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…


News of police stops of African Americans in their cars brought memories of incidents my father had experienced during the mid-1930s through the early 1960s. His band played a lot of gigs in Philadelphia. Every Saturday around 5 o’clock he would gather his sheet music and the case holding his saxophone, and drive into Philadelphia where they performed at different clubs. Coming home to Doylestown, at 3 or 4 in the morning, he would be pulled over on 611 just south of home. Always by the same cop.

And always with the same interrogation: The cop asked for his driver’s license and registration. Then he’d ask where was he coming from and where was he going. He responded politely with the same answers. After I and my five brothers and sisters reached our teens, my father would caution us about behaving properly out in public: “Be respectful and never draw attention to yourself”. We failed to understand why he told us to “behave”. We always behaved.

Years later when an adult, Daddy had shared with me the police interrogations. I tried to imagine what else, as a Black man driving those country roads and city streets at night had he been subjected to? No wonder he gave us “the talk”; he was probably terrified that something like that would happen to us.

We were raised in Doylestown which in the mid1950s was a sleepy community of just over 5,000 people. It was a time when my family was called “colored”. The term “Black” was still years away, as was the ethnic term “African American”. There were only eight “colored” families in the Borough. We jokingly described ourselves as Raisins in a Sea of Rice.

As siblings of color when we stepped out the door, we walked into a milieu where our lives interacted with a majority of white friends.

I’ve often wondered how my family’s life would have been different if we had grown up in either Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas or Virginia or elsewhere. But we grew up in Doylestown, Pennsylvania where only on rare occasions the ugliness of racism reared its head. There’s only one time I can remember being called a “N****r”. As a 10-year old tomboy I picked a fight with a boy after he called me the “N Word”. I won the battle of our fisticuffs under the merry-go-round, surrounded by shouts of kids taking sides for me or him. I was banned from the playground for a week.

Since George Floyd’s murder the loudest voice for change is recognizing education’s failure to include 400 years of African American history and culture in our public schools.

The illustrations on my 1st Grade reading primer featured Dick and Jane, Spot the dog, Mother and Father, the mailman, the police officer and the fireman. I never gave much thought that this 1949 primer showed white faces on every page. Now the current introductory readers have progressed to reflect the faces of America’s diversity.

In my 5th Grade McGraw-Hill Geography text, the awareness of my skin color was reflected back at me from a page devoted to the African continent. The hand-drawn illustration remains embedded in my mind: An African child crouched in a hole with arms hugging his knees. Only the crown of his head is exposed. The African plain of tall grass in the distance is on fire and rages toward the boy in the hole.

The brief narrative accompanying the image explained that as the fire burned through the grass and reached the dugout protecting the boy, it singed his hair. The caption explained how Africans’ hair became “curly” as a result of the fire that raged across the African plain. My two sisters—one older and the other a year behind me, also remember that image.

During 1965 through 1975 I lived in California. Even at that time there was a diverse racial population. Often, I was asked, “What are you? Mexican? Philippine? Hawaiian? Native American? Who are you?”

This was the period of the Anti-War protests, Black Power and the Civil Rights Movement.

Not until 1999 after a journey to Ghana, a country on the West Coast of Africa, did I discover “Who” I was. When my feet touched this African country for the first time, the air embraced me with an aroma heavy with the psychic energies of Black and Brown civilizations. Three more times I would travel to Africa and each time the Motherland welcomed me with its pungent odor.

The frightened African boy hiding in a hole? Gone and replaced with my anxiety as I stepped carefully along a stone passage into the underbelly of a massive fortress built in 1653 by Swedish traders. Cape Coast Castle logged timber and mined gold before the lucrative trade of Africans, already a success in other fortresses constructed during the late 1500s.

Captured Africans were kept in a dungeon with stone walls that rose nearly 30 feet, with sunlight slipping in through one small window near the ceiling. The floor measured approximately half a basketball court. Standing near a wall, I listened as the guide described how hundreds of male Africans were crowded into this space before herded through a passageway onto the beach, then loaded on to a ship, bound for the New World.

I moved closer to the wall and ran the palm of my hand across the smooth blocks, wondering if the African DNA in me could’ve struggled for survival while cramped in this suffocating prison. I inched my fingers between two blocks and scraped granules of detritus into my hand, wrapped them in a tissue and brought them to America. They are more than what my ancestors carried when stolen from the Motherland.

It’s been 400 years since slave traders hauled human beings out of Africa. We survived the captors, the Middle Passage, bondage and the struggle for Freedom. Now is the time to sit across from one another and solve our differences.

There is a Ghanaian word spoken in the Twi dialect: Sankofa. It means “Go Back and Get It. The hen reaches back for the egg symbolizing that before knowing Who you are, you must first learn Where you came from.

Black Lives Matter