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.”
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.
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.
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 symposium at the University began 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.
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.
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.”