Remembering 'Roots' Kunta Kinte memorial: Annapolis to make more of its historic link to Haley's forebear.

September 30, 1997

UNTIL YESTERDAY, Annapolis had never made the most of its connection to the slave Kunta Kinte, whose descendant, Alex Haley, immortalized him in his genealogical novel, ''Roots.'' The spot at City Dock in the state capital where a chained Kunta Kinte was led off a ship 230 years ago yesterday had been marked only by an easily overlooked plaque.

Here is a piece of history -- a place in history -- with the rare power to reach across racial lines and stimulate thought and discussion about one of the most important issues in America. And it has been wasted.

Years since it first conceived the idea, a private foundation has been trying to raise money to build a memorial to Haley with a statue of him and a ''story wall.''

The worthiness of the project was obvious to those who attended yesterday's dedication of the first, most modest phase: placement of the plaque marking Kunta Kinte's arrival on a pedestal, so visitors can find it.

Members of Haley's family were there -- and so were descendants of John Ridout, who bought Kunta Kinte. When the plaque was unveiled, the two families reached across and shook hands. It was an emotional moment, and a symbolic one. It showed that reconciliation and forgiveness are possible.

It's a stretch to claim, as supporters of the Haley project did, that this memorial might one day be as big a draw as the U.S. Naval Academy. Still, the popularity of the ''Roots'' story means people who otherwise might not be interested will stop at this memorial. The televised mini-series of 1977 was the most watched program in history, transcending racial barriers. Anyone who has heard of ''Roots'' will have at least a passing interest in learning what happened at City Dock.

The foundation hopes to unveil the entire memorial one year from now, but it needs help. It will cost $750,000; only $200,000 has been raised. The city of Annapolis and Anne Arundel County have contributed, a fitting acknowledgment of the importance of what happened to Kunta Kinte and millions like him. But most of the money for this project must come from private individuals and businesses, from people who understand the historical and cultural significance of this site.

Pub Date: 9/30/97

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