Reclaiming a culture

Visionary: Professor Leon D. Holsey found students eager for African studies at Coppin State College.

October 30, 1999|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

The origins of Leon D. Holsey's passion for Africa are not entirely clear. Maybe it came from the stories he heard from his grandmother about her mother's slave-ship trip through the middle passage; perhaps from the uncle who was involved in Marcus Garvey's back-to-Africa movement; or from his own travels in the merchant marine that first landed him on that continent in 1946.

Wherever it came from, the land once disparaged by some as the Dark Continent became a bright light for Holsey, a beacon that shone on generations of students as it guided him through a life of teaching and spiritual exploration.

The 77-year-old Holsey retired this summer after almost four decades at Coppin State College, where he infused Africa into the curriculum of that historically black institution. He will be honored tonight at a dinner at the Forum on Primrose Avenue.

But this gathering of family and friends is not the most important event in Holsey's week because he is also marking the one-year anniversary of the death of his wife, Anna Dugger Holsey. In the Fa-Ifa spiritual system that was so important to both Holseys, that is an important date -- when the restless spirit makes it final journey to the other side.

"There is no death in Africa, only separation," Holsey says. "I just miss her so."

In a back room of Holsey's home in Northwood is an altar to his wife who was 61 when breast cancer claimed her. They had been married 10 years, a second marriage for both, drawn together by their mutual love of Africa.

Her smiling face overlooks the altar from between carved African figures. Bowls of fruit are in front. There are pictures of her Christian burial in her native St. Louis, but nearby are photographs of her other burial in the West African country of Benin.

"I took her essence to Africa," he says of the trip he made after her funeral in St. Louis. "Clippings from her hair and fingernails. This is the essence to Africans. If you ever go to Egypt, you see the hair that was in the tombs there."

In Benin, a wooden effigy of his wife was carved, wrapped in a funeral shroud and carried to the grave site. "They treated it just like the body," Holsey says.

The effigy was placed in a grave along with a picture and the hair and nails. A goat and chicken were sacrificed, their blood flowing over the grave's contents. Dressed in white garments given to him by Benin spiritual leaders, Holsey helped fill in the grave.

He had brought Anna -- whose African name was Iya Lissajee Akbusa -- home.

Home for Holsey has long been Baltimore. Born in South Carolina, he arrived here as an infant and grew up in the Depression days of Jim Crow segregation.

"As fascinating as it is when Dr. Holsey talks about Africa, as a sociologist, I'm even more fascinated when he talks about Baltimore," says John Hudgins, chairman of Coppin State's Social Sciences Department. "He tells stories of [W.E.B.] Du Bois coming through town, Thurgood Marshall living up the street."

Holsey says his father worked as a caulker in the shipyards. "He never made much money, but we always had food on the table," he says.

He tells of the shacks of the homeless in Lafayette Square and Harlem Square, lean-tos in Druid Hill Park. "That was hard times," he says.

He also remembers that anyone who came to his family's house looking for food got a seat at the table and good meal. "They were treated with respect," he says. "It didn't matter if they were black or white."

Holsey went to Douglass High School, but found the attitude there elitist. He dropped out and went to work in the shipyards, but his father insisted he continue his education at night in a program then offered by the city schools for adults.

"It was the best thing my father ever made me do," Holsey says. "Those adults became my mentors. They taught me so much about life I could never have gotten in the academic world."

Holsey went to sea in the merchant marine, serving on ships throughout World War II. Years before the armed forces were integrated, Holsey says, all races were treated equally on these ships.

"In training, we lived together, ate together, slept together, and, as some would say, `made the room smell funky' together. There were no doors on those stalls. We knew all about each other," he says. "When we got out on those ships, our lives depended on each other."

As it taught him the lessons of universal brotherhood, the merchant marine also took him to Africa. He got his first glimpse of the continent in 1946 on a stopover in Egypt while taking relief supplies to India.

He has traveled to Africa perhaps 40 times since, on vacations, for research, taking tour groups, studying spiritual systems, and making the trip to bury his wife. He has been given many African names -- Azlessi Akozno Shemu-Heru Kawaba Akodeli Kwabena -- names from a different countries, and collected a houseful of carvings, paintings and photographs.

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