Eighteen years ago, Tony Akeem organized a ceremony in New York City to honor the millions of Africans who died crossing the Atlantic during the slave trade. Similar observances have since spread around the world.
On Saturday, offerings of water, honey and rum were poured along the shores of South Carolina and elsewhere for Middle Passage Remembrance Day. The remembrance is held the second Saturday in June.
“We must, we must, honor our ancestors,” said Tony Akeem, who has been organizing an observance at Coney Island, N.Y., ever since a 1989 conference on the slave’s brutal trip was held at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he works as a photographer.
The observances have spread from Philadelphia to San Francisco and from Brazil to Ghana. Most were started by people who have attended the New York event, Akeem said.
Saturday marked the 10th year South Carolina was participating in the remembrance. About 100 people gathered at a Fort Moultrie dock on Sullivans Island near Charleston.
Gateway to enslavement
The first slaves arrived in Charleston in 1670, the same year the Carolina colony was created. Historians estimate nearly 40 percent of the millions of slaves brought to what became the United States passed through Charleston. Many others died at sea.
“The stories run pretty strong that there were people who realized they were enslaved and would rather drown than be enslaved and when allowed up on the decks, would just jump into the water,” said Fran Norton of the Fort Sumter National Monument, which includes Fort Moultrie. “It commemorates those people who gave up their lives for freedom.”
Just how many perished in the slave trade will never be known.
“We know that many died of disease because they were packed in the ships like sardines,” said Osei Terry Chandler, a project director at a Charleston education facility who is helping organize the South Carolina memorial.
An offering to the sea
Participants at the ceremonies in New York and South Carolina drizzled water, rum and honey into the waves Saturday. Adjo Palmer, a Ghana native who led the South Carolina ritual, told The (Charleston) Post & Courier that such ceremonies are important in honoring her ancestors.
“We didn’t come here on our own accord. We were brought here,” she said. “So while we are here, we just have to do what we have to do to survive. I thank our ancestors for bringing us this far and ... I pray that we will have unity and strength to go farther than where we are now.”
“Pouring libations is simply to venerate your ancestors,” said Bill Jones, who helps organize the Coney Island ceremony. “It gives the ancestors a cool drink of water, or a little bit of gin or a little bit of rum, whatever you pour the libation with.
“In African spirituality we believe we are in constant contact with our ancestors. They are not someplace in heaven, they are right here with us.”