By Ron Allen
NBC News correspondent
“They are never going to send us to West Africa!” That’s what I said, a few times, with know-it-all certainty, to producer Amber Payne when she asked if I was interested in working on a couple of feature stories she was looking into in Sierra Leone. I’d been to Africa dozens of times, to cover civil wars, natural disasters, famines and floods. But go there to cover something positive and uplifting? It took a while to get my head around that.
I’m glad I did.
Amber kept pushing. We did our homework. And suddenly, we were off to do three “Making a Difference” stories for NBC Nightly News. First, a story about a Sierra Leone-born NFL player named Madieu Williams, and the amazing humanitarian work he’s doing. A fresh new group of Peace Corps recruits was beginning training there. That turned into a great story, too.
And finally we went to a place called Bunce Island, where a history Professor named Joe Opala, an expert on the trans-Atlantic slave trade, was trying to protect and preserve a very important piece of American history that’s literally slipping into the sea.
I’d never been to one of the old slave trading fortresses, like Cape Coast Castle in Ghana or Goree Island in Senegal, popular destinations for heritage tourists. Bunce Island is different. It is raw and undeveloped. It hasn't been turned into a tourist attraction, not yet at least. Tens of thousands of slaves were shipped directly from Bunce Island, off the coast of Sierra Leone, to South Carolina and Georgia, giving it a unique historical importance for black Americans. It’s a tiny island, no bigger than a few football fields, virtually untouched since the slave trade ended in the late 1800s, a place where it’s been said that, “history sleeps.”
Ron Allen/NBC News
Bunce Island feels haunted. The fortress is crumbling. The walls are over grown with thick vegetation. However, with a bit of imagination and a brilliant guide like Joe Opala, you can easily understand and visualize the horrors that happened there. So many men, women and children were bought, sold and shipped across the sea like animals.
I felt anger. Any human being would. But I made a conscious effort to look forward, not back. I thought about the survivors. I thought about how powerful the human spirit is to have endured such a wretched institution. To this day, I find inspiration in all of that. That spirit that lives somewhere in all of us.
And that’s where we first heard the story of Priscilla, a ten-year-old girl, kidnapped and shipped to Charleston, South Carolina in 1756. We followed the breathtaking paper trail she left behind all the way to Thomalind Martin Polite and her family, who live in Charleston today. It’s an incredible family tree, spread over more than seven generations, pieced together with an astounding collection of “property records” kept by the family that owned Priscilla, and some 4000 other slaves, the Balls. A descendant, writer Edward Ball, found Priscilla while working on his book “Slaves in the Family.”
When we first approached Thomalind and her family about an interview, she respectfully, and firmly declined. She and her husband Antwan have two young children. They both work in the Charleston public school system and they just didn’t want all the attention that national media about their family story would bring. Very refreshing, but not exactly great for us. So we gently and patiently pressed a bit more.
It took many months. They finally agreed after several emails and lengthy phone calls about our trip to Bunce Island, and our discussions with Edward Ball and Joe Opala. Thomalind and Antwan also agreed to share with us the amazing footage from their “homecoming” trip to Sierra Leone and Bunce Island a few years ago. The government there had learned about their story, and Priscilla, and invited Thomalind and her family to come and celebrate.
We’ve worked on this story for many many months. Most TV news stories are done in a day or two, or less. But this story kept growing and getting deeper. And most fortunately, Rock Center launched a few months back, giving us a nice window to tell the story.
Like many African Americans I’ve often wondered, “Where did I come from?” It’s an especially weird feeling to travel in Africa and tell people you’re an “African American.” People there, who have close ties to family and tribe, look at you as if to say, “Can you be a little more specific?”
I know that my father’s side of the family is from Macon, Georgia. My mother’s side is from a little town in North Carolina called Yanceyville, population about 2,000. I’ve heard stories over the years about distant relatives, but never investigated it all for myself. A couple of years ago, I was working just across the border from Yanceyville in Danville, Virginia covering a campaign 2008 event with then Senator Joe Biden. I met someone in the crowd who offered to introduce me to some folks in Yanceyville who would know the history of the community. I never made the time to follow up. Perhaps now I will?
There’s an old saying, that if you know where you’ve come from, there’s really no limit to how far you can go. I think that’s what this yearning to know one’s family story is all about. It’s been a remarkable journey from Sierra Leone to Charleston with Priscilla, the Martins, the Balls and Joe Opala. Especially since it’s a trip that I just knew would never happen.
Editor's note: Our guide, Joe Opala, shared the following links for readers interested in learning more about Priscilla's story.
http://www.charlestonmag.com/pop_archive1.html">Long Journey Home