Interfaith Pilgrimage arrives D.C. - Wash. Post 7/14/98

peace through reason (
Tue, 14 Jul 1998 09:42:44 -0400

              Taking a Long Walk on the Slave Road

              By John W. Fountain

              Washington Post Staff Writer

              Tuesday, July 14, 1998; Page B01=20

              Drums pounded. The red, black and green African

              Liberation flags flapped in the wind. And the procession

              of about 60 people flowed down Georgia Avenue in

              Northwest Washington yesterday. As they marched, they

              offered up silent prayers.

              Prayers of forgiveness. Prayers for the souls of Africans

              who perished in a different time in a different America,

              when blacks were sold as chattel. Prayers for healing.

              The Interfaith Pilgrimage of the Middle Passage is being

              carried out by about 50 people -- blacks, whites and

              Asians -- assembled from various religious, political

              and social organizations across the country. It is a

              journey that began in May and will lead them down the

              Eastern Seaboard, to the deep South and eventually back

              to Africa.

              "We're collecting the spirits and taking them back home,"

              Mariah Richardson, of St. Louis, said yesterday at

              Lincoln Park in Southeast Washington, where about 100

              people, including the marchers, assembled for an

              afternoon prayer service in the sun. Richardson, 38, said

              she took a year off from graduate school to take part in

              the pilgrimage.

              Washington is the latest stop for the group, which plans a

              number of prayer vigils across the city this week. One

              will be at 10 a.m. today on the Mall. At 7 p.m., the

              pilgrims will stage what they call an African Waterside

              Ancestral Ceremony in West Potomac Park.

              Organizers say that at the root of the pilgrimage is the

              effort to "highlight the relationship between the

              centuries-old Trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the

              conditions of the U.S. and the world today" and to

              "retrace the history of slavery by foot and continue by

              boat, reversing the direction of the Middle Passage."

              "You can't heal the world until you heal yourself," said

              Gregory Dean Smith, 46, of Amherst, Mass., who has

              been with the group since it began the year-long journey

              on Memorial Day. "My rage is directly linked to my

              ancestors' " being enslaved.

              "I could be like any of these brothers sitting around

              poisoning myself to heal the rage," Smith said as he

              passed several black men standing around drinking as

              the walk from an African American bookstore to the park

              in Southeast Washington got underway. "As we heal, I

              think we're sending forth a healing for America and our

              ancestors. I walk for the ancestors."

              Since beginning their journey, Smith and others have

              traveled to other Eastern states, including Rhode Island,

              Connecticut, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania,

              and will eventually tour the deep South, where slavery

              flourished. They have toured sites where African slaves

              were housed or worked and, in some cases, were


              "At some point, we have to face the history honestly and

              then we can move forward," said Marjani Dele, of

              Northeast Washington, who helped organize the

              Washington portion of the pilgrimage. "We haven't done

              that as a nation."

              The group said it chose Washington as a prayer site

              because of its relevance to the history of the slave trade

              in America.

              In Washington's Decatur House in Lafayette Square, for

              instance, African slaves were held captive while waiting

              to be sold to plantations in the deep South, and their

              agonizing screams are said to have often filtered into the

              street. Slavery once thrived in Washington, which served

              as a port for the "black gold" shipped by the boatload to

              Southern states, according to several historical accounts.

              "Until 1808 when, by the terms of the Constitution, the

              importation of African slaves was outlawed, the volume

              of the trade in the District was small," according to an

              account by Constance McLaughlin Green in "Washington

              Village and Capital 1800-1878." "But when cotton

              planters of the deep South could no longer get field

              hands from Africa . . . markets for the surplus of Virginia

              and Maryland plantation owners expanded. . . .

              Gradually the trade in Washington swelled as owners of

              the exhausted soil of the surrounding countryside shipped

              their one profitable crop to dealers at the Potomac port."

              An account in Charles Ewing's "Yesterday's Washington,

              D.C." reads, "Slaves were auctioned weekly from the

              yard of a house barely a block from the White House,

              and the Bowling Saloon on D Street between Eighth and

              Ninth advertised in 1856 for 'six colored boys (slaves

              preferred) to set up ten-pins.' "

              The 50 people who began their journey two months ago

              have walked their prayer route for the most part,

              averaging about 15 miles a day, organizers said.

              Occasionally, they will hop in the vans that carry their

              luggage, or a church or community group will organize

              transportation. They sometimes sleep overnight in

              churches and, on one occasion, in tents, but mostly in

              YMCAs or school gymnasiums. Last night, they stayed at

              a shelter for the homeless.

              Over the next four months, the pilgrims plan to journey

              through the Eastern United States. In November, they are

              scheduled to travel by boat to the Caribbean, retracing

              the path of slave ships, and then travel to Brazil and

              western Africa, where they will again take up the

              journey by foot. They plan to conclude in Cape Town,

              South Africa, next May.

              Yesterday, the walkers made their way from the streets

              to Lincoln Park in the hot sun. The drums and the

              Buddhist priests who are part of the group caught the

              attention of people in the neighborhoods, who pointed

              and stared.

              Arriving at Lincoln Park after about an hour's journey,

              the pilgrims stood on the grass between the statues of the

              Great Emancipator and Mary McLeod Bethune. They

              sang and prayed.

              "I do it to get back to myself," said Kathleen Anderson,

              of Massachusetts.

              And where exactly is that?

              "I'll know that when I get back to Africa," she said,


              Pilgrims Retrace Slave Route

              Members of the Interfaith Pilgrimage of the Middle

              Passage are spending a year retracing the transatlantic

              slave trade route. The trip began on Memorial Day in

              Massachussetts and will end in May 1999 in South

              Africa. The route they will take:

              A look at local events connected to the pilgrimage:


              10 a.m.: Procession on the Mall

              7p.m.: Waterside ceremony, Hains Point


              10 a.m.: Vigil at the World Bank

              7 p.m.: Gospel Requiem at Shiloh Baptist Church, 1500

              Ninth St. NW


              10 a.m.: Memorial walk through Arlington National


              3 p.m.: Vigil at the Pentagon

              For more information, call 202- 543-8050=20

              SOURCE: The Interfaith Pilgrimage of the Middle


                 =A9 Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company


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