It’s not unusual for descendants of immigrants in the United States at some point to look for their roots in the country their parents or grand parents came from. Meet a young man who reverses this pattern. This immigrant from Liberia searches for his roots in the American South, where his ancestor, an African prince, was held in slavery in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Artemus Gaye was thirteen in 1990 when a civil war in Liberia forced his family to flee the capital, Monrovia, to his great-great-grandmother’s home in the western part of the country. The old lady took advantage of the curfew that was imposed in the region to gather the children in the evenings and, in the African oral tradition, tell them stories about their ancestors.
“My great-great-grandmother decided to just use the opportunity to share stories about the family. It was something that I was reluctant to hear, because all I wanted to do was to go out and play soccer.”
However, Artemus Gaye says that eventually he found himself becoming interested. And so he learned about Abd Rahman Ibrahima, the warrior prince, who was captured by a rival tribe and sold into slavery in America. Forty years later, Ibrahima and his wife Isabella returned to Africa with the first boatload of freed American slaves who went on to establish the country of Liberia. As Artemus’s great-great-grandmother told the story, one of Ibrahima’s and Isabella’s eight children, Simon, also sailed to Liberia, and later played a role in the country’s history.
“She remembered the story that was passed to her, how Simon, her great-grandfather, had come here to help this place against slavery. He came to this part of Liberia to try to help stop the slave trade.”
But to learn the details of Ibrahima’s and Simon’s story, Artemus Gaye had to wait until he himself immigrated to America in 1997. After years of hardship and turmoil in Liberia, he came to the U.S. as a student, thanks to a professor who recommended him for a pastoral care counseling program in a college in the mid-western state of Michigan.
“Among all my studies I’ve done, the best happened in Michigan. It was the first time I got in touch with my own feelings. Because that’s what the program did. You get in touch with your own pain, you can be more effective in dealing with the people you’re trying to help. So one of the things I was told was to tell my story.”
And so Artemus Gaye started to write his family history. To flesh out his great-great-grandmother’s narrative, he spent many hours doing research, digging into books and records, trying to trace the trajectory of his ancestors’ life in America.
“I went to the African-American Museum in Detroit, and I was so sure of the name I had heard, and I wanted to find Simon, because I knew more about Simon than Ibrahima, and then I was told for the first time that all slaves were properties, and their names would not be found. That broke my heart. Then I was told, yes, there are records of ships that went to Liberia.”
Among the shipping records Artemus Gaye eventually found a list of passengers of a ship bound for Liberia, with the name Simon on it. He also made contact with the author of a book entitled “Prince Among Slaves”, about Simon’s father Abd Rahman Ibrahima, pieced together from oral history accounts and historical documents.
He learned that the slave prince Abd Rahman Ibrahima was bought by a man called Thomas Foster, who made him the overseer of a large cotton and tobacco plantation near Natchez, Mississippi. A doctor whose life had been saved many years ago in Africa by Ibrahima’s father recognized the dignified young slave, and tried in vain to buy his freedom. It took 20 years, but with the help of a local journalist who publicized the aristocratic slave’s story and brought it to the attention of U.S. Secretary of State Henry Clay, the doctor finally succeeded in gaining Ibrahima’s freedom.
Now with a clear destination, Artemus Gaye traveled to Natchez to visit the plantation where Ibrahima lived as a slave with his family for close to forty years.
“And there were oral historians there who helped me find the exact place where they were enslaved. God, it was like a sacred moment in my life. As if I’d been longing, unconsciously, to come to that place. I could almost feel the presence of my ancestors and my grandmother with me. And I tell you, my experience in Natchez brought a deep sense of connection to the history of Africa, and the history of America.”
This spring Artemus Gaye organized what he called a Freedom Festival in Natchez, to mark the 175th anniversary of Ibrahima’s emancipation. Ibrahima’s and Isabella’s descendants from America and Liberia were invited, as well as the descendants of all the people involved in Ibrahima’s story – the doctor, the journalist, and the slave-holders, the Fosters. Artemus Gaye says he hopes to make this an annual event. He believes that in some small way it can help heal the wounds left by the practice of slavery both here and in Africa.
“I believe it will heal, first, memory. Part of my work in the healing and reconciliation process is that we should tell our story, we should embrace it, and no one should be ashamed of their past. What we need to do is to move ahead by telling our story and embracing each other with love.”
Artemus Gaye has made research into his family’s history in America a formal part of his studies. He is pursuing a double major in journalism and African Studies, shaping a new idiom for the oral history passed on to him by his great-great-grandmother in Liberia.