THE RITES of ANCESTRAL RETURN
September – October 2003
By Sherrill D. Wilson, Ph.D.
More than 10,000 people came together in eight cities over a period of five days to pay final tribute to the ancestral remains of 419 African men, women and children en route to reburial at the landmark 18th century NY African Burial Ground. The “Rites of Ancestral Return” ceremony began at Howard University’s Rankin Hall at 6:00 pm on September 30,2003.
The ceremonies were facilitated by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, under the leadership of Dr. Howard Dodson. The ancestral remains of four representatives–a man, woman, girl and boy– traveled from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore, Md., to Wilmington, Del., to Philadelphia, Pa., and to Camden, Newark and Jersey City, N.J. for a series of commemorative tributes. In Baltimore, a noon tribute ceremony was held at Willard A. Allen Masonic Temple on Wednesday, October 1, 2003, followed by a 6:00 pm ceremonial procession. In Wilmington, a 7:15 pm tribute ceremony was held at Mother African Union Church. On Thursday, October 2, 2003, an 11:00 am tribute ceremony was held at Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church in Philadelphia followed by a libation and prayer ceremony in Congo Square. At 6:00 pm, a tribute ceremony began at Bethel Baptist Church in Newark.
On the morning of Friday, October 3, 2003, the flotilla carrying the ancestral remains departed Jersey City after a brief prayer tribute.
The remains arrived in N.Y. on Friday, October 3, at the foot of Wall Street, the former location of the 18th century “Slave Market.” The arrival ceremony, held at the Wall Street Pier, was attended by approximately 400 people along with libation, drumming, song, prayers and greetings from spiritual, community and political leaders and celebrities. The program co-hosts for the historic occasion were actors Phylicia Rashad and Delroy Lindo.
Speakers included: Dr. Kofi Asare Opoku, Rev. James Forbes, Rev. Herbert Daughtry, N.J. Secretary of State Regena Thomas, N.Y. Secretary of State Randy Daniels, Hon. David Dinkins, GSA Administrator Stephen A. Perry, N.Y.C Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Congressman Charles Rangel, State Senator David Paterson, Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields, Councilman Charles Barron, Council Speaker Gifford Miller, The Descendants of the Afrikan Burial Ground, Drs. Jackson Cole, Michael Blakey, Howard Dodson, Sherrill D. Wilson (OPEl) and others.
Musical tributes were offered by the Eli Fountain and International Percussion, The Boys Choir of Harlem, The Girls Choir of Harlem and The Ebony Brass Ensemble.
Following the N.Y. Wall Street Tribute ceremony, the four ancestral remains embarked on an African Burial Ground five-borough tour. At the landmark African Burial Ground site an overnight, commemorative vigil was held featuring the Medgar Evers College Imani Dance and
Drum Ensemble and many others.
On Saturday, October 4, the pre-tribute ceremony for the reburial was held at Foley Square in Lower Manhattan beginning at 10:00 am. This pre-tribute ceremony began with song and dance. The performing artists included: the Total Praise Ensemble, Emmanuel Baptist Church, the Olive Pointer-Noel Pointer Foundation, violinist Sa-Idah, dancer Derick K. Grant and the Ebony Ecumenical Ensemble.
The final tribute ceremony began at 11 :00 am and included a host of celebrities and clerical and spiritual leaders. A libation was poured by Dr. Kofi Asare Opoku followed by a Call to Celebration of Life by Rev. Dr. James Forbes, Sr. of the Riverside Church. Interfaith Prayers were offered by Heru Ankh’Ra Semahj Se Ptah, Iman Bin- Yousef, Dr. Ephraim Isaac and Rev. Wendell Foster. Celebrity participants included Avery Brooks, Maya Angelou, Cicely Tyson, Delroy Lindo and Phylicia Rashad. Musical tributes were offered by The Girls Choir of Harlem, The Boys Choir of Harlem and the NY- based Tribute Mass Choir, which included choirs of Bethany Baptist Church, Christ United Church, Concord Baptist Church in Christ, Convent Avenue Baptist Church, Emanuel Baptist, The Crusaders, Evening Star Baptist Church, The Riverside Church- Inspirational Choir, the Ebony Ecumenical Ensemble and the Broadway Inspirational Voices.
Dance tributes included performances by the Marie Brooks Pan-Caribbean Children’s Dance Company and the Alvin Ailey/Fordham BFA Program in Dance students. Other noted speakers included Dr. Adelaide Sanford, Rev. Herbert Daughtry, Rev. Carolyn Holloway, Marta Vega and Cannon Frederick Williams. A poetic tribute was offered by 5-year-old Autum. The program concluded with a song from the Tribute Mass Choir and closing prayers.
Shortly after 2:30 pm, the first of seven crypts containing the coffins of 419 ancestral remains was descended into the earth. Chief Alagba Egunfemi Adegbolola offered final prayers and
sacred offerings as the crypts descended, amidst the tears, prayers, song and drumming of the throngs of living descendants who sought to reach out and touch for the last time the coffins of the African men, women and children who lived and died helping to build New York.
Between 3:00 and 5:00 pm, the final farewell was made to those African ancestors whose remains were excavated in 1991-92. Their lives and untimely deaths serve as a painful reminder to all of us of the sacrifices and hardships endured by Africans in Colonial-era New York.
(by Dr. Sherrill D. Wilson, Ph.D)