Kunta Kinte festival provides a glimpse into black families' heritage

When she was a child growing up in Lothian, Lyndra Pratt loved spending time with her grandmother, Margaret Ann Easton, at Easton's nearby farm.

Naturally, Pratt was curious about this woman she loved so dearly. What, she wondered, had her grandma's life been like? How had she become the way she was?

"Who are your parents?" Pratt asked one day when she was 8. "Where did they come from?"

Easton burst into tears.

That was 48 years ago, long before Pratt, now Lyndra Pratt Marshall, realized black Americans of her grandmother's time rarely wanted to discuss their lineage. The memories were too painful and details too hard to come by.

Marshall has turned her inquisitive nature into a career as a genealogist, first for her own family and then for thousands of other people. Along with four cousins, she will help still others begin their own searches at the 24th annual Kunta Kinte Heritage Festival in Annapolis next Saturday.

The event, a day of Afrocentric music, dance, poetry, crafts and food, offers visitors of all races, but particularly African Americans, a chance to reconnect with their own family and cultural heritages.

Marshall's group cuts to the heart of that mission, says Ruby Singleton Blakeney, chairwoman of the festival board.

"Last year was Lyndra's first [as an exhibitor], and she was mobbed all day," Blakeney says."People have a passion for finding out where they came from. It's incredible what a gift she has for it."

By one count, 5,000 of last year's 7,000 attendees stopped by to visit Marshall and her cousins at the festival, which was first conceived as a way of marking the arrival of the Gambian-born slave Kunta Kinte on the docks of Annapolis in September 1767.

Kinte was a forebear of Alex Haley, the author who retraced his own family history by telling the slave's story in the international bestseller "Roots."

The level of interest in her work thrilled Marshall, a woman who has spent her life teaching others how liberating it is to find out exactly where you came from.

"So much time and history has been lost since slavery," she says. "We need to learn that history now. If we don't, it could be lost to us forever."

Family trees

On a recent afternoon, on the screened-in porch of a townhome in Glen Burnie, five women traded hugs, then gathered around an elegantly designed poster display.

On the left-hand side, the name James Duvall surmounts the sprawling image of a family tree. On the right, the name Alexander Pratt sits atop another.

Generations ago, the two Maryland men — one white, another black — had children, who had children, and so on, and their separate clans expanded.

"Over time, the two families blended and interwove," says Marshall, gesturing toward the hundreds of names on the posterboard the group has been tending for years.

A decade ago, Alfreda Brown Crowner, 70, and Roberta Crown Hawkins, 60, of Annapolis; Connie Maynard, 63, who owns the home; Tammi (Peaches) Carroll-Hall of Lothian, 48, and Marshall knew one another only as women who'd grown up in the same area of southern Anne Arundel County.

Then Marshall organized a family reunion. More than a thousand people showed up. The five met, swapped stories about their lives, and realized they weren't just acquaintances; they were cousins. They've been meeting regularly ever since, comparing notes and adding to their collective family tree.

All five say it has been a freeing experience.

Take Hawkins. Even as a girl, she says, she yearned to find out about her past and her family's. But few elders wanted to discuss it.

She had a gift for investigating. She could always look at a person's features and discern family connections, she says, and she made lots of mental notes. But it wasn't until Marshall brought them all together that a larger sense of connection took shape.

"I've always thought I had some kind of purpose in life. This makes me feel that I've found it. You have to know where you come from in order to know who you are," she says.

The five have come to call themselves the South County Family Heritage Group. They'll be with Marshall in the Family Tree Heritage Booth next weekend, just as they were last year, reaching out to those who want to learn how to start seeking their own roots. It's a process Marshall knows a lot about.

Gate of no return

For reasons she can't explain, Lyndra Pratt Marshall always had a passion for looking back.

The third of the ten children of Leon Benjamin Pratt Sr., and Elise Alverta Pratt, she admits she always stood out as a bit of a freak. Her brothers and sisters loved their family, too, but none of them obsessed over gathering and cataloguing information the way she did.

At an age when other girls her age were still playing with dolls, Lyndra could be found spending hours at a time poring over local archives at a nearby library.

"My sisters still ask me, 'Where in the world do you come from?' '' she says, laughing.

As the years passed, her techniques grew more sophisticated as she learned to trace individual and family histories through birth and death certificates, interviews with relatives, family photos and articles from newspapers. An increasingly sophisticated array of computer databases helped.

Nothing, though, could replace the power of taking her own journey.

In 2005, at a reunion of the Easton family she organized, Marshall announced to the hundreds in attendance that DNA tests she had taken proved definitively that her maternal ancestors — and therefore those of most of the people present — had lived in Ghana.

Shorty afterward, she began planning a trip to the west African nation. In 2007, a contingent of 100 extended family members flew there to visit their ancestral homeland.

"Even when the plane touched down on the runway, and we got out — it's impossible to describe the feeling," she says. "The feel of the air, the look of the sky. It felt like home." Many, she says, burst into tears.

That was just the beginning. A Ghanaian government official who knew of their journey took the liberty of investigating further, and upon their arrival, he informed Marshall that she and her relatives were connected by blood to the royal family.

She was invited to carry a torch at a national festival — and she and her husband, Roger, ended up staying at the royal palace in the city of Kumasi, where they met the king.

But as Marshall told everyone, the trip was not a vacation. It was a journey to make connections with their own past and culture. And that meant tasting tragedy. The group also traveled to the Cape Coast in the south, where they visited the infamous Elmina Castle, where Africans who had been captured were transferred to the ships that took them to lives of slavery.

As she and Roger looked out the barred Gate of No Return — the very opening through which slaves were moved to their living doom — she broke down.

"I remember thinking, 'My ancestor was pushed through this gate, and he or she never came back.' Here I was, returning many generations later, a descendant, and I didn't even know that person's name," she says. "I've never had such a feeling in my life."

Call to action

Brutal as the experience sometimes was, she could never have claimed her full identity had she not traveled back across time and space, Marshall says, much as Haley did when he researched his family background while writing "Roots."

She tries to provide just as full and just as authentic an experience to clients of the company she now runs, Gene-All-Of-Us, which will do everything from tracking down living relatives to teaching how to set up displays for family reunions.

And she and her cousins hope to do the same for guests at the Kunta Kinte Festival, which starts at 10 a.m. next Saturday just yards from the place where, according to Haley's research, the Gambian native was brought ashore from the ship Lord Ligonier 244 years ago.

The day will begin with the sounding of African talking drums to alert the community to gather, the same way West African griots, or storytellers, have summoned villagers to meet for centuries. A gospel choir, a marching band, an African-dance troupe, an Earth, Wind and Fire tribute band and more will perform over the course of nine hours.

And all day long, they'll have a chance to speak with Marshall and her family, and she hopes lots of people take advantage.

"Just think," she says. "Your ancestors could have come from roots like mine, from the West Coast [of Africa] to the City Dock. You might have a story just like Alex Haley's. It would be a shame not to find it."



WHAT: The 24th Kunta Kinte Heritage Festival

WHERE: City Dock, Annapolis

WHEN: 10 a.m. – 7 p.m., Sat., Sept. 24


Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad