On a peaceful bike ride on
the other day, a
plaque on a soaring beach memorial intrigued me: “Please help me. In 1859 I was brought to this country when I
was a child…One year ago it was revealed to me to go home back to Africa…And now I beg every one who will please help me…I am an Old African.” It was a plea written to neighbors in 1904 by “Ward Lee”, known as Cilucangy in Jekyll
Island West Africa. He’d survived the Middle Passage on The
Wanderer, the last ship to bring slaves to this country. Slave importing had been outlawed for over 40
years by then but Charles Lamar disguised his ship as a pleasure craft and
brought about 500 captured Africans to the Georgia coast. Over a third died along the way. Cilucangy was bought by an Edgefield, S.C.
landowner where his ability to speak several dialects made him a valuable
interpreter. He was also a master sweetgrass
basket weaver. All of the plantation’s
cotton was gathered in his baskets.
Throughout his life, he yearned to see his homeland again. “…it was revealed to me to go home back to Africa and I have been praying to know if it was God’s
will and the more I pray the more it presses on me to go… I am trying to get
ready if God be with me…” The memorial
is beautiful and the story is poignant but what struck me the most was that it
reminded me of my friend Nakia Wigfall’s story.
She too is a master sweetgrass basket weaver, the fifth generation in her Mt. Pleasant family, as well as a tireless advocate for the history of her craft. Her ancestors were also brought here as slaves from
Africa and like Cilucangy she too had a compelling desire to go
there. “I began to think more about my
ancestors and the land in which they lived.
In my early 30’s I became more and more obsessed and dreamed of what
African would be like,” she remembers.
Like Cilucangy, Nakia sought support to realize her vision. But she used a Go Fund Me page. In short order she raised over $3,000. Then during one of her frequent educational
talks “I shared that I longed to go to West Africa
to see the land and descendants of my people.
A woman was there with her mother.
The mother came to me afterwards and told me about her daughter who is
an airline attendant. ‘You have a ticket!’” Nakia was told. She was astonished. So in May, 2016 she
joined a group of professors and traveled to Senegal. It was a revelation. “The tour guide looked like one of my nephews
and his cousin looked like another one.” She saw living conditions and culture “very similar to mine as a child and through my adulthood.” Her basket making wove cultural connections. One day when her group went sight seeing she stayed behind where some Senegalese women were selling fruits and nuts in the marketplace. “The baskets they had were used to display their merchandise. They were not basket makers. Just like here, not all African Americans from Charleston are sweetgrass basket makers. So I got
out my materials…and started telling the women about my baskets. She didn’t speak English but she was excited
to see that my basket looked similar to the ones the basket makers make
there. We now share a special bond
because I gave her a sweetgrass bracelet to remember out time together.”
After the Civil War Cilucangy became a farmer, married and had four children. He continued to weave his masterful baskets and pass down the skill. Three of his sons still own land in the area and recently hosted their extended family’s 9th biannual reunion which always begin by reciting the names of those who have passed and introducing the new children and spouses who’ve joined the family. “We have a wonderful family, said Mrs. Mitchell, who is one of Ward Lee’s three surviving grandchildren. “ The children are our tomorrow. We want them to understand.”
Cilucangy’s great-great grandson Michael Higgins celebrated the family legacy when he carried a photo of him into the voting booth in 2008. “I carried it with me as I cast a vote for a son of
Africa, who will be this country’s
first African-American president.” It
was around the time of Obama’s first inauguration that the family convened on
to dedicate the memorial. Cilucangy’s
yearning for his homeland was never realized.
He died in 1914. But Darrel
Higgins added an uplifting addendum to his great-great grandfather’s life
story: “Here we are, 150 years after Lee
comes ashore in cuffs and Obama is going to the White House. It says so much about where the nation is and
was. It’s profound.” Jekyll Island
For more about Nakia Wigfall: http://www.sweetgrassgullah.com/home