NAACP’s Historic Trip to Ghana Was Transformational

I was fortunate to be able to participate in the Jamestown to Jamestown journey with the NAACP in August as we commemorated the 400th year of Africans arrival in America, landing in the English settlement to be named Jamestown, Va.

We’ve got to be very clear about this. That’s when the White Lion pirate ship arrived at Point Comfort near Jamestown. At that time, there was already a thriving African slave trade going on in other parts of North and South America for at least 200 years before 1619. But three weeks after the first governance meeting in the American colonies, a ship showed up in Jamestown, Va., with “20-odd Africans” as captives on it. That's how they counted us — an inhumane rough estimate of disrespect.

Several busloads of us gathered together at the national site in Jamestown. We were African Americans, Native Americans and White people walking together, about a quarter-mile or so, in the hot August sun. We gathered there in Jamestown, and we recognized and acknowledged our ancestors and the moment that we were in. We collected water from the James River from where that first ship came in, and we kept that with us on our journey the whole time we were traveling to Jamestown in Accra, Ghana, and back. We wrote notes to our ancestors and burned them in a bonfire so that our words and smoke could be lifted up in a way that is appropriate for African peoples, to talk to the past and envision the future.

The next morning, we got on the plane to Accra. The first thing I noticed when we got off the plane was that Ghana was breezy, not steamy and humid as I expected. There were drummers and dancers who welcomed us as we boarded buses that took us to the president’s palace, the Jubilee House.

We swung by Jubilee House, which is Ghana’s version of the White House. We stood in front of Jubilee House and took several pictures together. And then somebody looked at the Jubilee House and said, "That looks familiar." It was full of the Ghanaian Adinkra symbols on it. And it was familiar!

The architect who designed Jubilee House, Ghanaian David Adjaye, also designed the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. The two buildings resembled each other in style and it was a magnificent indication of our connection to Africa.

Last year, at the United Nations when our NAACP leaders met with leaders of African nations, the president of Ghana, Mr. Nana Akufo-Addo, mentioned a Year of Return.

During our visit, Addo hosted a welcoming ceremony for the NAACP delegation and the chiefs of all the tribes of Ghana were there. Ghana is a very interesting place because when you say "chiefs," you think of men, right? The Ashanti Kingdom is matriarchal, and so the queen of the Ashantis was there alongside the queen mothers, chiefs and other tribal elders.

The Ghanaian leaders greeted us by saying, “Akwaaba” (welcome) and shook all of our hands. And that's how our trip began. There were nearly 300 of us. We were the largest delegation up to that point for Ghana’s Year of Return.

A number of us attended a business summit to help us understand the economy and the future economy of Ghana. The country is working toward going away from an individual, self-employed way of sustaining each individual household, each kingdom that's there, toward an economy that focuses on manufacturing and food production efforts. Ghana is rich in land and soil and has the opportunity to be the bread basket of the world. There was also a labor summit where NAACP President Derrick Johnson spoke alongside other labor leaders from the U.S. and several African nations.

We toured Accra, and visited Kwame Nkrumah's Memorial site. We were told that in 1957, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was in the audience when Nkrumah pronounced that Ghana had regained independence from Britain. We went to the home of W.E.B. DuBois, one of our founders, and walked through his library, stood in his bedroom, saw where he lay in state beside his wife [Shirley Graham DuBois]. In his home we could feel not only the fierce intellectual energy of DuBois, but also the love that he felt for his wife.

Interestingly enough, the Marcus Garvey guest house was located behind the W.E.B. DuBois Center. Both buildings were one block from the American Embassy. We were welcomed everywhere we went in Ghana. The only place that I didn't feel welcome was in our own American Embassy. There were big walls all around it. Its tall exterior walls were plastered with threatening signs that said, “Don't take pictures. Don't loiter.”

While traveling in Accra I was fascinated to see Haile Selassie Street, named for the last emperor of Ethiopia. It was near Sekou Toure Street, named for the first president of the Republic of Guinea, and both were near Liberation Way. We saw all of that in the first few days in Accra!

There was so much more to see and learn. In southern Ghana’s Cape Coast our guides provided vivid descriptions of what happened at the Assin Manso “Last Bath” Slave River. After our ancestors were marched hundreds of miles, they were bathed in the river, oiled up and fed so they looked good. Then they were branded with hot irons before they were sold and put into slave dungeons.

We walked through those same waters in a single-file line, as historian, scholar and NAACP board member Rev. Amos Brown led us in singing Wade in the Water. I wept as we gathered water from the river just as we had done in Virginia. We walked through the river and when we came out of that water, we wrote notes to our ancestors. Once again, we put them in a bonfire lifting our words in spiritual smoke. The day before, we stood in the the slave dungeons.

If you can imagine standing in the same dungeons that our ancestors stood in, and they had to stand because there were no seats. There were no toilets. There were no tables, no cots, no beds.

Think of what our ancestors endured: Standing inside rock stone dungeons that were built under a church and waiting 90 days in darkness for a ship to come and take them away. Standing as food was thrown to them from a perch and catching that food before it hit whatever.

And, for me, standing there and being in that moment was hard. It was very hard. I left salty, hot tears behind in Ghana and never wiped one away.

That night, as the sun set on the Atlantic Ocean, we witnessed more than 40 of our fellow travelers learn the results of their DNA tests, which told what tribe or ethnic group they belong to and which country their ancestors may have come from in Africa. The smiles and the hugs from this ancestry reveal was uplifting.

Remembering these moments will give us a better understanding of our history. By some estimates, 270 million people were captured from Africa and brought to the Americas. About 180 million did not survive, and about 12.5 million made it to these United States. The rest were mostly sent to Brazil and the Caribbean by Portuguese slave traders, 200 years prior to 1619.

These historic moments help us understand why we do our civil rights work. We represent the Middle Passage survivors whose DNA outlived the inhumane treatment of the past. And our struggle has improved this country in so many different ways. Our struggle has helped those who have immigrated to the U.S. Our struggle has helped those from different ethnicities, different religions and different places. The European settlers did not appreciate our contributions. But we made it easier for them too.

Our work is not done. The struggle continues. Freedom is not free. Justice is not always just and a piece of peace is not enough.

I continue to reflect on the Jamestown to Jamestown experience. And when I look at the two vials of water sitting on my desk, I am reminded of the Sankofa principles from Ghana that tell us to look to our past to plan our future. That’s what we did on the Jamestown to Jamestown adventure. It was a historic journey, and I think the ripple effects will be felt for a long time.

Dwayne Proctor, PhD, is the NAACP Foundation board chair and senior adviser to the president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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