Sierra Leone to South Carolina, Part 2: The Homecoming
by Andrew Jenner
Photos by Idriss Kapange
“Nothing could have prepared me for [that] level of excitement. I just felt like I was talking to my long lost cousins … I had no strangers there. –Thomalind Martin Polite
The road to Dunkegba – a small village on the Atlantic coast of Sierra Leone – was lined with children. Dressed in green school uniforms, hundreds of them welcomed Thomalind Polite with a song:
Home again, home again
When shall I see my home?
When shall I see my native land?
I shall never forget my home.
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Arriving in the village, Polite was treated to hours of dancing, singing, drumming and an outpouring of joy at Priscilla’s return to her native continent.
Her visit to Africa in the summer of 2005 was the first time that Polite, from Charleston, S.C., had ever been farther than Tennessee. And yet, it was a homecoming for Polite, the seventh-generation direct descendant of young girl named Priscilla who was sold as a slave to a South Carolina rice planter in 1756.
A year before Polite’s visit to Sierra Leone, an American historian named Joseph Opala discovered documents from the slave ship that took Priscilla to South Carolina. Through plantation records uncovered by the writer Edward Ball, Polite’s family had already known they were descended from Priscilla. But Opala’s discovery, which added new detail to the story of Priscilla’s journey from Africa, put Polite’s family in a unique position – experts on African-American genealogy say they’re probably the only black family in the U.S. with an unbroken document trail leading all the way back to Africa.
Opala, who had organized previous “homecomings” to Sierra Leone for Gullah people from South Carolina and Georgia, arranged the weeklong visit for Polite, her husband Antawn, and a small group of American scholars and journalists.
From the moment her plane landed, Polite was treated like a celebrity. During her visit she attended a reception with Sierra Leone’s president, met many other prominent people and received extensive media coverage. The homecoming also generated intense enthusiasm throughout the country.
“Nothing could have prepared me for [that] level of excitement,” Polite said. “I just felt like I was talking to my long lost cousins … I had no strangers there.”
Many Sierra Leoneans even called her “Priscilla” – reflecting their belief, Opala said, that she was returning home the spirit of her ancestor taken away nearly 250 years before.
In addition to the events in Freetown – Sierra Leone’s capital – and the trip to Dunkegba village, Opala led Polite on a tour of Bunce Island, the site of an 18th century British slave-trading outpost.
Opala’s research shows that the ship that took Priscilla to South Carolina almost certainly stopped at Bunce Island, though Priscilla may have been purchased elsewhere along the coast. In the remains of the prison that once held women and children bound for slavery, Polite was overcome with sadness at the way Priscilla and so many others were torn from their families forever.
But the homecoming was mostly a joyful experience for Polite and her hosts. Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war had ended only three years earlier, and many Sierra Leoneans viewed Priscilla’s homecoming as a sign of favor from their ancestors, indicating better days ahead.
“I was just so overwhelmed and overcome with how excited people were,” Polite said. “All I could do was smile.”
After an intense, emotional week, Polite flew back home to South Carolina, but the experience lives on. Polite continues to share her stories with friends and family, and receives invitations to speak before local community groups. She also still receives phone calls and emails from friends she made in Africa.
“People are still keeping that bond going,” Polite said. NEXT: READ PART 3