Kunta Kinte festival an inspiration to find roots

September 28, 1992|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,Staff Writer

It seemed only fitting that a weekend when thousands came to Annapolis to commemorate Alex Haley's ancestor Kunta Kinte found Willie Ragsdale sitting beside a poster-board chart showing his own family's roots.

Mr. Ragsdale, president of the Baltimore chapter of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, joined other society members in answering questions about genealogical research and encouraging those attending the annual Kunta Kinte festival to search out their own pasts.

Mr. Haley, who died in February, is best-known for his book "Roots," which chronicled the search for his own family history. Mr. Haley traced his ancestry to Kunta Kinte, an African who arrived in Annapolis on Sept. 29, 1767, aboard a slave ship, the Lord Ligonier.

Although the festival remembers that one man, the two-day event celebrates the indomitable spirit within everyone, said the festival chairman, Leonard Blackshear. "Kunta Kinte is an international icon. Kunta Kinte was not a mythical story. He lived, and he succeeded."

Mr. Ragsdale, who began searching his family history about 10 years ago, has traced his ancestry back to 1538, when his forebears were living in England. He discovered that one ancestor was a Crow Indian chief and that another survived an Indian massacre. He has learned that his relatives include Arthur Ashe and Bill Cosby.

"When I look at my past, I see so many cultures," said Mr. Ragsdale, who works as a biological photographer at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Although he has no plans to write another "Roots," he believes he will succeed in uncovering his family's African origins and hopes to visit African in a few years.

Zelma Bieard-Young, a chapter member who began researching her family history a couple of years ago, said she learned that her grandmother was a Seminole Indian. She also found an ancestor who had been a slave trader and later married a black woman.

"I'd like to know what my roots are," she said. "It's a legacy I wantto leave my grandchildren."

Mr. Ragsdale described genealogical research as "bringing your family together."

The two-day Kunta Kinte festival -- part of a five-day commemoration that ends tomorrow -- is a family festival. Not only is it a reunion of African-American families who bring their children to learn about their culture; it is also a celebration of a larger cultural family that binds together blacks and whites, festival organizers said.

Despite yesterday's rain, hundreds of people came to the St. John's College grounds to hear African-American musicians, watch African dancers, sample Cajun and Jamaican foods and buy African art and jewelry.

Ten-year-old Justin Caldwell, who stood in the children's tent stringing together a necklace of colored macaroni, said he has been coming to the festival since it began six years ago and said he learns something every year.

Wesley Johnson, 11, who came to the festival with his Boy Scout troop, said he was surprised to learn that Kunta Kinte was a real man. The youth also was excited to meet Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

Mr. Schmoke accepted the first annual Kunta Kinte award, created to recognize those who have made significant achievements despite adversity. Mr. Schmoke was recognized for his work in helping to improve education in Baltimore.

Alex Haley's brother, George, and son, William, who heads the Haley Family Corporation in St. Louis, also were at the festival yesterday.

William Haley said his company plans soon to begin offering tourist trips to Gambia and Senegal so that African-Americans can discover their own roots.

"We want to give people an African experience," he said.

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