Gretchen Johnson Team moves forward with Liberated African Project

This summer 2017, Gretchen Johnson, Ph.D. student at the CRL has been working steadily on progressing on her doctoral research on the historic population of Africans deposited on St. Helena Island (South Atlantic). Her research is focused on assessing the human skeletal remains of previously enslaved mid-19th century Africans who were liberated by British antislavery efforts, but subsequently died on the South Atlantic
island. She is combining forensic and molecular genomic analyses, and archaeological/historical contexts to reconstruct a snapshot of the lives and surrounding environment of the mid-19th century individuals originally buried at Saint Helena. These results will then be compared with data from the enslaved individuals from the 17th and 18th century New York African Burial Ground (ABG).
Through a recent collaboration with Christopher Cross, Dr. Anne Agur and her research team at the University of Toronto, Canada, a new technique was designed to retrieve the petrous bone from the human skull with minimal damage. This technique and others will be utilized on the African skeletal remains on St. Helena to obtain the most usable quantities of high quality DNA from the remains of each individual. Data gathered will allow for human identification and ancestral origins of this historic population on St. Helena. Currently, Gretchen is practicing techniques for the accurate and prompt retrieval of the petrous bone in the Anatomy Lab at Howard University.
She is looking forward to traveling to St. Helena Island (South Atlantic) this upcoming fall to begin collecting the petrous bone from the skeletal remains of the historic population of liberated Africans. She is motivated to further her research with more investigations to unravel St. Helena’s central place in the Slave Trade, a history rarely acknowledged. To assist with the memorialization efforts in St. Helena, Gretchen will be creating a GoFundMe webpage to raise monetary funds. Stay tuned for an update on this new webpage and information on how you can help!
In July, Gretchen presented a poster on her research progress at the Society of Molecular Biology and Evolution (SMBE) Conference in Austin, Texas. Also, she attended the Penn State University Bootcamp on Reproducible Research. This Bootcamp reinforced key concepts in Bioinformatics and Statistics which will be incorporated into the analyses of the skeletal remains of the liberated Africans deposited on St. Helena Island.
The Howard University Institutional Review Board has recently approved Gretchen’s research on the skeletal remains on St. Helena Island and she has been awarded research funding from National Geographic and a Just-Julian Fellowship.**

Cobb Lab