More than a statue

September 30, 1992

For a town that prides itself on oozing history from every cobblestone, Annapolis for years has inexplicably ignored its link to the slave Kunta Kinte, whose descendant, the late Alex Haley, immortalized him in his genealogical novel, "Roots."

At last, the city has agreed to pay tribute to this emotional historic connection, donating $75,000 to a private foundation that is commissioning a $500,000 memorial to Mr. Haley. The statue will be placed at the City Dock where, in 1767, Kunta Kinte was led ashore in chains.

Some Annapolis leaders predict that the Haley memorial will become as illustrious a tourist attraction as the Naval Academy. That may be wishful thinking, but the popularity of "Roots" guarantees that people who might otherwise ignore African-American history will pay attention to this memorial.

The story, which won a Pulitzer Prize and was translated around the world in an acclaimed television mini-series, reached across racial lines and may be the best-known work of black history in American literature.

Anyone who has heard of "Roots" will have at least a passing interest in considering the struggle it commemorates.

Sad to say, until now the place where Kunta Kinte stepped off the slave ship has been marked by dishonor rather than respect.

In 1981, a simple plaque put up by community members was stolen as soon as it was installed. A note was left suggesting that the Ku Klux Klan was responsible. Neighbors replaced the marker, but the ugliness of the incident has never been forgotten.

Two-and-a-quarter centuries since the "Roots" saga began in Annapolis, race relations are far from perfect in Maryland's capital city. A few private clubs still segregate blacks and whites. A feeling persists among black residents that the city is insensitive to their concerns. As a tangible sign of this, they point to the deteriorating Wiley H. Bates High School, once the county's only public school for blacks and a cherished landmark in the black community.

The city's contribution to the memorial is a different kind of sign -- an acknowledgment of the importance of what happened to one young black man 225 years ago and millions of others like him.

The Haley statue has the potential to help bridge the gap that still separates blacks and whites. It is worth every penny the city is spending.

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