February 9, 2021

From Belief Springs Hope

Inspiration from Four African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund Awardees

There are throughlines in history from one point, to the next point, to the next. These connections bind and remind us of our past, for good or for ill. In times of challenge, of need, loss, and fear, we look backwards even as we face forward, searching for solace in what was done before. We seek answers in past solutions and inspiration from what once simultaneously informed and comforted us.

Such is the power of history.

“ We did not feel prepared to be the heirs/Of such a terrifying hour/But within it we found the power/To author a new chapter.”

National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman, “The Hill We Climb”

We move ahead with conviction, and with the belief that what we do matters. Because even in the face of adversity and what seemed like insurmountable odds, there was perseverance, there was determination, there was strength.

For Black Americans, the month of February is a time of acknowledgement and celebration of these stories of remarkable persons, events, and movements—both past and present—that defined not just our own culture, but that of the nation as a whole. We enter this year’s Black History Month with a mixture of wariness and optimism, knowing that those very stories act as beacons of resilience in uncertain times.

Places connected to those stories are more than just sites. They are places with tangible connections to our ancestors. We can walk where they walked. Touch where they touched. We are present and feel their presence in the spaces where they once were too.

We are here today through their struggles and efforts to reclaim and declare their humanity while forging new paths for themselves. Four of our African American Cultural Heritage Fund awardees exemplify this spirit of reclamation and creating community, family, and heritage. As Brent Leggs, executive director of the Action Fund, says, "Across space, geography and time, these historic communities have a story to tell. From slavery to freedom, they tell the American story."

Historic Africatown, Alabama

The community of Historic Africatown was the result of subterfuge. In 1860, a schooner named the Clotilda made its way up the Alabama River near Mobile with a smuggled cargo of 110 human beings in its hold. Upon arrival at its location, it was scuttled and burned to hide the evidence of it illegally being the last ship to transport enslaved Africans to the United States. Its wreck was not re-discovered until 2019.

Upon Emancipation, thirty of those Africans—unable to return home—created a new home for themselves, a self-contained community called Africatown. A UNESCO Site of Memory, West African cultural traditions and language remnants, mostly from present-day Ghana, have been retained by descendants determined to share and preserve the unique history of their town.

University of Nebraska’s Center for Great Plains Studies

Upon Emancipation, with a spirit of independence from being untethered to someone else’s land, many set out across the country into the West to create somewhere new for themselves and their families to live. These freedom colonies can be found across the country, some in places where an African American presence is unexpected. The University of Nebraska’s Center for Great Plains Studies set out to not only identify six African American homesteader sites, including some that had been lost, but to preserve their memory and bring recognition to these forgotten communities.

From Dewitty, Nebraska to Empire, Wyoming; Sully County, South Dakota to the Nicodemus, Kansas NHS, these communities’ stories were retold and acknowledged through historic markers and the creation of a digital archive that was created and donated to the Homestead National Monument of America. Working with descendant communities and other partners across multiple states, the homesteader project helped to rediscover these sites and bring their stories to light, informing future interpretation and the histories in those locales.

Sunrise near the Praise House replica at Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park.

photo by: Katherine Seeber

Sunrise near the Praise House replica in Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park.

Image of a woman, Joycelyn Davis ringing a replica of the bell on the slave ship Clotilda as part of a nationwide bell-ringing ceremony to mark the beginning of slavery in Virginia and the arrival of the last American slave ship in Alabama.

photo by: Africatown Heritage Preservation Foundation

Joycelyn Davis, Clotilda descendant and president of the Clotilda Descendants Association, rings a replica of the slaver Clotilda’s bell during the nationwide bell-ringing ceremony to mark the beginning of slavery at Old Point Comfort, Virginia and the arrival of the last American slave ship in Alabama.

Texas Freedom Colonies Project

From 1865-1920, settlements called “freedom colonies” were founded by formerly enslaved persons throughout Texas. Dr. Andrea Roberts of Texas A&M University saw a need to recognize, document, and identify these places of self-determination and created the Texas Freedom Colonies Project Dr. Roberts saw an opportunity to use ethnographic methods such as oral histories to examine not only the locations themselves, but how descendants of those settlements use grassroots preservation to protect them, such as cemetery maintenance. The Project’s research team has been able to map 357 sites and have discovered over 557 place names, rediscovering and re-affirming these places of memory and heritage once more.

Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park, South Carolina

The last community of hope is Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park, in Hilton Head, South Carolina. In 1866, our nation had just come out of turmoil and war and the newly emancipated saw an opportunity within the country’s reconstruction possibilities to create an independent community. Mitchelville would become the first self-governed town of freepersons in the United States with 3,000 residents at its height in 1868. They elected their own officials, had compulsory education, their own system of law, and negotiated their wages—activities that had previously been denied to them. Their Gullah Geechee descendants are currently contending with development pressures on Hilton Head and other South Carolina (and Georgia) sea islands so important to their culture.

Now a park and archeological site, Mitchelville currently exists as a testament to a time when their ancestors proclaimed self-governance as an achievable right.

In the words of Phylicia Rashad, Action Fund Co-Chair, “historic African American sites across the country are both an embodiment of and testament to excellence and perseverance. They connect generations together and serve as both the creators and chroniclers of achievement in America.”

All of these sites and projects remind us that even during times when we face seemingly insurmountable odds, we often go ahead not knowing what is going to happen next. There is no way to make our prognostications into certainties. We cannot know if the path we’re on will work. But like those before us, we go forward with the knowledge that wherever there is belief, springs hope.

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Lawana is the program officer for the National Trust's African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.

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