Lowcountry family finds its heritage in Sierra Leone
BY JEFF KIRBY
NORTH CHARLESTON — What does an African-American Catholic family from North Charleston have in common with a predominantly Muslim, West African tribe of 700,000?
In matters of history and spirituality, a lot.
The connections between the Polite family of the Lowcountry and the Mende tribe of southern Sierra Leone converge in a young girl. That 10-year-old was captured —249 years ago — in Sierra Leone and sold into slavery on a Berkeley County rice plantation. She was called Priscilla.
In a rare paper trail of slave ship and plantation records, Thomalind Martin Polite was able to document her relationship with the child who was her ancestor.
The connection led to a West African homecoming for Thomalind and her husband, Antawn. As Priscilla’s seventh generation great-granddaughter, Thomalind visited the Mende tribe and was greeted and received as family, not as a tourist or a guest.
The homecoming was the result of the academic labors of many scholars, principally Joseph Opala, Ph.D., from James Madison University in Virginia. Opala wanted to intensify his research and find individuals who could personally trace their lineage back to African slaves. He had done this with specific tribes, linguistic associations, and cultural arts and customs, but he wanted to narrow the search.
It was an immense undertaking that required tedious reviews of historical documents and collaboration with other scholars including Edward Ball, author of the book “Slaves in the Family.”
Opala discovered the information about Priscilla and contacted the Polites, which led to the ancestral family reunion. The news of her ancestor and the idea of going to West Africa were overwhelming for Thomalind, who describes herself as enjoying being behind-the-scenes.
However, this 31-year-old educational therapist and mother of two packed her bags for Sierra Leone to learn more about her heritage. She went with her husband and an entourage of scholars and journalists.
While there, the Polites spent time with the Mende tribe, of which Priscilla was a member. They were given tours of various parts of the country, met with the president and political leaders, and were hosted by Archbishop Joseph Ganda, the Catholic metropolitan of Sierra Leone.
The Polites also attended cultural events, had a song written for them, and dances performed around them. Thomalind was made an honorary member of the Catholic Ladies’ Guild and lavished with additional honors.
“The people are poor, very poor, but they all give gifts,” Thomalind said. “They don’t have much, but they are humble and honorable.”
In an interview with The Catholic Miscellany, Thomalind was asked how the experience changed her. She paused reflectively and responded, “No one changes overnight. It’s going to take awhile to understand and process. But I have a deeper appreciation for Sierra Leone and their culture. I see slavery differently now — something very personal.”
Returning home, the Polites shared their stories with Faith, their 3-year-old daughter. Faith was sad to have her parents away, but named her baby doll Priscilla, in honor of her ancestor.
Thomalind and Antawn, a licensed clinical counselor at the Medical University of South Carolina, said that their visit to Bunce Island was one of the more powerful moments of their journey.
It was there that people of Sierra Leone, including Priscilla in 1756, were forced aboard ships headed for the slave markets of the American continent. Ruins of buildings from that time period still exist on the island.
“Remembering what happened there made it an emotional experience,” Thomalind said.
As Catholics, Thomalind and Antawn said the trip affected their spiritual lives.
“Our faith was expanded and deepened,” Thomalind said. “The Catholic churches were packed, and the Mass went on for hours, and no one cared.”
Sierra Leone has more than 13 cultural groups and has Muslim, Christian, and animist religious groups who live peacefully together.
“Everyone just knows everyone,” Antawn said. Knowing and helping your neighbor brings unity, he added.
In recounting their travels and insights, the Polites said that they remind Catholics that we are all in one faith.
“Whatever race or color we are, we have one faith,” Thomalind said. “We can’t see each other as different.”
Antawn agreed. “We have to educate and enlighten ourselves,” he said. “We have to try to appreciate and respect each other in our common beliefs.”
The Polites elaborated on the need for greater tolerance within the church, and for the need of developed programs to assist our African sister dioceses.
They quoted their new friend, Archbishop Ganda, who said, “Whether in Africa or the United States, we are all Catholics.”
The third article in this series will be on Bishop Edward Barron and the historic relationship of the Church in the United States with the Church in West Africa.