Activist's effort keeps dream alive

Blackshear honored for Haley memorial

Honoring Dr. King, Jan. 15, 2001

January 15, 2001|By Johnathon E. Briggs | Johnathon E. Briggs,SUN STAFF

Leonard A. Blackshear's sixth-floor hospital room could be mistaken for his office. An attache case sits on a shelf. Business folders - one with a yellow adhesive note shouting "FAX" - lie across the bed. A secretary patches business calls to his bedside phone.

The unwavering tenacity that helps the 57-year-old businessman fight a debilitating illness, which he declines to discuss, fueled his key role in the 20-year push to build a memorial to Pulitzer Prize-winning "Roots" author Alex Haley on Annapolis City Dock.

Blackshear, founder and president of the Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Foundation, was honored for that effort Saturday, receiving the Dream Keepers Award from the Martin Luther King Jr. Awards Committee, a coalition of Anne Arundel County civil rights and community groups.

The centerpiece of Blackshear's achievement is a life-size rendering of the author, unveiled in December 1999 and believed to be the only monument in the country that marks the place of arrival of an enslaved African.

"That statue is probably the most significant development that has occurred as it relates to African-American culture in Anne Arundel in the past 20 years," said Carl O. Snowden, chairman of the King awards committee. "The memorial is not about an individual, it's about uplifting people. And that's what King was trying to do - uplift people."

The award is given each year to a county resident whose activities are deemed by the committee to have helped keep King's dream alive. Committee members said that had it not been for Blackshear's tireless advocacy, the $335,000 Haley statue would not exist.

Message for the future

"His tenacity put the statue of my father there at the dock," said William Haley, the late author's son, who said the beauty of the statue lies in the enduring message it imparts to generations to come.

For Blackshear, the memorial represents an opportunity for Americans - black and white - to begin a process of healing and reconciliation. He said that at the heart of Alex Haley's message in "Roots," and the dream of King, which is being remembered by millions of Americans today, lies a simple concept: forgiveness.

"The only way to get to a future that includes us all is by forgiving what's been done in history," Blackshear said. "Not only black people forgiving white people, but white people forgiving black people. We got to do it ... as a daily occurrence, as a regular ceremony."

Like the 15-year national lobbying effort that led to the creation of the King holiday, the path to complete the Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Memorial faced roadblocks.

Talk of honoring Alex Haley and his African ancestor Kunta Kinte began in 1978, when Annapolitans suggested the idea to officials in the wake of the popularity of Haley's 1976 book and the television miniseries the next year.

Haley, who died at age 70 in 1992, had spent time in Annapolis researching "Roots." He found documentation that Kunta Kinte arrived at the City Dock from Gambia on Sept. 29, 1767, aboard the ship Lord Ligonier.

At first, then-Annapolis Mayor John C. Apostal opposed the memorial because Kinte was sold to a Virginia planter and was not a Marylander.

After local groups pressed the issue, a plaque honoring Kunta Kinte was installed in 1981. Two days after it was unveiled, vandals pried it off and left a card saying, "You have been patronized by the Ku Klux Klan." A second plaque was installed soon after.

A `consecrated' site

Blackshear said the incident "consecrated" the site. Two decades later, millions of tourists have visited the memorial where the plaque and statue stand.

Listening to Blackshear, it's easy to forget that he is a businessman, not a full-time activist: For more than 20 years, he has run Annapolis-based TeleSonic, a consulting and telecommunications firm.

According to those he has worked with, Blackshear believes that businesses should contribute to the community. His company's projects include a cancer-awareness information line for Anne Arundel County residents and a closed-caption radio system for the hearing-impaired.

"He takes ideas and makes them blossom," said Lisa Hillman, vice president of development and community affairs for Anne Arundel Medical Center. "He will get hold of a seed and make it a full-blown tree."

Blackshear was born in Savannah, Ga., and his family moved to New York when he was 6 months old.

As a young man, he marched on Washington with about 250,000 others who gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963, to urge support for pending civil rights legislation. It was the day that King delivered his "I Have A Dream" speech.

"You had the feeling that King was making history," Blackshear recalled.

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