December 15, 2004: Headlines: COS - Sierra Leone: Black Studies: Slavery: Narragansett Times: Sierra Leone RPCV Joseph Opala, an anthropologist at James Madison University, has researched the slave trade in Rhode Island

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Sierra Leone: Special Report: Historian and Anthropologist Sierra Leone RPCV Joseph Opala: December 15, 2004: Headlines: COS - Sierra Leone: Black Studies: Slavery: Narragansett Times: Sierra Leone RPCV Joseph Opala, an anthropologist at James Madison University, has researched the slave trade in Rhode Island

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Sierra Leone RPCV Joseph Opala, an anthropologist at James Madison University, has researched the slave trade in Rhode Island

Sierra Leone RPCV Joseph Opala, an anthropologist at James Madison University, has researched the slave trade in Rhode Island

Sierra Leone RPCV Joseph Opala, an anthropologist at James Madison University, has researched the slave trade in Rhode Island

Local students bring lost history of RI slave trade to light



NARRAGANSETT - For years, critics have said that school history books don't shed enough light on the darker periods of United States history, but rather gloss over periods of injustice and struggle for more romantic and positive events.

Tenth graders at Narragansett High School are staring this issue down, and what they're learning is surprising them.

For the past two and a half weeks, the students have been learning about the slave trade and Rhode Island's involvement in it.

Joseph Opala, an anthropologist at James Madison University and a native of Oklahoma, has researched the slave trade in Rhode Island and shared his knowledge with about 100 students on Thursday.

"Newport wasn't just another slave port, it was the slave port," he said. "We know that there were more than 900 trips to Africa from Newport."

Opala spoke to the students both about his research and about the Priscilla Project, a grass-roots effort coordinated by the Rhode Island Black Storytellers to draw attention to Newport's role in the Atlantic slave trade.

The focus of Opala's two-hour speech and slide show was research he had done on Bunce Island, the British slave castle in the African country of Sierra Leone that sent thousands of captives to South Carolina and Georgia in the 18th century, and records he discovered of the Hare, a slave ship owned by William and Samuel Vernon, two wealthy Newport merchants.

Opala found that the Hare's trip from Newport to Sierra Leone to Charleston, South Carolina in 1755 and 1756 was one of the best-documented voyages from a slave ship.

During his research, Opala found financial accounts and letters from the Vernons to the ship's captain and to their slave agent in South Carolina, among other things.

"It's unimaginable that records of this ship still exists," he said. "The people at the New York Historical Society had no idea of the value of these documents. When I told them they were floored."

Aboard the Hare was a 10-year-old girl named Priscilla, for which the project is named.

Edward Ball, author of "Slaves in the Family," is a descendent of a slave-owning family from South Carolina and in his book is a history of slaves owned by his family between 1698 and 1865.

Unlike most slave owners and traders, Ball's family kept detailed records of their slaves. Using the records, Ball discovered that Thomas Martin, a South Carolina resident, was a descendent of Priscilla.

Interest in Sierra Leone started in 1976 for Opala, who went as a Peace Corps volunteer and discovered that Africa's richest history was in the western countries.

"Sierra Leone is not a country that people think has a strong relationship to the U.S.," he said. "Research has shown that it might be the most important country to the U.S."

Opala said thousands of people from Sierra Leone were taken as captives and traded for rice and molasses.

Currently, Opala is organizing a homecoming for Thomalind Martin Polite, a seventh generation descendent of Priscilla that will be made into a documentary for release next year.

During the trip to Sierra Leone, Polite will visit to Bunce Island and according to Opala the government of Sierra Leone has welcomed the attention.

"This is a chance to make something good out of the horror," he said. "Mrs. Polite will be able to do something that millions of Americans only dream of."

To send Polite over, students from three South County schools, Narragansett High, Prout and Moses Brown, are attempting to raise $10,000 by educating other students through presentations and brochures.

Instead of raising the money through large donations, the organizers' wish is that 10,000 people donate $1 a piece.

"It's really a grassroots effort," said Opala. "There's a human interest. If you tell somebody that they should feel guilty for something that happened 200 years ago, you alienate them. It's a way of teaching about history."

Gina Girrama, a history teacher at Narragansett High School, believes the $1 per person donation will help Rhode Islanders make a better connection between the state and its history in the slave trade.

"The more people you educate, the more money you bring in," she said. "It's pretty amazing for us to do this kind of work with the students. It's a once in a lifetime opportunity for them."

Another history teacher at the high school, Kristen Hayes, believes that projects like this and any subsequent attention that is drawn to this topic can be seen as a small way of righting a wrong.

"Reparations doesn't just mean monetary payments," she said. "It can mean educating people so they can understand their history. If you don't even acknowledge what happened, how can you understand the results."

The two and a half-week project will culminate Monday, December 20 at a public presentation at the high school at 7 pm.

Victoria Smurl, 15, one of the presenters on the 20th, said she learned a lot over the past couple of weeks and she was looking forward to educating others.

"I've been getting a lot of people interested. I'm hoping all of the students come and bring people with them," she said. "A lot of people will be surprised with what we have to say."

Opala said projects like this serve a bigger purpose that just reuniting one woman with her ancestors.

"Priscilla is just one little anecdote, but I think in a way Priscilla will become sort of like Anne Frank," he said.

When this story was posted in December 2004, this was on the front page of PCOL:

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Story Source: Narragansett Times

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Sierra Leone; Black Studies; Slavery



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