are blunt, jarring, and stacked against the Juneteenth celebration, begging for somber reflections and responses.
So this year, I spent Juneteenth reflecting on my journey. As part of the Diaspora, I am cognizant that in spite of our ongoing struggles of 400+ years of systemic racism and oppression, there are countless untold stories of men and women, and community resiliency.
To be black in America entails a life of challenges. Racial inequality and justice are relentless struggles that continue in 2020! I am committed to uncovering truths and untold stories that deserve to be recognized, honored, and valued, helping to bring about changes in attitudes, injustices, and dispel the hatred due to ignorance of the unknowns.
The events of recent weeks have awakened many to the realities of racism and have thrust them into a whirlwind of realizations of the dire plights and sufferings of black people and their communities in America; people are paying attention and are outraged!
What does the holiday mean to you?
Juneteenth highlights the significance of freedom in black communities who no longer endure a lifetime of slavery and servitude. The significance of June 19, 1865 in American history ought to be commemorated and become a federal holiday. Juneteenth should be honored yearly to celebrate Black History, excellence, contributions, achievements, culture, to dispel the notion that black communities are inferior, and their stories not valued!
Juneteenth was kept out of education and the school curricula in America. The result, very little is known or taught or even celebrated. And over the years even among Blacks, very few know about such a historic time in American history. The current unsettling racial climate in American society is a much-needed wake-up call for Americans to advocate for real changes that will ultimately lead to true liberation and freedom of Blacks in America as the Juneteenth holiday exemplifies just that!
Speaking of school curricula, what other aspects of Black history do you wish were taught more widely?
For example, in 2020, the vast majority of Americans recently learned about Black Wall Street, the wealthiest black community in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In 1921, this black community was looted and burned down by mobs of Whites. Hundreds of black individuals died, black-owned businesses were destroyed and thousands were left homeless during this Tulsa Race Massacre. This massacre was one of the deadliest events of racial violence in American history. Yet, this massacre was not acknowledged in Oklahoma’s historical records until 1996. Also, Oklahoma schools and newspapers never mentioned the Tulsa Race Massacre. It was completely ignored, hidden, and disregarded, not in historical narratives.
Just recently, in February 2020 Oklahoma began to move forward to incorporate the story of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 into the curriculum of all schools in Oklahoma. Also, the bodies of black individuals that died during the massacre are now being investigated as archaeologists, scientists, and anthropologists are examining mass graves to uncover the identities of the black individuals who died. It is unfathomable that this major event in American history was ignored for many years similar to the countless other hidden stories of racial trauma and injustices endured by black communities.
In the case of Henrietta Lacks, she was a black woman with cervical cancer. Her cancerous cells were taken from her without consent in 1951, and were used to create the first immortal human cell line. Henrietta’s cells called HeLa cells are invaluable to medical research and were used to develop the polio vaccine in addition to other scientific techniques such as in vitro fertilization, cloning and gene mapping. Scientists today still use Henrietta’s cells and profit from it; her family members remain traumatized and they have not been compensated. Many Americans are still unaware of this tragic event. The Juneteenth celebration this year provides the opportunity for reflection on the true definition of freedom and equality.
Moreover, a few years ago, Americans were riveted in shock to learn about NASA’s Hidden Figures of Black women scientists, engineers, and mathematicians, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson who made incredible discoveries and invaluable contributions. The phenomenon of suddenly unveiling hidden black histories years later is innumerable! Why? For many, black lives and stories are simply not valued in America!
Can anyone name black or brown individuals who have not endured racism during their entire life and throughout their educational journey in the S.T.E.M disciplines? However, they all endured with resiliency, focus and determination to achieve their goals at every step of the journey. The fact remains, racism is very real and common traumatic experiences are endured among peers—people of color, black and brown people—is problematic and disturbing.
My response: As a black woman scientist, I will use my talents, intellect, educational preparation, and voice, committed to making a difference and impactful service, changing lives for the better, dismantling systemic racism and injustices on all levels. I am always seeking constructive ways to inspire youth, particularly Blacks and their struggles in achieving their potentials, and my knowing the bewilderment that can set in when they face arduous obstacles. My duty and call to action during this year’s Juneteenth celebration is this: Wherever I find myself planted, I will bloom and make a difference in the lives of others. This is my mantra!
Has your perception of Juneteenth changed as you began uncovering stories of liberated Africans on Saint Helena?
My perception of Juneteenth has deepened as I immerse myself in examining more closely the label of “Liberated Africans” that was given to the enslaved Africans that arrived on St. Helena island during the mid-19th century, and later died on the island. The main question that consistently perplexes me is: What was the extent of liberation for the enslaved Africans of St. Helena?
I discovered that although the enslaved Africans that arrived on St. Helena island were liberated, their freedom was transient. Historical records indicate that life for the Liberated Africans in the designated African Depots on St. Helena was still a struggle. Group identity among the Liberated Africans evolved from the familiarity of shared experiences of their recent violent translocation from Africa aboard slave ships, continuously stripped of their culture; ripped away from their families and communities; traditional clothes and jewelry, and their basic human rights confiscated. In fact, many were continuously confused about their new geographical location on St. Helena, in addition to the vast language barrier. This state of affairs prevented the Africans from effectively communicating with their European overseers. Apprenticeship, trade-ships, servant-taking, and military recruitment were common undertakings for the assimilation of some of the Liberated Africans into the local communities on St. Helena.
Many Liberated Africans were employed in the lowest economic occupations, manual labor, some worked as shepherds, domestic servants, laborers of buildings, roads, or agricultural on St. Helena. Several of the Liberated Africans experienced poor health, poor housing, were not fed properly or received clothing, and there were no specific contracts to define the relationship between the servant and master. Thus, many of the Liberated Africans grew increasingly dissatisfied with their work and wages situations. Interestingly, in spite of the apprenticeship, the freed slaves never rose from the bottom class of society.
Additionally, the Liberated African population on St. Helena island experienced compulsory immigration to the British Caribbean colonies and Cape Colony. The rationale for immigration of this population was propelled by expediency generated by the tendency of the African Depots to become overcrowded, insanitary, and essentially fatal with no opportunity for self-fulfillment. Consequently, the Liberated Africans were in a constant state of bewilderment as they were pushed off St. Helena island. They did not understand their fate or next step—another forced immigration, what to expect once they left St. Helena and arrived at their new illusive permanent settlements in either the British Caribbean colonies or Cape Colony.
In total, up to the year 1867, over 17,000 Liberated Africans from St. Helena immigrated to the British Caribbean colonies and Cape Colony as follows: Jamaica (3,983); British Guiana (5,419); Grenada (796); St. Kitts (138); St. Lucia (700); Tobago (225); Trinidad (3,701); St. Vincent (832); and Cape Colony (1,410). These new colonies became the permanent settlement of the Liberated African immigrants. The lives of the Liberated Africans in the Caribbean colonies and Cape Colony have yet to be explored.
Overall, more than 26,000 enslaved Africans arrived on St. Helena from 1840 to 1872, became liberated and known as the “Liberated Africans.” During their journey to St. Helena, amidst appalling conditions, between 5,000 and 8,000 of these enslaved Africans died on the seas. When the island became overpopulated, the British government sent over 17,000 of the Liberated Africans onto the British Caribbean colonies and Cape Colony. By 1875 a small community of some 500 Liberated Africans remained on St. Helena island.
In 2008, a slave burial ground was discovered in Rupert’s Valley on St. Helena island, containing an estimated 8,000 bodies. This burial ground was located in the path of a planned road for St. Helena’s first airport. A British archaeological team exhumed the skeletal remains of 325 individuals of the Liberated African population.
The archaeological findings gave rise to my field research on St. Helena in 2018, in which I began my expedition on the island. From the 325 individual skeletal remains of the Liberated African population, exhumed from the slave burial ground, I carefully collected the petrous bones, teeth, and metatarsals/metacarpals of this population. Selection of these specific bones for sample collection is ideal for ancient DNA analyses that will provide powerful new scientific data.
For me, sample collections of these bones from the remains of the Liberated Africans on St. Helena island brought on a whirlwind of emotions. Every day I held in my hands the bones of a very young population of individuals whose lives were cut short by the tragic realities of slavery. Holding the bones of babies and neonates that fit in the palm of my hand was even more striking to me! This experience of holding the bones of the Liberated Africans of St. Helena is imprinted in my mind forever! When does one ever have the unique opportunity to have this up-close tangible experience?
The gravity of being a part of history in this moment and to do justice for this forgotten Liberated African population of the transatlantic slave trade weighed heavily on me. I am now using science and ancient DNA analyses to unlock the genetic identities of this forgotten population. These are the bones of my ancestors who endured the traumatic transatlantic slave trade and were voiceless!
After flying over 23 hours from the remote island of St. Helena, my plane finally touched ground in Washington, DC. I cannot express in words the overwhelming emotions I felt to have finally arrived on American soil with the bone collection of the Liberated African population from St. Helena island. I was incredibly relieved, and for the first time these individuals arrived on American soil not as slaves but for me to finally bring them justice by using science to tell their forgotten journey and stories! I am honored and grateful to be in this position as a black woman scientist to tell the forgotten stories of my ancestors who were voiceless during the traumatic transatlantic slave trade. The story of the journey of this mid-19 th century liberated African population is complex and dynamic! Regrettably, it is a huge aspect of Black history that has never been told before, and even this population’s label of being “Liberated Africans” is quite an enigma!
These liberated Africans are the long-lost ancestors of black communities in America, the Caribbean, South America, Africa, St. Helena, and the list continues. This colossal impact to the African Diaspora and significance in the transatlantic slave trade is shockingly unknown worldwide!
Although such human tragedies and human loss were occurring in the journey of the Liberated African population of St. Helena, similar to the traumatic plight of black communities worldwide, there was a “deafening dead” silence and omission of this story among history scholars and social scientists. St. Helena’s pivotal role in the transatlantic slave trade has been silenced and hidden for far too long!
There is an enormous amount of healing that has to be done as the Black Lives Matter Movement is now international and the pervasiveness of racism worldwide must end. Black communities and the Diaspora are crying out as never before for equality and justice!
This Juneteenth celebration honors freedom. Let us revisit the true meaning of “liberation” of Blacks and their communities; unearth the hidden stories of forgotten Blacks and their communities that have never received justice, honored, valued, or recognized. On Juneteenth and after, I urge everyone to grapple with the struggles of Blacks! Try to put yourselves in the shoes of the oppressed and ask: how would I survive the systemic racism prevalent in American society today? Make a choice to not become an oppressor!
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.