By Carol Antman for The Island Connection
On a peaceful bike ride on Jekyll Island in Georgia 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 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 Mount Pleasant family, as well as a tireless advocate for the history of her craft. Her ancestors were also brought here as slaves from West 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 30s 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 unlike Cilucangy, she was able to use 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.
In May, 2016 she joined a group of professors and travelled 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 sightseeing 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 ninth 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 Jekyll Island 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.”
Roadtrips Charleston highlights interesting destinations within a few hours drive of Charleston, S.C. as well as more far flung locales. Carol Antman’s wanderlust is driven by a passion for outdoor adventure, artistic experiences, cultural insights and challenging travel. For hot links, photographs and previous columns or to make comments please see peaksandpotholes.blogspot.com.