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'Slave meal' at Black History Month celebration at Havre de Grace church offensive to some; organizer apologizes

A Black History Month event honoring Booker T. Washington at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Havre de Grace has angered some because it includes a "authentic slave meal."
A Black History Month event honoring Booker T. Washington at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Havre de Grace has angered some because it includes a "authentic slave meal."(Associated Press)

The idea of serving an “authentic slave meal” at an event Saturday to celebrate the life and accomplishments of Booker T. Washington has angered some people.

St. John’s Episcopal Church in Havre de Grace is hosting the event to honor Washington, an educator, author, orator and presidential adviser to “Learn, Appreciate and Celebrate Black History,” according to a flyer.

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In addition to a dramatic reading of “The Man – The Story” and a performance by Expressions of Faith Baltimore Gospel Choir, organizers will serve an “authentic slave meal.”

Alex Ibewuike, a 2008 Havre de Grace High School graduate who works as a consultant for the health care industry in Washington, D.C., said the point of the event is to celebrate black culture, black people, Black History Month and Booker T. Washington.

“There is nothing to really celebrate about a slave meal because that was something that people in that circumstance didn’t have a choice of what they had to eat,” Ibewuike said. “They were given slop and leftover intestines of animals, things people didn’t want to eat.”

She concedes it’s part of history, but it’s a painful part.

“If people want to talk about it, teach about it, show examples,” Ibewuike said. “But to recreate the insult is what is more offensive.”

Camay Murphy, who organized this year’s event, said it was never meant to be offensive, and that she intends to apologize at the event Saturday.

“It’s my mistake, my error, my insensitivity, my lack of knowledge of the deep sensitivity within the community,” said Murphy, who is black. “I’m very sorry, I really am.”

For the last five years, she has chaired the Black History Month event, and has coordinated a meal to go along with the activity, she said. Hot dogs and sauerkraut were served the year they focused on the Negro Leagues and a soul food meal was served last year celebrating the Harlem Renaissance.

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This year, highlighting Washington, whose autobiography is titled “Up From Slavery,” she was looking for a meal to accompany the dramatic reading and found that an “authentic slave meal” is served in Williamsburg, Virginia.

The meal includes greens, black eyed peas, sweet potatoes and peanut soup.

“These are the foods they had that were scraps of meat, that were doled out,” Murphy said. “That was the intent, to have people understand the role food played in the whole era of slavery. They were given food high in carbohydrates to make them able to work out in the field under the boiling sun.”

Food played an important role and included not only seasonings that came from the slaves’ native countries, but also their denial of gardens because it might make them feel too independent and want to flee, Murphy said.

“We thought we were doing something educational and informational for the community,” Murphy said. “Evidently the words authentic slave meal hit a negative chord for some in the community.”

Rev. T. James Snodgrass, the church’s priest-in-charge, said in a statement Friday that the idea of a slave meal for the Black History Month observance was proposed by Murphy, in addition to having the dramatic reading and concert.

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“Another slave meal, called the Passover Meal among Christians and Jews, and celebrated by Jesus at the Last Supper, is the essential act of worship among Christians and Jews,” his statement said. “In the Passover meal Jews and Christians remember being slaves in Egypt for 400 years and being freed by God. A slave meal remembers that people were slaves in our nation's history, and were freed by God and the demands of universal justice and freedom.

“We celebrate freedom from slavery. We remember that people were slaves in the past, in order that we not repeat this atrocious and hateful situation again.”

Marquise Moultrie, who works at Aberdeen Proving Ground and lives in North East, said he and his co-workers were talking about the meal.

“I just think it’s really offensive. I think there would have been another terminology used,” Moultrie said. “I think [slave meal] is really crossing the line.”

Ibewuike said she spoke with church representatives who said they were “making efforts” to change the wording, though it doesn’t make it OK.

“I guess it’s better for them to at least acknowledge it, but it also requires they give a public apology to address to a wider audience because that’s who they offended,” Ibewuike said. “It’s not just changing the wording. There’s a deeper issue here, because at one point this group thought it was OK to use the language they use.

“It just shows a lack of sensitivity and lack of important discussion when it comes to these types of identity issues and the right and wrong things to say. Being more culturally aware is what needs to be improved.”

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