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Explorer Gretchen Johnson Shares Lost Stories of Black History on St. Helena Island

Explorer Gretchen Johnson talks about her work on St. Helena Island, what stories of black history she’s uncovered there, and what Black History Month means to her.

In the mid-19th century, thousands of previously enslaved Africans were liberated but subsequently died on the remote St. Helena Island. It wasn’t until recently, during the construction of St. Helena’s first airport, that the skeletal remains of the liberated Africans who lived on the island were discovered. This story heightened biologist and Explorer Gretchen Johnson’s “research curiosity,” and she began researching human genetics and biological anthropology in St. Helena. Her research will allow for new and unique genomic data to unlock this lost history—preserving it as an important archival resource.

In honor of Black History Month, we talked to Gretchen about her work on St. Helena Island, the stories of black history she’s uncovered, and what Black History Month means to her.

St. Helena Island is so remote. How did you find out about the island and its history? Why did you decide to do your research there?

St. Helena’s remoteness and uniquely complex historical past is what initially piqued my curiosity to investigate and dig deeper into its history, in particular the mid-19th century liberated Africans shuffled between slavery and transient freedom that were intercepted by the Royal Navy’s anti-slavery squadron and brought ashore on St. Helena island, an ideal Atlantic port in the middle of the South Atlantic ocean.

My drive to research this population soon turned into a passionate quest. I could not believe that the story of this population has been hidden on this remote island for centuries!

I contacted the St. Helena government to express my interest in conducting my dissertation research on the ancient population on the island, and after a year of long negotiations, I received clearance from the government to conduct my research and begin my expedition on the island.

In 2018, I traveled to St. Helena Island to collect human skeletal and dental samples from the mid-19th century liberated African population. The ancient DNA analyses are being used to reconstruct the lives of this population that has essentially been forgotten. I am preserving the history and legacy of this population by using science to unlock their genetic identities and give a voice to a forgotten population in the transatlantic slave trade and African diaspora. I am grateful to be in this position as a scientist to tell the story of this population through science.

Photo courtesy of Gretchen Johnson

What stories of black history have you uncovered at St. Helena's that you wish more people knew about?

The archaeological excavation in Rupert Valley [where an estimated 8,000 bodies were found in 2008] was very revealing. The full stories of the transatlantic slave trade, even after centuries, remain alive and can no longer be buried and forgotten. The genomics research I am currently conducting on the mid-19th century liberated African population will be published soon in a scientific paper.

The burial site in Rupert’s Valley is unique given the fact that it has documented, preserved physical evidence of Africans who were sold into slavery and later freed. The site has significant relevance and historical value and has the potential to reveal the origin of the African slaves and their condition on the slave ships. It may indicate how their identities, including their DNA, may have been reshaped due to the trauma of the transatlantic slave trade.

In fact, St. Helena Island may hold the only key graveyards that comprise, solely, first-generation individuals—that is to say, those taken directly off the slave ships, who had been living in Africa only weeks earlier. In fact, the archaeological findings, noting how they were laid in the graveyard, how they were placed even in shallow graves before being covered, certainly brings us face-to-face with the human consequences and the atrocities of the slave trade against humanity. Such human tragedies and human loss were occurring, and there was a “deafening dead” silence and omission of this story among history scholars and social scientists. There was an apparent silence on St. Helena’s pivotal role in the transatlantic slave trade. The story of the journey of this mid-19th century liberated African population is complex and dynamic. Regrettably, it is a huge aspect of black history that has never been told before!

During my work on the island, I have additionally discovered that this small remote island is literally a hidden treasure in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean. The people on the island are some of the most friendly and talented individuals I have ever met. They are eager to share their rich cultural heritage with the world. Many St. Helenians proudly see themselves as descendants of the liberated Africans! Also, 26,000 enslaved Africans arrived on St. Helena. When the island became overpopulated, the British government sent approximately 18,000 of the Africans who were liberated onto the British West Indian colonies of Jamaica, Trinidad, Tobago, Grenada, British Guiana, St. Kitts, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, and also Cape Colony (which is now present-day South Africa). This story is not just significant on St. Helena, it’s an American story, African story, and a Caribbean story. This story is huge!

Photo courtesy of Gretchen Johnson

What can the science community do to be more inclusive? What resources would you recommend to aspiring black scientists and researchers?

For many years, diversity and inclusion have been a struggle in the science community. Often minority students find the science community not welcoming, and this immediately deters them from pursuing a career in the STEM fields. This narrative needs to be changed.

There needs to be an increase in opportunities and programs for the educational and socioeconomic mobility of traditionally underrepresented communities. I believe the science community should seek to insert a STEM pipeline of programs directly in every disadvantaged or marginalized school in America.

These minority students often face unimaginable challenges in addition to the struggle of trying to learn in educational systems, particularly in inner cities and rural areas that have inadequate science labs, equipment, and access to resources and opportunities. Often students in these environments will never have the right experiences and support to explore, build curiosity, or experiment in STEM activities and determine whether these endeavors make them excited to pursue more. It is nearly impossible for these students to aspire to pursue a career in the STEM fields if they feel like they have not been academically prepared, are undervalued, and have no exposure to scientists and researchers in the fields they desire to pursue.

Several black and first-generation immigrant college students have never seen anyone in their community complete high school, college, or even a PhD in a STEM field. Often, stories of black scientists and researchers are not circulated widely in media. Students from disadvantaged and marginalized communities often never get to hear or learn directly from these individuals, and it is hard for students to visualize that they too, can do the same and pursue a career in STEM. Representation and good mentoring make a huge difference in whether a young black student, in particular, will pursue a STEM field. STEM is hard for everyone, but if you are comfortable and feel included, there is less anxiety on trying to fit in and more focus on learning and mastering the subject matter. Feeling secure and valued in STEM disciplines has empowering effects and helps you to own your development and education.

In order to build a STEM pipeline in every disadvantaged and marginalized school in America, I believe the science community should first visit these school systems and actively listen to the stories and perspectives of students and see what support or needs could help them in their journey in STEM. This will help foster a deeper understanding and sensitivities to the many challenges and culture differences that impact the learning of students in these communities.

I would recommend aspiring black scientists and researchers make it a goal to find mentorship opportunities by which you can shadow local STEM professionals and learn about the real aspects of their career path. Voice your concerns, opinions, ask questions, and be open to their counsel. Also, be relentless in your pursuit of research opportunities, as they will allow you to put your education into action and help you grow. Make aggressive goals to consistently and with rigor practice your math and science; this commitment and persistence will help strengthen your problem-solving skills. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, experiment, and have fun! Seek out opportunities where you can collaborate and network with STEM professionals.

Black history is such a big part of what you do. What does Black History Month mean to you?

Photo courtesy of Gretchen Johnson

Black History Month is more personalized to me and has actually come alive to me like never before. The journey of this population of liberated Africans to St. Helena Island is complex and dynamic. Over 26,000 liberated Africans had significant roles on St. Helena Island and in the building of the island’s infrastructure but never had a chance to tell their stories. Many lives were abruptly cut short! Their contributions and legacy have never been honored. This is a huge aspect of Black History that has never been told before!

The emigration of over 18,000 liberated Africans from St. Helena to Jamaica, Trinidad, Tobago, Grenada, British Guiana, St. Kitts, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, present-day South Africa, and the eventual migration into South America and the southern states of America is even more shocking. This colossal impact to the African diaspora and significance in the transatlantic slave trade is unknown worldwide.

This really hit home to me as my family is directly from Jamaica; I am an American, born and grew up in America. These liberated Africans can very well be our long-lost ancestors! As I continue my research and investigation into the journey of the mid-19th century liberated African population, I am finding myself rediscovering and seeking to understand better my own identity, origin, and roots.

In fact, when I arrived on St. Helena island and began my sample collection, the gravity of slavery hit me like a ton of bricks. This population was very young and consisted of an estimated mix of children, teenagers, and young adults; they were the prime targets of the transatlantic slave trade since they could endure hard labor. Holding the bones of babies and neonates was even more striking to me. I couldn’t fathom that their lives cut short by the tragic realities of slavery.

I am grateful to be in a position to preserve the history and legacy of the mid-19th century population of liberated Africans, using science to unlock their genetic identities and give a voice to a forgotten population in the transatlantic slave trade and African diaspora. I will continue to stand up and do my part to tell the story of this forgotten population of the mid-19th century liberated Africans discovered on St. Helena Island so that they never become forgotten in history.

Read more from fellow Explorer Alyea Pierce as she shares her thoughts of the importance of Black History Month.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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