Friends, family bid farewell to Leonard Blackshear, the force behind the Kunta Kinte statue, other works

City remembers racial healer

March 31, 2006|By JAMIE STIEHM | JAMIE STIEHM,SUN REPORTER

When Annapolis Mayor Ellen O. Moyer passes by the Alex Haley statue and memorial wall along Annapolis' waterfront, she thinks of Leonard A. Blackshear.

"This is indeed Leonard's walk and Leonard's wall," she said this week of Blackshear, who died of cancer March 24. Haley wrote the best-seller Roots about his ancestor Kunta Kinte, who is believed to have arrived as a slave at Annapolis' City Dock in 1767.

For Blackshear, a telecommunications business owner who founded the Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Foundation, roots were a favorite metaphor for making the past seem present and real, here and now. "Roots provide an anchor in a world moving so fast," Blackshear said in an interview last year at a children's genealogy summer camp.

The first public art to be placed on city land in 75 years, the waterfront memorial emphasizes storytelling through generations. With a story wall and a compass shaped like a rose, the tribute to the slave and the author was a long-held vision Blackshear pursued, winning over skeptics and raising funds that totaled $750,000.

"There were always obstacles, but he never accepted them," said Chris Haley, a nephew of Haley's and a foundation board member, after Blackshear's funeral Wednesday. "He made people believe in his dream."

Blackshear, who was 62 when he died, was remembered by hundreds of mourners as a humanitarian and civic leader whose loves ranged from African-American history, Dvorak symphonies and his wide circle of family and friends to lighter passions such as comic books and oatmeal-raisin cookies.

Blackshear's boyish grin, persuasive powers and inquiring intellect were lauded at the Asbury United Methodist Church funeral service. The full-house congregation heard Pachelbel's Canon and a dozen eulogies, some delivered by visiting pastors. The Rev. Mamie A. Williams drew on biblical imagery, saying that a prince had fallen in the city.

Moyer and Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens brought official citations and praised Blackshear's principal legacy to the capital city - the 2002 sculptural memorial of Kunta Kinte and Alex Haley on the City Dock. "His eye was always on the future," Owens said.

Blackshear relished telling the tale of Kinte, who was born in Gambia, captured as a youth and brought to Annapolis in chains. Two centuries later, Alex Haley wrote Roots, which was about Kinte's journey through the Middle Passage and his life in slavery.

Chris Haley said he first met Blackshear in 1995, when the foundation was scouting for a sculptor for the memorial, before Ed Dwight was selected.

An architect attending the funeral, Gary Schwerzler, said he showed Blackshear early drawings of the memorial concept more than a dozen years ago. He compared Blackshear to Anne St. Clair Wright, an Annapolis woman known for saving large historic tracts of the city in the mid-20th century.

Because Blackshear was best known for his foundation works, many attendees did not realize the scope of his other civic activities. As a Rotarian and Parole chapter president, Blackshear organized a Books for Good Will program, which has sent nearly 2 million books to children around the world.

His small business centered on helping hearing-impaired people see words and songs broadcast on the radio.

Blackshear was born in Savannah, Ga., and raised in Queens, N.Y. He and his wife, Patricia "Patsy" Baker Blackshear, had no children of their own. But, relatives noted, they helped raise two nieces and a nephew. At a farewell party at his home days before his death, Blackshear gave clear advice on how to carry his missions forward.

"He will be missed so very much," said his sister, Elsie Blackshear Chapman of New Haven, Conn. "There is a hole that can never be filled."

Blackshear's ashes were scattered yesterday at the deepest point of the Chesapeake Bay, known as "Bloody Point," where, according to lore, some weakened Africans on slave ships were thrown overboard if they were not judged fit for the hard life ahead.

"For Leonard, it is a reverse Middle Passage," said Judith Cabral, the foundation's program director.

A slavery reconciliation walk in September 2004 was Blackshear's last major engagement in Annapolis public life. Not without critics, the somber event involved whites wearing chains and bonds in a symbolic march from the City Dock, past founding father William Paca's 18th century house, up to the State House, where a statue of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall stands. African-Americans in the procession walked as "forgivers" of the historical sin of slavery.

"It seemed he [Blackshear] could see much further than we could," said Bernadette Pulley-Pruitt, who participated as a forgiver.

At the service, T. Alan Hay, the Kinte-Haley foundation board chairman, told listeners that only Blackshear could have orchestrated the culmination of the walk: an embrace between Chris Haley, 45, and Orlando Ridout IV, a member of the family that sold Kinte when he stepped off the slave ship.

"There was an emotional takeaway," said Hay, quoting a phrase Leonard often used.

Racial healing was Blackshear's great gift to Annapolis, Hay and others declared.

Said Hay: "We're ready and destined to do that because of Leonard."

jamie.stiehm@baltsun.com

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