Annapolis debates tomorrow's scheduled Slavery Reconciliation Walk.

Journey into the past

September 28, 2004|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Leonard A. Blackshear stands at City Dock in Annapolis and points a short distance away toward bustling Middleton's Tavern, a Colonial-era landmark.

"The place where slaves were sold, it's still there," says Blackshear, head of the nonprofit Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Foundation, which plays host tomorrow to a piece of street theater using historic Annapolis as its stage. "Slavery's legacy is racism, and we tend to keep it under [the] carpet with guilt, fear and anger on both sides."

A dozen participants -- including some of European descent wearing chains, yokes and ropes -- will take part in what is being billed as the nation's first Slavery Reconciliation Walk, an event causing some jitters in the state capital.

The participants will start at the dockside memorial to Roots author Alex Haley, whose ancestor Kunta Kinte arrived in Annapolis on a slave ship from Africa in 1767. They will finish at the State House grounds by the statue of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the civil rights lawyer and first black member of the high court.

The event, organized by London-based Lifeline Expedition, is meant to express sorrow for slavery -- and thus open a new dialogue on racial relations.

But not everyone in town is thrilled at an event that recalls a time when slave ships sailed into the seaport. Annapolis Mayor Ellen O. Moyer is skeptical and voted against waiving city fees for the event -- a motion that passed the city council on a 6-2 vote.

"To walk in chains has very little to do with reconciliation of man's inhumanity to man," she said. "We need to go forward in life instead of trying to recall past humiliation."

Some in the black community also have mixed feelings.

"You have to applaud them, but race is very complex and won't be resolved in a day of atonement," said Carl O. Snowden, a former member of the city council and a leader in the black community.

Annapolis hardly makes a secret of the role slavery played in its history. The Haley memorial occupies a central plaza at City Dock and includes a comprehensive exhibit of slave conditions on ship and land, with descriptions of auctions held in the center of town.

For the past 17 years, the city has given grant money to the Kunta Kinte Heritage Festival, a celebration of African-American history and culture.

But the Slavery Reconciliation Walk offers a far different -- and, some say, more emotionally fraught -- slant on the city's slave history.

Chains and yokes

The chains and yokes to be worn by a half-dozen participants of European descent are intended to offer a symbolic sign of apology. The half-dozen participants of African descent, representing countries whose residents were enslaved, will wear armbands signifying forgiveness, organizers said.

The London-based group staging the event has conducted similar walks in England, France, Spain and Portugal. Founder David L. Pott had considered a number of U.S. cities to launch the first American visit, including Boston, Richmond, Va., and Charleston, S.C. He settled on Annapolis as the starting point for a pilgrimage to other cities once involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

"After reflection, I was very impressed with the memorial and thought Annapolis was a very significant place to begin the journey on a significant date," Pott said yesterday.

Tomorrow marks the date when Kunta Kinte is believed to have disembarked from the slave ship Lord Ligonier 267 years ago. His story was pieced together and told by his descendant, Haley, in the best-selling book and television miniseries in the 1970s.

Ceremonial meeting

Blackshear has arranged for a ceremonial meeting at the dockside memorial between Chris Haley, the author's nephew, and Orlando Ridout IV, an Annapolis resident in his 80s and a direct descendant of John Ridout -- the man identified in records as owner of Kunta Kinte and the other "choice healthy slaves" captured in Gambia and sold here.

The winding route of tomorrow's walk will feature several historic markers. It will pause at the house of William Paca, a signer of the Declaration of Independence (and a major slaveholder), and a statue of Roger B. Taney, a 19th-century chief justice of the United States and author of the Dred Scott decision upholding slavery.

It ends at the Marshall statue on Lawyers Mall by the State House, where a closing forgiveness ceremony will take place.

"There's 200 years of progress in a quarter-mile," Blackshear said.

In organizing the walk, the group had to surmount a number of hurdles. Blackshear received permission for the walk to end on state property only after agreeing that participants would shed the yokes, chains and ropes that could be used as weapons, which are prohibited on the State House grounds.

`Point of closure'

Blackshear, a transplanted New Yorker, said he considered Annapolis the perfect place for the event. "This is a key point of closure for the whole Roots saga," he said.

He and his group are hoping to build on the walk to sponsor study circles in Annapolis on issues of race and reconciliation.

There is no question that work remains to be done, Snowden agreed.

"Race is the most volatile issue the city has ever dealt with, and it's difficult to talk about," he said.

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