Despite loss, Kunta Kinte festival to go on

Organizers, family vow to carry on mission after death of founder Leonard Blackshear

September 29, 2006|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN REPORTER

Throwing a party while mourning the host is the challenge faced this weekend by the friends and family of Leonard A. Blackshear, founder of the Kunta Kinte Heritage Festival.

Blackshear, who also founded the Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Foundation, died in March at age 62 of cancer. Tonight, the city of Annapolis will dedicate the story wall at the memorial to Kinte and Alex Haley at City Dock, monuments that Blackshear made a reality.

The next morning, the 19th festival will open at the Anne Arundel County fairgrounds in Crownsville.

"It will definitely leave a void, since Leonard was so passionate, but we are energized to carry on the mission, maybe more so now, " said foundation board president David Arthur. "We want the festival to continue to be successful."

Among those slated to speak at tonight's event at 6 are Mayor Ellen O. Moyer and George W. Haley, former ambassador to the Gambia in West Africa. He is the brother of the late Alex Haley, author of Roots, the international 1970s bestseller that chronicled the life and times of Kinte.

Haley was a descendant of Kinte, who was seized in Gambia and sold into slavery after a brutal Atlantic voyage. Kinte disembarked in Annapolis on Sept. 29, 1767.

George Haley, scheduled as the keynote speaker, said he visited the Gambian river village of Juffureh seven years ago, where Kinte was born. .

"Seven generations later, I came back," he said. "It was emotional. If only Kunta Kinte could see what has happened."

Family, friends and colleagues, including the community leader's widow, Patsy Baker Blackshear, said the story wall dedication is fitting. The story wall adds up to a summary of Blackshear's spirit and lifework,

The 10 plaques, mounted on concrete blocks along the waterfront, each display a quotation from Roots and a philosophical statement on the passage's meaning.

"He would use them in real-life conversations," said Judith Cabral, program director of the Kunta Kinte foundation. Blackshear's often-quoted line from Roots was an exhortation: "Hear me now with more than your ears!"

Other Haley family members are expected to be present tonight, including Julius Haley, a Maryland-based architect and the late author's youngest brother. Chris Haley, his son and director of the legacy of slavery at the Maryland State Archives, will introduce his uncle.

"We'd like to relate Leonard's journey with the journey of Kunta Kinte," Chris Haley said. "It resonates with our family and with everyone in America."

The two-day Heritage Festival will open tomorrow from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is $7 for adults and $3 for seniors and children. Free parking is available on the fairgrounds.

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