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Texas Event Focuses Juneteenth on Slave Life

Andre Coe

DALLAS - One weekend each year, Esudele Fagbenro and Safisha Hill transform a Texas farm into an 18th century African village, replete with thatched huts, craftsmen and rites of passage into adulthood.0619 13

Hundreds travel to the village to learn about life in Africa and to hear a history that's been largely untold. They taste foods from around the African Diaspora and enjoy the rhythmic sounds of tribal drumming in the village.

The tranquility, however, is suddenly shattered by the arrival of slave traders, who raid the village, capture hundreds of men, women and children and herd them, bound and chained, into the crowded bow of a replica slave ship. Some cry while others simply stare off into space. Women wail each time villagers are taken.

The purpose of the re-enactment, Hill says, is to make certain that one of the most painful chapters of American history is never forgotten.

"We wanted to do something where people could remember their ancestors and tell their story," she said. "It changes people's perception, which is often relegated to black people were slaves and we never think to ask, 'What happened before that?' It's like a realization that this is our history."

The annual two-day event begins Saturday and coincides with Juneteenth, the celebration commemorating the arrival of Gen. Gordon Granger in Galveston on June 19th, 1865 with news that the Civil War was over and Texas slaves were free.

While the anniversary of that momentous day was first celebrated in Texas, the observance has since spread to other parts of the U.S. and even other countries.

Called the Sankofa Experience, participants in the re-enactment help portray what life was like for enslaved Africans in the U.S.

Hill and Fagbenro, both directors of Act of Change, Inc., a Dallas-based nonprofit, said they came up with the idea while on a morning walk.

A West African word that means "to go back and fetch it," Sankofa offers attendees an opportunity to go back and reclaim a part of their past, Hill said.

It takes about two hours for each group to complete the series of re-enactments that take them from African village to auction block and, eventually, a plantation.

About 300 people took part in 2005, the event's first year, and 500 are expected this weekend, Hill said.

Hill said most Juneteenth celebrations include guest speakers and parades, but few focus on the personal tragedies and triumphs that slaves faced.

Like cattle, participants are chained, shackled and led away from the comfortable confines of the village through the "Door of No Return" and onto the slave ship.

After re-enacting the grueling voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, they are marched to a nearby plantation located on the grounds of the Morney-Berry Farm, a black-owned farm in Murdine Berry's family since 1876.

Berry said her great grandfather, James Morney, and his wife, Catherine, both former slaves, purchased the land after gaining their freedom.

Even those not portraying slaves are drawn into the experience and assume other roles, some bidding eagerly as friends and relatives are auctioned. "It already hit them in the slave ship, but to be on that auction block, it gives you the sense that, 'Wow, this really happened,'" Hill said.

A Dallas man who goes by the African name Ifayomi helped put the finishing touches on the village earlier this week. He said his sons would be given a special gift at the event symbolizing their life journey. Similar gifts are given to boys in Africa during their manhood training, he said.

And although slavery is one part of the event, it is not all, he said.

After being auctioned off, the "slaves" do simulated work on the plantation, picking cotton balls taped to trees and dragging large burlap sacks behind them under the watchful eyes - and occasional prodding - of gruff overseers. Those playing slaves eventually escape to freedom using the Underground Railroad, a secret network that helped their real-life counterparts flee to freedom in the north.

While making their own getaway, they learn how an untold number of blacks escaped to freedom and the hardships they faced along the way. Their trek ends in the village, Hill said, where it originally started.

Fagbenro said while there are other exhibits elsewhere in the U.S. that include replicated African villages and Underground Railroad re-enactments, the Sankofa Experience is unique.

"There is nowhere that we know of that has the entire experience and it's on black-owned land," he said. "It's sacred here."

Ifayomi said the event reconnects black people to their past and is like an awakening for many.

"A DNA awakening," he said.

© 2008Associated Press

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