Sierra Leone to South Carolina: Priscilla’s Homecoming Part 3 – A Story for the Ages
by Andrew Jenner
“The story has legs. It’s going to be told over and over again.” –Anthropologist Joseph Opala
In the summer of 2008, Nobel laureate Toni Morrison stood on the shore of Sullivan’s Island on the South Carolina coast. She held a wreath of yellow daisies commemorating the hundreds of thousands of enslaved Africans brought this small island at the entrance to Charleston Harbor – the single largest port of entry for African slaves in North America.
At Morrison’s side was Thomalind Polite, an elementary school speech therapist from Charleston with a direct, personal connection to the place: Polite’s great-great-great-great-great-grandmother, Priscilla, was a 10-year-old African girl brought on a slave ship to Sullivan’s Island in 1756.
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Hundreds looked on as Polite, Morrison and the actress Phylicia Rashād of the “Cosby Show” waded into the water together and released the wreath. Polite wept as it floated out of reach, overcome by the symbolism of the moment and the suffering it recalled.
Polite had been in similar positions before. As members of the only black family in the country known to have an unbroken document trail leading back to Africa, Polite and her ancestor Priscilla have become representatives of slavery’s tragic and murky history, and points of personal connection for millions of African-Americans who will never be lucky enough to learn precisely when and where their ancestors arrived on this continent.
Polite first learned about her ancestor Priscilla in the 1990s, when the writer Edward Ball, a descendant of the South Carolina rice planter who bought Priscilla, was researching his acclaimed book Slaves in the Family. In 2004, the family’s documented history was pushed back all the way to Africa when a historian named Joseph Opala found the records of the slave ship that brought Priscilla to North America. The following year, Polite visited Sierra Leone, to symbolically return Priscilla’s spirit home. That visit – known as “Priscilla’s Homecoming – was a major national event in Sierra Leone. (Read more about the document trail connecting Polite and Priscilla here; read more about Thomalind’s trip to Sierra Leone here).
The story did not end with the homecoming to Africa, though. Since her return, Polite has shared her story with audiences of school children and community groups in South Carolina and Rhode Island – the home base of The Hare, the slave ship that carried Priscilla from Africa – and has participated in several symbolic events like the wreath placing with Morrison.
Even more, her story has inspired many others people interested in learning more about their own past and its relationship to slavery in the United States.
“The story has legs. It’s going to be told over and over again,” said Opala, who often speaks on the topic himself.
One ambitious result of the Priscilla story is an effort by the University of South Florida’s Africana Heritage Project to trace the genealogies of all the Ball family slaves. Several generations of Balls owned about 4,000 slaves, including Priscilla, in the 18th and 19th centuries, according to Toni Carrier, the project’s director.
Carrier, who launched the project after she’d heard about Opala’s discovery of The Hare’s records, said her team is nearing its goal of extending the slaves’ lineages forward to about 1870, allowing living descendants of those slaves to trace their family histories back through their enslavement by the Ball family, which kept unusually detailed plantation records.
Once the lineages are complete, African-Americans all over the country will be able to find out if they too are descended from Priscilla, or one of her fellow slaves on the Ball plantations. Carrier estimated that Priscilla alone could have at least 25,000 living descendants.
“There’s no telling who is going to find themselves and their family in these lineages,” Carrier said. “It’s going to have enormous significance.”
Polite is as excited as anyone that the day will come soon when she’ll discover distant family also descended from Priscilla.
“Right now I feel like I’m the only one out there, but I know I’m not,” said Polite. “Having another person out there like me would be really nice.”
Priscilla’s story also continues to have an impact in Rhode Island. After Opala found the ship’s documents, the state’s leading newspaper, TheProvidence Journal, ran a series about the state’s role in Priscilla’s fate.
Paul Davis, the reporter who wrote that series, then accompanied Polite to Sierra Leone and to write about Priscilla’s Homecoming.
Encouraged by strong reader reaction to those stories, Davis wrote a wider ranging, seven-part series for his paper that explored Rhode Island’s extensive involvement in the Atlantic slave trade, chiefly as the home port for slave ships like The Hare.
“I still get emails every month about the series,” said Davis, who said readers were “astounded” to learn how important the slave trade was in the state’s history.
The renewed interest in the Rhode Island’s important, and often overlooked, role in the slave trade has inspired archaeologists, genealogists and other historians to conduct further research on the topic. Davis is also at work on a book about Priscilla’s Homecoming, showing how slavery connected Rhode Island, South Carolina and West Africa.
But above all, Priscilla’s story resonates the strongest on a personal level.
“It gives encouragement to people of African descent who are trying to find their [own] roots, because it shows that’s it’s possible to do that,” Opala said.
Priscilla’s personal tragedy – taken forever from her home as a young girl – struck Anita Singleton-Prather, a performer who educates audiences across the country on the Gullah people, African-Americans from coastal South Carolina and Georgia. Singleton-Prather, who performs as a Gullah woman named “Aunt Pearlie Sue,” begins her shows with a reenactment of Priscilla’s story – that of one single child, representative of countless others.
“Every child can relate to [another] child being kidnapped,” she said. “We need to keep telling this story.”