[Episcopal News Service – Accra, Ghana] Most Episcopalians and Americans know the United States’ history of slavery, and how Union and Confederate soldiers fought a bloody civil war opposing and defending it. But lesser known is the horrific story that preceded slaves’ journey to the New World; a journey that carried them from Africa to plantations and cities in the Americas and the Caribbean.
In late January, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry led a reconciliation pilgrimage for bishops and Episcopal Relief & Development friends and supporters to Ghana. The pilgrims visited cities and sites critical to understanding the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and Episcopal Relief & Development partners and programs working to improve Ghanaians’ lives.
It was a pilgrimage that the presiding bishop described as akin to going home.
“I was really thinking of it as a kind of ‘homecoming’ for me as an African-American, as someone born and reared in the United States. Whenever I’ve come back to Africa, whether east, central or west, I’ve often had that strange feeling like I was coming to a land that knew me before,” he said, while standing in the courtyard of Elmina Castle, a castle built by the Portuguese in 1482.
“But this time, knowing we were coming to the place of [initial] enslavement, of embarkation, where the slaves began their journey through the middle passage … knowing that was like returning to the roots of who I am. And when you go back to your roots, you’re really going home.”
From Accra, Ghana’s capital, the pilgrims flew north to Tamale and boarded a bus that took them further north to the Upper East Region, where they spent a morning walking the paths of Pikworo Slave Camp, the same paths walked by an estimated 500,000 enslaved people between 1704 and 1805. Newly captured slaves from Mali and Burkina Faso were brought to the camp where they were chained to trees, where they ate one meal a day from bowls carved into rock, and where the process of stripping them of their humanity commenced. Slaves were marched from Pikworo 500 miles south to one of 50 castles on Africa’s west coast, 39 of them in Ghana, where they were held in dungeons, standing and sleeping in their own excrement, before their captors loaded them onto ships bound for the New World. The pilgrims traced that journey, as well, flying back to Accra and boarding a bus bound for the coast.
“In so many ways this pilgrimage has birthed reconciliation for those of us who participated as we’ve been reconciled with one another and been formed in beloved community,” said the Rev. Stephanie Spellers, the canon to the presiding bishop for evangelism, reconciliation and creation. “Reconciliation with our history and with the slave trade and the ways that so many were implicated in it and suffered because of it, and reconciliation because what we’ve seen through the work of Episcopal Relief & Development, that history does not have to define the way as we as church show up today in Ghana and around the world.”
The Church of England and the Episcopal Church were complicit in the slave trade, with many Episcopalians owning slaves and profiting from the slave trade and its ancillary trade in raw materials – rum, sugar, molasses, tobacco and cotton. The “middle passage” worked as a triangle: Ships sailed from Europe with manufactured goods to Africa where the goods were exchanged for slaves that were captured in other African countries. Those slaves were sent to the Caribbean, where some worked on plantations; others were taken to North and South America along with sugar and molasses, where they were again sold. Ships then carried commodities, such as coffee, rum and tobacco, to Europe to sell and process, then sailed back to African where slave traders swapped goods for more slaves and continued the triangular journey.
The Portuguese, the Dutch and the British, all at one time or another, occupied the castles and controlled the trans-Atlantic slave trade. An estimated 12 to 25 million Africans passed through Ghana’s ports to be sold as slaves in the United States, Latin America and the Caribbean.
Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807 and in 1834 declared owning slaves illegal. U.S. President Thomas Jefferson in 1808 signed a law prohibiting the importation of slaves but slave ownership continued until 1865 and the passage of the 13th Amendment.
Even though Anglican and Episcopal churches later participated in and sometimes led the abolitionist movement, the churches and individual Anglicans and Episcopalians benefited from the slave trade. The 75th General Convention in 2006 sought to address the church’s role in slavery. In 2008, the Episcopal Church formally apologized for its involvement in slavery and the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Slavery’s legacy is “not only race,” said Curry, but the contradiction that the American republic was founded on democratic principles and the idea that all are created equal.
“Bearing the language of the equality of humanity, though not fully living into it yet, that was a living contradiction … America has struggled to resolve. A civil war happened because it was unresolved,” he said. “And all the struggles after that, Reconstruction, the rise of Jim Crow segregation, the emergence of the civil rights movement … a lot of the tensions and divisions that you see in American society now, some of their origins are traceable to the fact that in our [nation’s] originating DNA, the issue of freedom and slavery was not resolved, human equality was not fully resolved. Although they [the Founding Fathers] were headed in the right direction, they weren’t quite there.”
When Thomas Jefferson wrote “that all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence, he owned slaves; other Founding Fathers owned slaves; President George Washington owned slaves; slaves also served Presidents James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, James Knox Polk and Zachary Taylor. Slave labor helped build the White House in Washington, D.C.
This legacy of contradiction, of inequality and racism, that Americans and Episcopalians, black and white, continue to live with today is a legacy the Episcopal Church seeks to confront through its racial reconciliation work.
In 2015, General Convention passed a budget that emphasized racial reconciliation, something Curry has focused on and has asked the church to work on since his installation as presiding bishop in November 2015.
Slavery’s legacy is also something Upper South Carolina Bishop Andrew Waldo, who grew up in the Jim Crow South and has studied his family’s history, grapples with in his life.
“I come from a family that has been in this country for a very long time, many generations of Virginia, South Carolina, Mississippi slaveholders, probably two dozen Confederate officers, naval infantry, cavalry, the whole works,” said Waldo in an interview at Cape Coast Castle, another slave castle not far from the one in Elmina.
Waldo made these discoveries while studying his family’s genealogy, not because his parents discussed it. He began to discover how deeply involved his family was in enslaving people. Ancestors owned plantations in Virginia and southern Mississippi, and his great-great-grandfather likely attended an Episcopal church alongside Jefferson Davis, who served as president of the Confederacy during the Civil War.
“I realized that if I was going to be faithful to God’s call to me as a reconciler, then I couldn’t let that history just lie there, that I was going to be somebody finding ways to heal, to repair, to reconnect,” said Waldo, saying that the reconciliation pilgrimage added a sense of urgency to his work.
“When you see how many hundreds of thousands, millions of people came through these places, and sat in those dungeons,” he said, to arrive in the United States to meet the master’s whip, to be baptized and be stripped of their names. “I can only be certain that my ancestors did that to people, so I had to shift course for my family.”
Waldo also is shifting the course in his diocese, where six years into his episcopacy, after he’d gotten a sense of “the lay of the land,” he’s initiated a race and reconciliation committee. The 13 members of the committee came from among 40 people, all with “deep stakes” in the conversation, who applied for an appointment.
Through personal stories, including Waldo’s own, Upper South Carolina Episcopalians are beginning to confront racism and slavery’s legacy in their lives and communities. The same thing is beginning to happen on a deeper level across the Episcopal Church, which is why Oklahoma Bishop Ed Konieczny, after joining an Episcopal Relief & Development reconciliation pilgrimage in 2016, suggested one particularly for bishops.
Konieczny initiated a conversation with Robert Radtke, president of Episcopal Relief & Development, asking if the presiding bishop had been on a pilgrimage to Ghana; a year later Curry was leading one.
“Michael Curry had just been elected presiding bishop and one of his big priorities is racial reconciliation … what I was saying to Rob was that as a privileged white male bishop of the Church who was being asked to speak out about racial reconciliation as a voice of reconciliation, I didn’t feel I had the authority to do that because I come from a different place,” said Konieczny, who grew up in Orange County, California, and had a 20-year law enforcement career before the priesthood.
“I still don’t have the authority, but this trip gives me a story to tell about my own reconciliation of who I am, how I have been part of the racial strife and discord in our country. … I remember growing up the way the adults around talked about blacks and the words they used,” he said. He shared the story about how when his police station was first integrated, his colleagues refused to dress alongside the black officer in the locker room.
The Ghana pilgrimage, he said, made him realize everything he’d been taught about slavery and racism was wrong.
“I wasn’t given the truth, and then it was just the collision of my world and this other world and the recognition that I’m a racist. Hopefully a recovering racist, but yeah, whether I was overtly involved, or whether I condoned, ignored or contributed to things that were done or said, the way people acted, I think puts me in a place now where I have at least something to say and I can raise the questions and people can at least reflect and search in their own lives,” said Konieczny.
The pilgrimage challenges each participant’s preconceived notions about slavery and the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
“The narrative that so many of us have come up with was that the great evil of slavery was actually being a slave, actually being someone held like an animal on a plantation,” said Spellers, whose great-grandmother was a slave. “I had no idea the gravity and the depth of the suffering that occurred before anyone even got to the slave ships or got to Cape Coast, how many died on the way.
“One of the members of our group said, ‘This was the African Holocaust, wasn’t it?’ And I realized it was. Again, it helps me to understand why race is so hard for us to work within America, why it keeps coming back up … because there’s still so much we’ve not talked about.”
The Church can offer a safe place to have difficult conversations, conversations that may involve pain, uncertainty and ambiguity, but conversations that are bathed in a mutual love and care for one another, a safe place where we can all share honestly and move into the future, said Curry.
“My hope is that this journey will help us reclaim and reface a common history that we have, a painful past, not for the sake of guilt, and not for the sake of wallowing in the past, but for the sake of us, black, white, red, yellow and brown, finding ways to face our past and then turn in another direction and create a new future,” he said, quoting the words of the poet Maya Angelou: “The history, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage need not be lived again.”
“That’s our goal and that’s how the past is redeemed and a new future is claimed,” said Curry. “And that is the task of the Episcopal Church.”
– Lynette Wilson is an editor/reporter for Episcopal News Service.