Bleary-eyed Baltimoreans peered from behind their doors or stood barefoot on their rowhouse steps and gawked. The early-morning sidewalk brigade, dog walkers and drug dealers, trash collectors and cops, paused in their business at the sound of drumming and chanting.
The Interfaith Pilgrimage of the Middle Passage had come to town.
A traveling history show of diverse Americans, supported by a drumming corps of Buddhist monks, is on a year-long, 7,000-mile journey to retrace the routes of the slave trade and ponder its tragic legacy.
Their route yesterday took them on a tour of Baltimore's racial past and present, from a church founded for slaves and free blacks; through an 18th-century plantation where slaves tended a glassed-in, heated orange grove for their white masters; to a cemetery built on swampland where slaves' descendants found a burial place of their own. They walked past blocks of crumbling, vacant rowhouses that shocked the visitors and across the uneasy racial borders of Southwest Baltimore.
Carrying the red-green-black flags of the African diaspora and banners bearing Buddhist prayers in Japanese characters, some marchers in saffron robes with heads shaved, others with dreadlocks hanging past their shoulders, the parade of about 60 people made an extraordinary sight.
"We said, 'What is this? Something to do with the World Cup?' " said Shirrel Ogden, 48, one of three business partners -- two black, one white -- scouting sites off South Monroe Street for their athletic-shoe cleaning business.
Teen-age walkers darted from the pack to hand such baffled onlookers an explanatory flier.
The pilgrimage was organized by two Massachusetts women, Sister Clare Carter, a white Buddhist monk, and Ingrid Askew, an African-American actress and stage director. They felt a need to remember the 30 million to 60 million Africans kidnapped and taken across the "Middle Passage" to the Americas in horrific conditions, an estimated two-thirds dying en route, Askew said yesterday.
The pilgrims, whose core group numbers about 40, left in late May from Leverett, Mass., and are traveling, on foot for the most part, down the East Coast and west to New Orleans. From there they go by boat to Brazil, then across the Atlantic for an African leg from Senegal to South Africa, where they will be greeted by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the pilgrimage's honorary chairman.
A second group of pilgrims is following a route through Europe before joining the American contingent in Senegal.
They are supported by donations. "Know anyone with a ship?" asked Tizita Assefa, 21, who emigrated from Ethiopia at age 7 and now is a student at Hampshire College in Massachusetts.
The pilgrimage arrived in Baltimore Thursday by bus from Newark, Del., where a few passing motorists had shouted slurs and cries of "White power!" They visited the Great Blacks in Wax Museum on East North Avenue and walked to President Street Station, not far from the boatyard where abolitionist Frederick Douglass once worked. In Annapolis, they paid tribute at the harborside plaque marking the place of arrival of thousands of slaves, including Kunta Kinte, the hero of Alex Haley's genealogical novel "Roots."
They spent two nights at St. James Episcopal Church in West Baltimore, whose 1824 charter said it was to minister to both free blacks and slaves. Then they set out noisily at 8 a.m. yesterday, following West Lafayette Avenue, then turning south on Monroe Street, past carryouts and check-cashing joints.
"You want to talk about slavery? Look at present-day slavery," Assefa declared, gesturing at the blocks of derelict housing.
In Carroll Park, they climbed the hill to "Carroll's 100," archaeological site of a 2,300-acre plantation whose iron foundry and grist mill were worked by slaves. Some were in tears as they took turns holding a quartz crystal believed to have been a spiritual talisman for West African slaves, found under the Mount Clare mansion kitchen in 1986.
Aaron De Santiago, 26, who left his job as a bookstore clerk in San Francisco to join the walk, recalled being led into the South Carolina woods at the age of 8 to the grave of his African-born great-great-great grandfather.
Both whites and blacks, for different reasons, have been reluctant to confront the history of chattel slavery, he said. "As we travel, we're unearthing a lot of hard truth," he said.
Mary Miller, 61, a Baltimore peace activist who helped choose the Maryland route, spoke of the segregation of a city where she is often the only white on buses, the racial unease of her integrated South Baltimore block and the unconscious sense of privilege she believes white Americans feel.
Carrying the dozen monks' banner was Senji Kanaeda, 40, a high-school teacher outside Tokyo until three years ago, when he joined the Nipponzan Myohoji order, which uses walking as a spiritual discipline. In 1995, he was part of a pilgrimage from the death camp at Auschwitz in Poland to Hiroshima, the site of the first atomic bomb dropped on Japan.
Kanaeda remembered the impact of reading as a child in Japan a biography of the black abolitionist Harriet Tubman. "I respect the culture of African-Americans, their suffering, their history," he said.
On their way to the Howard County community of Waterloo, where they camped last night, the walkers stopped in Mt. Auburn Cemetery, where African-Americans have been buried since 1872.
Sheridan Allmond, chairwoman of the cemetery's board, stood in the middle of a circle of marchers and recounted the cemetery's history as resting place of 48,000 people, including Allmond's own ancestors; slaves who found freedom on the Underground Railroad; Joe Gans, the first black light heavyweight boxing champion; Lillie Mae Carroll Jackson, the civil rights pioneer.
Later, as the pilgrimage moved on down Waterview Avenue, drums beating, Allmond, a sales administrator for Xerox Corp., spoke emotionally about the visit.
"Standing in the middle of that circle and seeing all the colors of the rainbow -- that's not an experience a lot of people have," she said. "People will say, 'Who do they think they are? Why do they waste their time?' But this is a very valuable spiritual journey. I wish I could go along."
More information on the Middle Passage Pilgrimage can be found at its World Wide Web site: www.shaysnet.com/%7Epagoda/.
Pub Date: 7/12/98