Path to an unhappy past

September 30, 2004|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

The chief white participants wore chains and handcuffs, along with black shirts emblazoned with the words "So Sorry." Their black counterparts wore traditional African garb and armbands signifying forgiveness.

Kept at bay by Annapolis police yesterday were 12 white male protesters who used racial epithets to describe an event they denounced as a "White Guilt Zone."

The Slavery Reconciliation Walk -- a ceremony organizers say was intended to help heal the wounds of slavery -- began by City Dock on an overcast morning, drawing about 200 people on a short walk through the streets of a once-thriving slave port.

The performance was put on by the London-based Christian group Lifeline Expedition, which has staged such events in Europe and chose Annapolis as its first stop in the United States.

Devon Jones, 21, who is black, performed a dialogue with a white friend, Judson Wegner, 23, as part of the event, and said the chains, yokes and cuffs woke up the ghosts of slavery for him.

"It's a touchy subject, but seeing that blew my mind," Jones said. Referring to discussions they had in real life: "We forgave each other long ago."

Joseph Zintseme, 40, of Cameroon told the gathering of clergy, peace activists and observers, "I speak on behalf of the continent of Africa, which lost the best and strongest skills of our men and women."

The event was co-sponsored by the nonprofit Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Foundation Inc., and started at the dockside memorial to Haley, author of Roots, the saga of his 18th-century ancestor who arrived in Annapolis as a slave.

David Pott, the English founder of Lifeline Expedition, said he decided recently that Annapolis was a fitting starting point for the group's American travels, which will take it to Richmond, Va., and Charleston, S.C., among other destinations.

Speaking of the memorial to Haley, Pott said, "It's a special, sacred place."

"There are those who are silently hurting, a whole segment of society," said Joyce Hunt, 43, an Annapolitan who just moved to Decatur, Ga., but returned with her husband to witness the event.

In their procession up King George Street, the participants paused by the mansion of William Paca, a signer of the Declaration of Independence -- and a wealthy slave owner.

The group was scheduled to pass by a statue on the State House grounds of Roger B. Taney, the U.S. chief justice who wrote the Dred Scott decision affirming slavery in the 1850s -- and freed all of his own slaves.

However, a committee of elected state officials refused the request this week, pointing to a policy against demonstrations and gatherings on the State House grounds.

The closing ceremony took place on Lawyers Mall in front of the State House, next to a pair of pillars and friezes with the words "Equal Justice Under Law" -- and next to a statue of Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court justice.

Zintseme and other black participants spoke in unison: "On behalf of my ancestors, I forgive those who trespassed against us."

Gatherers broke into applause when Chris Haley, 45, and Orlando Ridout IV, 82, embraced each other -- a moment bringing together two men whose families' connection dates to the 18th century, when slave ships were a regular sight in the seaport.

Haley, a descendant of the slave Kunta Kinte, and Ridout, a member of the family that sold Kinte into slavery, have been friends for years.

Haley, echoing his late uncle, Alex, said yesterday that people on both sides of the racial divide tend to be defensive in discussing slavery.

"We've got to get past that and root out racism," said Haley, a state archivist who wrote yesterday's narrative.

Said Leonard A. Blackshear, head of the Kinte-Haley Foundation: "By golly, if they can do it, then who can't?"

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