“The Happenings of a Wild African Boy” Preacher & Missionary

Born in Central Africa, young Isaac Bland was just a boy of about fourteen when he was captured by African slave traders and brought to the shores of the Congo. He was quickly traded along the sandy coastland to a brilliant ship that went under the disguise of a “pleasure yacht”.

It was the notorious slaver, Wanderer.

In 1858, these precious souls were separated from their families and stolen from their homeland. Their identities reduced to servitude.  However, young Isaac was determined to regain it and shared it more than 50 years after his capture. This young boy turned Preacher and Missionary, still wanted to know what happened to the treasured memories of his youth and wrote a letter that would forever preserve his legacy.

Some of Isaacs first experiences here on this Continent must have been confusing and frightening.  He was displayed to a crowd of onlookers in the amphitheater of the South Carolina State Agricultural Fair that gathered to witness the charge given by Col. A.M. Hunt for a “fine African specimen”.  Hunt had offered the winner the premium of a beautiful silver goblet..  Dr Bland of Edgefield, S.C soon approached with the most attractive, newly imported childen.  A young African boy named Isaac, the other, his shipmate, Napoleon. Their worth was reduced to the value of silver drinking vessel.

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It would be years later, 1890, that Isaac would finally write back to the Bland’s to tell them about the happenings of his life.   He lived with the Bland’s for a few years, ultimately to be sold away to by slave Traders . He traveled across the South to Waco , Texas, and Isaacs young life again was assigned a value.  One thousand fifty dollars.

He certainly had many reasons to have his heart grow bitter.  His heart could have felt anger towards God. However, with a deep faith in His justice, Isaac focused on what “God has done, and not what He has not done”.  In his own words he tells how he lived out a true spirit of perseverance under persecution and held a heart that reflected love verses animosity:

Just as I had clung to this scripture since the beginning of my journey into their lives, Isaac’s heart reflected 2 Corinthians 4:7-11

“But we have this treasure in jars of clay,  that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. We are hard pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed. —

His letter is moving.  His accomplishments far reaching.

I have been married for 24 years and have one boy 18 years old and am trying to be a good Christian.  I was baptized in 1876, as a Baptist, was licensed to preach in Nov 15, 1879 and advanced to the full work of the ministry May 6, 1883.  I have been a missionary of the Willow Grove Association for 4 years, Missionary of the Wares District Sunday Sunday School Convention and have been pastor of Seven churches including the one I have now. 

By their work ye shall know then says the good book. ….I am expecting to be sent back to my native Africa to carry the glad tidings of salvation.”

         Rev. Isaac Bland, Waco Texas ,1890

 His letters is where Isaacs story ends.  I searched tirelessly for him on indexes like Ancestry.com and others, only to find that he disappears from Waco, City Directories after 1896.  I have prayed that he had the chance to see home again. Just as Ward Lee prayed….to return to Africa.  His home.

This project has been a remarkable journey and each day has offered new discoveries- certainly today wasn’t the exception.  I just hung up with Descendant Fred Morton when I decided to spend my last few minutes before my children came home from school, looking for Isaac Bland.  Logging on to Ancestry.com and scrolling through the Public Family Trees, I found one which included Isaac Bland’s, son , Horrace Bland.  I stopped to stare for a few moments and my fingers quickly sent a message with a brief explanation and my cell number.

My phone rang just a few moments later from Isaac Bland’s descendant Michael Linville.

I can’t explain the feeling when I first hear the voice or see the face of one of the Wanderer descendants. It’s almost like finding a long lost family member of my own. After forty-five minutes explaining all of this to Michael, a man who had never heard Isaacs name, he acknowledged the well known difficulty that African American researchers face where documents are scarce. He knew little about the family, and indicated he was a distant relative. Nonetheless, Michael was honored to have this connection and to be Isaac Bland’s representative.

The phone rang an hour later and it was Michael again apologizing for the interruption.  He had found Isaac. Sadly, he found he had died just shortly after his letter was written in 1898 and was buried in First Street Cemetery, Waco Texas.  I didn’t know whether to cheer or cry.

I assured him we now had a place of rest for our dear Isaac.  I offered the hope we could place a plaque on his grave to commemorate that he was part of this special group who was favored, and that endured.

Isaac’s line died out shortly thereafter.  His only son had 2 young children who died and his wife followed just a few years later. At age 22.

Although Isaac braved with great pains, he was one that had overcome. With this knowledge, I’m going to find the perfect most polished silver Goblet and have it engraved to honor the Reverend Isaac Bland.  And to dear Michael?  Of course I will give him the gift of what started this all……. a Face Jug.

 

“Where I Come From…” The University of GA Wanderer Symposium

     Ward Lee’s family came into the room and presented me with a black baseball cap and a white tee-shirt that said “Ward Lee Family Reunion”, “From Slave Ship, to Cruise Ship.”

The Lee family meets with Fred Morton, descendant of Yango Lanham another Wanderer Survivor

The Lee family meets with Fred Morton, descendant of Yango Lanham another Wanderer Survivor

I accepted with delight as Pat Bishop, Ward’s Great Great Grand-daughter told me I was “officially part of the Lee family”.  I couldn’t have been more proud.  Later during this weekend’s symposium in Athens at the University of Georgia, Professor Wayde Brown, Associate Professor in the College of Environment and Design, gave a great presentation about the history of Africville, Novia Scotia and how the power of place, the power of word and the power of an object can make an extraordinary impact.

The power of place started in Athens and it began with the breaking of bread. Well actually, it was oysters and fried calamari. It was a rather remarkable thing to me, to be sitting across the dinner table, sharing a meal with the family of Ward Lee and Yango Lanham. Here I was, passing plates and sharing stories with Ocea Barns, the 92 year old Grand-daughter (yes, there is no great in there) and the others.  It feels like yesterday I held the Wanderer’s photographs in my hand and wondered with a far off curiosity, of where they were and what may have happened to them.  There I was now, having dinner with their families. Fred led us in prayer and in the giving thanks.

Dinner before the symposium

Dinner before the symposium

It wasn’t long before the power of word came into discussion. Memories began to flow as easily as the sweet tea and key lime pie. Fred Morton, descendant of Yango grew up in North Augusta not far from Trenton SC where the Lee family resided. Neither had ever met until this dinner despite their deep-rooted connections.  It was an evening filled with conversation, emotion and sharing. We conversed about Ward Lee, Yango, and the tribes and valleys of Madimba, Africa. We talked about family and the spirit of perseverance. “We all need to go back…to Madimba” Bishop stated.  We all nodded in agreement.

I described the Kongolese religious beliefs of the ancestors and the Southern folk practices of “conjure”.  I leaned over to Ocea and asked if she knew anything about it.

Mark Newell Presenting at UGA

Mark Newell Presenting at UGA

She took a long pause, and carefully answered, “Sure, but I don’t know how those people were able to do the things they did, putting spells on people, but I sure heard of it.”

One by one, each began to share their own tales and recollections of conjure practices in their communities. Fred made us laugh about the fears of our hair getting taken from our hairbrushes or an adversary securing clippings of our fingernails.

“Oh , you sure don’t want that!” one declared.

Cousin Barbara Butler gave a loud chuckle and added that she had never had an open forum like this to talk so openly about such things.

The Lee and Lanham Descendants

The Lee and Lanham Descendants share their history

The symposium at the University began with Mark Newell laying the foundations of the Archeology of the face jug tradition and I followed with sharing the collective stories of the Wanderer Survivors. Afterwards, Ocea, Pat, Fred and Janette all took the stage to answer questions.

The audience seemed to be in awe that they were in the presence of people that had descended from survivors of a slave ship and had a tangible history to share.

An informative talk by John Hunter shared Jekyll Island’s history and the island’s future mission which will be to include the Wanderer episode both in place and story.

This was followed by a gallery tour of “Face Jugs, Art and Ritual in 19th Century South Carolina.” The power of object was clearly seen when curator, Dale L. Couch had the room captivated by his invitation to view the face jugs as a means of resistance and cultural perseverance. Slowly we all walked around each piece and contemplated their curious expressions, looks that almost seemed to shout to us of their intentions.

Valerie Babb, Head of African American Studies UGA

Valerie Babb, Head of African American Studies UGA

Exaggerated ears, protruding tongues and grinning Kaolin mouths and eyes – all roared with a message. They could see, they could speak and they certainly wanted us to listen.

Valerie Babb, the Director of African American studies at UGA had organized a momentous event. She and Kendra Wilkinson (a shout out to the behind the scenes hard work!) organized a wonderful event, the symposium, luncheon and gallery tour.  So, it was only fitting it ended with a gift.  Edgefield Master Potter, Gary Dexter had been commissioned ahead of time to create three face jugs to honor the event.  We hushed our voices while we presented Ward Lee’s granddaughter, Ocea with a face jug with an inscription of hope.  Fred Morton was the second recipient and we finally thanked Valerie Babb with another jug.

Presenting Ocea with a face jug

Presenting Ocea with a face jug

The face jugs have something to say, but Ocea had seized the theme of the day.  I leaned over at the end of the event and she smiled and said, “I’ve never been so proud.”