Remembering a Black Hero
Feb 18, 2011 10:38PM ● Published by Anonymous
From our February 2008 issue - Five children crowd around the statue of Alex Haley, author of the international best selling book Roots. The two children of flesh climb about the author’s likeness and dart to the bronze plaques to learn from their inscriptions. The three children of bronze look to the storyteller Alex Haley as he gestures to the harbor. Parents stand close by, gazing at the memorial and the backdrop of the harbor where once enslaved blacks arrived by ship in colonial times.
Nearby, set at the edge of the dock, ten plaques tell the story represented by the statues, universal lessons of healing and remembrance that inspired Haley’s research for his book, Roots. Across from the City Dock and in front of Market House lays a compass containing a map of the world, with Annapolis at its center. The compass is empty, waiting for visitors to stand atop it and orient themselves in the direction from which their ancestors came to this country.
Heritage tours led by guides in Colonial garb direct visitors among landmarks throughout the city. Boaters and restaurant goers mingle through the bricked streets surrounding the harbor. In an area that sees nearly a million people every year, the three landmarks—statues, plaques, and compass—coalesce to commemorate the landing point of Kunta Kinte, Haley’s literary hero and genealogical forbearer, aboard the Lord Ligonier in 1767.
This is the scene Leonard Blackshear, former president of the Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Foundation, envisioned when he first started working to install a memorial in downtown Annapolis.
“He felt this should be a permanent Ellis Island for people. That this could be a rallying cry for the commonality of all people sharing one history,” says Blackshear’s widow, Patsy Baker Blackshear. “My husband was a strong believer in the idea of all men representing one whole, and to him, the memorial reinforced that idea.”
No longer just a dream of the citizens dedicated to its creation, the memorial has now become an important symbol and emotional touchstone. Judith Cabral, Vice President of Programs and Research at the Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Foundation, stressed the memorial’s universal importance.
“The memorial has become a place of pilgrimage to those who view it as a starting point to their heritage,” she says. “To many, this memorial is the starting point.”
Indeed, recent surveys have ranked the memorial alongside stalwart destinations such as the Naval Academy and the Statehouse. A recent survey by the Annapolis Visitors Center found it as one of the top ten historic attractions in the region.
“Citizens of Annapolis may be too close to the monument, it may feel too new, for them to understand the way the rest of the world sees it,” says Cabral. “Sometimes things are that way.”
In 1979 city officials did not regard the memorial with the enthusiastic quorum of today. Approached by a panel of concerned citizens requesting a plaque be installed at the city dock to commemorate Kinte’s landing, then Mayor John C. Apostal told the Washington Post that Kinte was not an Annapolitan.
The first installment of the memorial occurred two years later, when a newly elected mayor approved the initial request for a plaque. Residents may recall Annapolis’s subsequent and regretful trip through the national press cycle when supposed members of the KKK stole the monument less than 48 hours later.
Haley told The Capital “the theft of the plaque spoke volumes of those who stole it.” The original plaque was never recovered, though concerned citizens raised funds to support its replacement two months later.
The memorial now encompasses the replacement plaque and three other installments. Statues of Haley and three children—a European-American boy, an Asian-American girl and an African-American girl—were unveiled and dedicated in 1999. Their surrounding foundation and a pedestal for the 1981 plaque was installed two years earlier. The final installment included the story wall and a 14-foot inlaid compass in 2002. At the heart of downtown Annapolis the different installments speak in symphony of Haley’s legacy, memorialized in an area seen by many as the symbolic starting point of African-American existence.
“Leonard made a decision and made it happen,” Mrs. Blackshear says. “He always felt it would happen and never doubted it for a minute. That’s all there was to it, really.”
The Annapolis city government unanimously voted to recognize that commitment in 2006 by renaming the story wall in his honor. Mr. Blackshear’s death by multiple myeloma, a cancer of the bone marrow, precipitated that decision. Blackshear’s commitment to reconciliation, however, was not limited to his fight for the memorial.
In 1987 Blackshear founded the Kunta Kinte festival, which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. In 2004, Blackshear organized a symbolic walk for reconciliation. Not one to cringe in the face of controversy, Blackshear’s design was uncompromising. In it, white citizens were bound and chained, subject to representative enslavement. Black citizens playing the role of captors controlled them. The event ended with the emblematic release of the white slaves.
Regarded at various times as a husband, teacher, activist, engineer, businessman, brother, and historian, Mr. Blackshear wore the hat of a unifying orator when asked to explain the significance of the reconciliation and healing walk.
“Racism is a cancer eating away at the American soul,” he said. “This activity is simply one type of chemotherapy that we are looking to apply to that cancer, because we believe the patient can and wants to be healed.”
In retrospect, it’s difficult not to attach Mr. Blackshear’s chosen metaphor regarding the reconciliation walk with his own struggle with cancer. Mrs. Blackshear, however, says there is no relation.
“That was the way [he] saw racism,” she said. “He thought blacks and whites needed to work together or it wouldn’t get solved. He said ‘you can’t resolve anything if you don’t recognize it.’”