Libation &  Historic Apology At Amistad Graves

092308_SierraLeone-3.jpg“This is your great-great-granddaughter,” cried the voice by the tombstones. “We are free indeed!”

Those words rang out at the Grove Street Cemetery Tuesday as Sierra Leone met up with New Haven, and the past with the present.

As part of a day recognizing the historic connections between Sierra Leone and New Haven, a visiting delegation from the African country took part in two downtown ceremonies Tuesday morning. The first, held in front of the Amistad statue at City Hall, celebrated the legacy of the famous rebellion and trial of Sierra Leonean slaves who commandeered the slave ship The Amistad. The second, a graveside ceremony in Grove Street Cemetery, recognized the Amistad slaves who died in New Haven.

Upwards of 25 ministers and officials from Sierra Leone were present. Minister of Presidential Affairs Alpha Kanu gave brief remarks in which he apologized for the role that Africans played in the slave trade.

The events drew Sierra Leonean-Americans from as far away as Boston and Washington D.C., including a twice-over candidate for president of the country.

“We Will Rejoice!”

Just inside the Grove Street Cemetery’s main gate ( the one inscribed with the words, “The Dead Shall Be Raised”), there is a small white tombstone bearing the names of six freed Amistad slaves who died while residing in New Haven. Along with dozens of onlookers, the Sierra Leonean delegation gathered in front of this tombstone to honor the memory of these six slaves and their struggle for freedom.

092308_SierraLeone-1.jpgThe ceremony included remarks by David Blight, Yale professor of American History, and Connecticut State Treasurer Denise Nappier, the first African-American woman in the U.S. to hold such an office. Following short Christian and Muslim services, a gravestone libation was performed by Magdaline Mami Gigba (at right in picture, with other members of Tegloma), a representative from Tegloma, an organization of Sierra Leoneans in Boston.

In an impassioned voice, Gigba spoke of the extraordinary spirit of the slaves who revolted on the Amistad, led by Sengbe Pieh. “We have no sorrow, and we are not surprised that Sengbe rose up,” she shouted. “He was a warrior!”

In a mix of Mende (a local language in Sierra Leone) and English, Gigba alternated between addressing the crowd and speaking directly to Sengbe Pieh. “This is your great-great-great-granddaughter that has come here,” she said, turning towards the gravestone. “We greet you. We honor you.” To the crowd, she shouted, “We are free indeed! We are free! We will rejoice!”

Gigba sang a Mende version of “What A Friend We Have In Jesus” and was joined by many members of the audience. She then performed a libation, dripping some water onto the gravestone and flicking drops out over the onlookers, shouting “Peace to you! Joy to you!”

Gigba was not the only Sierra Leonean-American who had come for the event. Catherine Jalloh was up from Bridgeport.

“It’s fantastic!” she said. “It’s amazing!”

092308_SierraLeone-2.jpgIn a position of honor near the speakers’ platform, John Karefa-Smart (center-left in photo) sat with his wife Rena Karefa-Smart (center-right) and two friends, Arthur Pulley (left) and Bernice Cosey Pulley (right). Karefa-Smart, visiting from his home in Washington D.C., is a former minister and member of parliament in the Sierra Leone government. The four distinguished guests have deep connections with Sierra Leone, as well as with Yale University.

After the ceremony, Karefa-Smart said that he twice ran for president in Sierra Leone. He said that he lost both times, in 1996 and 2002, because of corruption but that he was pleased with the results of the recent election. “The new president is one of my men,” he said cheerfully.

Karefa-Smart was proud to introduce his distinguished friends. “This is the second African-American woman to graduate from Yale Divinity School,” he said, indicating Bernice. “And this is the first,” he said, pointing to his wife. Introducing Arthur Pulley, Karefa-Smart said, “He’s the oldest living black alumni of the Yale Law School.”

Chewing gum nearby was Rena Karefa-Johnson, Karefa-Smart’s granddaughter and a senior at Yale concentrating on African-American studies and political science.

Apology Accepted

092308_SierraLeone-4.jpgStanding in for the absent president of Sierra Leone, Minister of Presidential Affairs Alpha Kanu spoke a few words at the end of the graveside ceremony. He took the opportunity to offer an apology for the role of Africans in the transatlantic slave trade.

“I think we Africans owe an apology to our people,” he said. “We were the cause.” To murmurs of agreement from the crowd he explained that the European slave traders hadn’t gone into villages to capture slaves. Instead, the slaves were captured by other Africans and sold to the Europeans.

“And for once I think someone should apologize,” Kanu continued. Reading off the six names on the gravestone, Kanu said “Fa, Tua, Weluwa, Kapeli, Yammoni, Kaba, we are sorry.”

“We accept the apology,” said Al Bartell after the ceremony. Bartell is a mediator and management consultant who said that he has been working with the Sierra Leone government on ensuring free and fair elections in the country. He said that he was accepting the apology on behalf of all African-Americans.

Bartell said that he’d never previously heard such an apology. “No one has done this before,” he said. “And the fact that it was done here, at the Amistad site, makes it all the more meaningful.”

Bartell said that he was going to spread the word “to all 50 states” that “the apology has been made and accepted.”

Asked for his opinion of the apology, John Karefa-Smart said, “It was good for him to say that but he doesn’t know the real history of slavery.” Karefa-Smart said that slavery had originated in East Africa with the Arabs and then “spread to our part of the world.”

“But it was a good thing to apologize,” he said. “It was a good point.”

Tom Ficklin took these videos of the day’s events.

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posted by: Chris Gray on September 27, 2008  1:53pm

I am certainly not the first one in this area to focus on this story, but here is my history with it.

Way back in 1972, while waiting for a dental appointment (one of my last for many years) I read an article in Yankee Magazine about the Amistad and was inflamed with inspiration.  It wasn’t until February of 1977, during our celebration of Black History Month at WYBC (where I was the newly drafted Public Affairs Director), when I finally was able to share my excitement by retelling the tale (with plenty of inaccuracies, I’m sure) in a piece replayed on air regularly during the month.

As my old “partner in crime” (as she called us) at the Elder newspaper, Rita Reutter, could vouch for, I spent much time and effort in the ‘80s trying to foster interest by local officials, entertainment personalities who passed through town (writing two letters to James Earl Jones on the same sheet of paper) and, basically, anyone who would listen in the idea that this story could make a great movie.

I even found a script, meant to be partially translated into the Mendi language, by a Yale playwriting student named Dennis Lynton Smith in the New Haven Colony Historical Society and that Yale then owned (er, employed) a Mendi expert.

Spielberg did not make the movie I envisioned but I was touched, while finally seeing the film and reading the credits, that someone named Christopher Gray worked on it though, now that I check IMDb, he’s decided to be just Chris.

I wanted to play the Spanish cook who fired the mutiny with a stupid cannibalism joke, a story left untold by that movie.  Plus, I could not have avoided the story of the return home to a devastated village.  Freedom may well mean having nothing more to lose.