Black History Month

Photograph by
Doreen Stratton

It is the time to reflect on 1619, when the first Africans set their feet on American soil. They were my ancestors. I identify as an African American even though half of my DNA traces to a few European nations. So . . . when someone had told me, “go back to Africa!” — I did . . . in 1999, I set my feet on the African soil of Ghana.

Prior to that, I’d never held a kinship to the Continent. Growing up in Doylestown where only a handful of ‘colored people’ lived, the awareness of my ancestral heritage was limited. At age 11 or 12, leafing through the pages of National Geographic Magazines, discovering black and white pictures of Africans with dark skin in loin cloth or tufts of grass covering their ‘privates’; and women with exposed breasts (always) adorned with necklaces of animal teeth or bone, staring at those images, I asked myself, Is that me? I had never realized my ancestral genealogy reached back to Africa.

Go Back and Get It

My August 12, 2020 blog post–Sankofa–the Ghanaian proverb meaning Go back and Get It. How ironic! When I went “back”, I returned to America with pride for my legacy. That post had described my African American cultural tour of Cape Coast Castle (now a designated historical site) built by the Swedes in 1653 to protect their plundered goods. The tour included a second castle which I now share for this Black History Month. Elmina Castle was built in 1482 by the Portuguese. Also a fort and designated historical site, this massive structure became the settlement where gold, timber, and later, Africans were plundered and shipped across the globe. Elmina has the distinction as the site of The Door of No Return, the last image Africans saw before herded onto ships. Although the Portuguese loaded Africans on the ship— Sau Joao Bautista, English pirates on The White Lion raided the Portuguese ship in the Gulf Coast (now Mexico) and carried some “twenty” Africans to the Virginia coast of what is now Hampton Roads. The year was 1619.

Our docent for the Elmina tour led us into a cobblestoned patio enclosed on all sides by three levels of balconies. He pointed to the highest balcony—the headquarters of the fort’s Portuguese leader. “The Elmina governor lived there.” Then the docent pointed to a ground floor room with bars that filled the door frame. “Women were kept there. They birthed their babies in that room.”

The docent described how the governor would lean on the railing from his 3rd floor porch, look down and order an underling to bring half a dozen women from the caged room. From above he would look at each of them and select one be brought to him. If the woman resisted, she was chained to a cannon ball which was secured in the cobblestone floor. I stared at the ball and wondered how many women had failed to free themselves to grind such a hole in the stone?

Women's cage

     (Photograph by Doreen Stratton)

I snapped a picture of the ball and chain then entered the room which had detained the women. The door was heavy. The walls of the room still carried a weak yellow pigment. I stood in the center of the room, raised my camera, and held my breath before the CLICK but immediately an odor overwhelmed me. The walls, even after 500 years, screamed with echoes of women’s blood and piss and shit and afterbirth. Instead I turned and aimed my camera to the tourists. I left the room in tears. Who could be so evil?

Sojourn from Books to

During a visit to the Doylestown Historical Society, there were several donated books lazily spread on their coffee table, all topics about African American history. Three captured my curiosity: Before Freedom by Belinda Hurmence; Lumumba, a biography by Robin McKown and Bound for Canaan by Fergus E. Bordewich. “Can I have these?” Those and other books by African American authors and historians now overflow one of my bookshelves. Searches on have enriched my family as we have discovered descendants and archival material  about our ancestors.

Reached back, Returned with Legacy

On this Black History Month, there are schools absent from learning about the African American experience. In 2020 and 2021 I presented Out From Slavery—from Africa to Freedom–to a Civics Class at Lenape Middle School. Their teacher, Andrew Burgess is an Educator I admire for his skill of  encouraging Knowledge to his students. I won’t visit this year’s February class because the Central Bucks School Board has become a Board of Banners. Mr. Burgess was transferred from Lenape to another Middle School for defending LGBTQ+ rights. The students who are now learning from him are truly blessed!

I expect the Central Bucks School Board’s next goal is to erase African American History, which some Pennsylvania schools have already done. As I write this, there are members within the Harrisburg legislature determined to pull the threads of Black History from Democracy’s Colorful Quilt of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

Ignorance is a dangerous thing. When browsing your social media sites this month, if an interesting piece about Black History appears, pause, read and learn.

Searching for “Pressie”

A few weeks ago Joe Montone, Doylestown resident who produces events in town, invited me to become one of  four locals to premiere “Story Hood”, an evening of  stories about Doylestown to an audience of forty people. Each of our stories will be archived in the Spruance Library at the Mercer Museum in Doylestown. This…

Life in Pennsylvania Prisons

“I now realize how the consequences of my crime affected the victim and her family.” —Naim Ali Bonner, SCI Graterford Entered 1974, Died in prison 1995 Dear Dr. Oz: You Know Nothing about the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system for those serving life sentences. Now the Truth: In Pennsylvania The Board of Pardons hears…

Segregated Summers, 1958

I recalled some childhood memories after reading the articles about Fanny Chapman Pool. One piece appeared in the PATCH on July 21 (“Fanny Chapman Pool marks 95th anniversary”) and then again in the Bucks County Herald on July 25 (“At Age 95 Chapman Pool Still One Of The Coolest Places In Doylestown”). Fanny Chapman is…

A Reading List for Black History Month

Harriet Tubman Monument in Bristol Pennsylvania

This past Monday night I had the pleasure of meeting lovely residents at the Montgomery County retirement community,  Foulkeways at Gwynedd.  I had been invited to present OUT FROM SLAVERY, my lecture about the African’s diaspora that began with their capture in the Motherland and their eventual Flight to Freedom.

Many Americans often dismiss slavery as insignificant, often moaning ,”Stop living in the past! …. Move on!” The era of slavery that brought us the Civil War is an event of  importance equal to the Indian Wars or the Lewis & Clark Expedition or the Building of the Railroads or others. This was my eighteenth presentation when at every conclusion, I leave a list of recommended books–non-fiction and fiction–that tell stories of the brave people in the abolitionist or anti-slavery movements and how thousands of slaves succeeded in escaping the inhumanity of their oppressors.

To lovers of history–I offer this selection which is the tip of the iceberg featuring hundreds of other books about this era of our Nation.

BEFORE FREEDOM Edited by Belinda Hurmence. Narratives of African American former slaves interviewed in the 1930s as part of the Federal Writers’ Project.

THE BONDWOMAN’S NARRATIVE by Hannah Craft. This manuscript was discovered by Dr. Henry Gates, Jr. and purported to be the life of a former slave.

BOUND FOR CANAAN by Fergus M. Bordewich. Bordewich weaves the life of Josiah Henson in the struggle of the anti-slavery movement beginning in the 1800s to the 1870s.

GATEWAY TO FREEDOM by Eric Foner. A detailed history of the abolitionist and anti-slavery movement in New York.

KINDRED by Octavia E. Butler. A work of fiction by this African-American author whose published work is in the science fiction genre. This is about an African-American women living in the early 1970s transported back and forth to a plantation in the ante bellum South.

LANGHORN AND MARY by Priscilla Stone Sharp. Sharp’s research into the Stone family’s history brings the discovery of her white ancestor who married a free Black man. Taking place in Bucks County during the 1840s, Sharp weaves true events of anti-slavery and abolitionist Bucks County.

SLAVES IN THE FAMILY by Edward Ball. Ball traces his family’s legacy which begins with his ancestor’s arrival in South Carolina in the 1600s.

THE LIFE OF JOSIAH HENSON by Josiah Henson. Henson was born in slavery and eventually fled to freedom in Canada, often returning as a conductor to rescue slaves. Some of his life is written in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

THE U.S. COLORED TROOPS AT ANDERSONVILLE PRISON by Bob O’Connor. O’Connor has done meticulous research into the colored men who served in the Civil War and are buried in the Andersonville cemetery.

SOMEONE KNOWS MY NAME by Lawrence Hill. A fictional account of a former slave approaching her 60th year who recalls her life from the time she was abducted from Africa to her journey to Freedom.

THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD by Colson Whitehead. A fictional account of a young female slave who flees her plantation.  Whitehead creates his underground as a real train buried beneath the earth.

Curiosity always opens that door marked “Knowledge”.



Return to the Motherland

?????????????????Today, February 19 I travel to Kenya, East Africa—the Cradle of Civilization. This is my fourth Sojourn to the Motherland and my second to Kenya. In my other two Sojourns, 1999 carried my soul to Ghana where I walked inside the dungeons that imprisoned my African ancestors. In 2000 I rubbed  my hands across finely carved blocks of stone that created the Egyptian Pyramids.

I will travel with Phyllis Eckelmeyer and Alice Sparks. We form the volunteer triage for the Maasai Cultural Exchange Project (MCEP). For eight days we will live in the Maasai village of Olosho oibor–a village that is thriving because of the generous financial support from thousands of adults and school children in Bucks County and beyond.

When MCEP was founded in 2005 the goal was to raise funds for the drilling of a well that would bring potable water to the Maasai. Seen below at left is the first well–Christy’s Well— named so for its generous benefactor. This well was drilled in December 2005. It continues to bring potable water to the 5,000 Maasai living in Olosho oibor. A film crew accompanied MCEP Co-founders Phyllis Eckelmeyer and Jennifer Ellsworth to this drilling. A half hour documentary, QUENCH is completed and will be distributed to schools and other supporters of MCEP.

Ten years on–

7-2005 *There are now seven wells sited across Maasailand.

*One hundred Maasai children are benefitting from education sponsorships.

*The Maasai have installed pipelines and cisterns that carry water from the wells to schools, greenhouses and infirmaries.

*Maasai women have established a beading co-op that brings additional income into their households.

I’ll journal while in Kenya as blogging might be impossible with our busy itinerary. We’ll tour the wells, the schools, the greenhouses and meet with Maasai who have been instrumental in many of these improvements. We are also excited about the prospect of filming elder Maasai women while they retell ancient and indigenous folktales that have been carried down from previous generations. The Maasai language is not written down; and from these oral stories we will print children’s coloring books, similar to one we printed in 2011 titled The Lion, the Ostrich and the Squirrel.

What’s on My Bucket List for Kenya? 1) Inhale the scent of Africa as soon as I walk outside of the Nairobi Air Terminal; 2) Rise early one morning to milk a cow; 3) Feel the burden of carrying a jerry can on my back filled with water; 4) Visit the Market in Ngong Hills; 5) Walk the earth in the Rift Valley; 6) Attend the Maasai Sunday church service; 7) And everything else to absorb this last half of Black History Month 2015 while I Sojourn in Kenya, East Africa.