African America's Charleston Roots
Updated: May 22, 2020
The city of Charleston, SC is celebrating its 350th anniversary this year. As it does so, it is critical that the city's African American history be centered as a foundational part of the story. This will be no small feat because since the Civil War, Charleston has built its economy on historic/heritage tourism fueled by a narrative that intentionally distorts that part of its history.
Perhaps the most important part of this under-told history is Charleston's role in the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Many called the city the "capital of slavery". It is no coincidence that the largest wharf in the American colonies, Gadsden's Wharf, was the site where - by far - the largest number of enslaved Africans arrived. The current scholarship is that of all of the Africans brought to America throughout the entire Transatlantic Slave Trade, almost half - 48.1% - arrived in Charleston.
As a result, with a number of migrations and the overall growth of the African American community over time, it is probable that all African Americans have an ancestor who first arrived in Charleston; that all African Americans are connected to Charleston!
Generally, the most accurate way to determine whether someone is descended from a particular group is with DNA analysis. That approach wouldn't apply in this case because African arrivals to Charleston came from a variety of places throughout West Africa. What follows is an attempt to logically/mathematically look at the question based upon the information we do have.
Here’s the case:
Google defines a generation today as lasting 25.5 years. Although that number was significantly shorter for enslaved people (perhaps closer to half of that), we'll use it because it better aligns with how the data is available.
Presented in “Google generations”, the distribution of enslaved African arrivals to America is as follows:
African Arrivals to America (1) 1676-1700 3,327
Total 305,326 (2)
Since the distribution of arrivals is heavily back-weighted toward the end of the slave trade, the average arrival occurred in the 1776 -1800 generation. If we use 1788 as the midpoint, this means that current African Americans are an average of 232 years away from their first American ancestor. In other words, African American families have been in this country an average of 9 generations and their first African American ancestor was a 7X great grandparent. (3)
Of course, people have 2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great grandparents, 16 great great grandparents, and so on. The number per each generation inflates to 512 7X great grandparents and an accumulation of 1,022 grandparents (from grandparents to 7x grandparents) throughout those 9 generations.
All it takes for African Americans today to have this Charleston connection is for 1 of their (on average) 1,022 direct ancestors to be either from, or descended from, the original "Charleston 48.1%" that first landed there.
Beyond thinking about just those who landed in Charleston, if you make the assumption that each generation has an average of 3 children, the numbers then become dramatically more favorable to the proposition that all African Americans are connected to an ancestor who landed here. That same 7x great grandparent sits atop a generational pyramid of 29,523 (4) descendants - each representing new opportunities to have a genetic connection to the "Charleston 48.1%" ancestor at the top. For African Americans, this means that there are 29,523 chances for any 1 of their ancestors to have been among the those who landed in Charleston.
Over the generations, African American migration throughout the country produced an intermarrying of people from those who arrived in Charleston with those who arrived elsewhere. Perhaps first was the migration from coastal areas to inland locations as rice gave way to cotton and other crops as the primary driver of enslaved labor. After emancipation, many African Americans moved in search of lost loved ones, economic opportunity, and better social conditions. Between 1916 and 1970, the Great Migration saw 6 million African Americans leave the rural Southern United States to the urban Northeast, Midwest, and West. Genetically, all of this had the effect of blending African American DNA around the country. As a result, the proposition that each African American living today has at least 1 of their thousands of potential ancestors who came from that original 48.1% Charleston group seems to be overwhelmingly probable!
With this understanding, Charleston, credibly, could be that one place that all African Americans claim as the common starting place of their American story. It could be the place where African Americans go to reengage with their last African/first American ancestor; to see where they landed, to get a sense for the context that they first arrived to, and what their experience was like here.
So, African Americans, come to Charleston! See it. Feel it. Walk in the footsteps of your ancestors. Connect with their spirits. Learn about the Gullah Geechee people and culture that evolved from those who arrived with your original ancestors but stayed in the coastal Lowcountry. And then, please, go to Africa. Complete the journey of reconstituting your African and American identity! See where your people originally came from and what their lives and culture are all about. Ponder the fact that there are people there now who you share DNA with; who you share a common ancestor with somewhere along your family tree. As someone who has done those things, I guarantee that they will be among the most important and meaningful experiences of your life.
And happy 350th Charleston!
(1) Although enslaved Africans began arriving with the Spanish in the 1500's, the numbers were not meaningful until the dates presented here.
(3)(4) How Big Is Your Family Tree