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Sierra Leone uses fiftieth to trace connections to American history


Saturday, April 16, 2011
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The Sierra Leone Community in Minnesota will host its 50th Independence Day Celebration on April 23, featuring an exhibit about the reason the nation may be home to ‘the most important historical site in Africa for the United States.

For thousands of African American slaves Bunce Island , a small, sequestered landmass off the coast of Sierra Leone, was the last memory of Africa before crossing the Atlantic Ocean and entering North America.

“I truly think that Bunce Island is most important historical site in Africa for the United States,” historian Joseph Opala said. “An important part of American history is on that tiny, isolated island in Sierra Leaone.”

The Sierra Leone Community Association in Minnesota is taking the 50th anniversary of the small, African nation’s independence as an opportunity to highlight this historic connection between the two nations during a celebration at the East Side Neighborhood Services building on April 23rd beginning at 7 p.m.

The event will include the Minnesota debut of the Bunce Island Exhibit, consisting of 20 large display panels featuring the culmination of nearly three decades of Opala’s study of the island, which is home to a notorious British slave castle.

Funding for the purchase of the exhibit, which will make the Twin Cities one of about a dozen sites in the U.S. to host the display, was provided by a grant from the Minnesota Humanities Center , Jonathan Rose , president of the SLCM said.

“The exhibit goes well beyond the independence day celebration,” he said. “[Sierra Leone is] a small country, but this is an opportunity to learn that we have significance in the history of this country.”

In addition to the exhibit, the celebration, which is predicted to attract between 500-750 people, will feature Sierra Leonean food, music, dance and an address from keynote speaker, State Rep. Jeff Hayden .

To carry out the theme of the affair, “Continuing Education for a Better Future,” SLCM will award between six and 10 scholarships to high school seniors and college freshmen as part of the event for the first time, Rebecca Johnson , the SLCM secretary said.

“We want to let young people know there is life after high school,” she said. “That way, they can aspire to higher education and use knowledge to lift the community.”

Students of Sierra Leonean decent will write short essays about how they would help the nation progress and grow as young leaders as part of the application process for the scholarships, Rose said.

After the 50th celebration, the exhibit will spend a few weeks on the University of Minnesota campus before finding its permanent home somewhere in the Twin Cities. SLMC members plan to take the exhibit on several educational trips to community grade schools, according to Rose and Johnson.

Opala said the exhibit, which has two parts—Slave Castle and Links to North America—is significant because it was the only slave castles that almost exclusively exported to North America.

“Most Americans have this strange misconception that most of the slaves from Africa went to United States,” the Oklahoma native who lives in Sierra Leone, said. “The truth is, 96 percent went to Brazil or The West Indies, meaning only 4 percent went to North America.”

He said this is the reason many famous African Americans, including actor Isaiah Washington , who donated $25,000 to computer the computer animations for the exhibit, have traced their heritage back to Sierra Leone in recent years.

Sierra Leone’s 50th Independence Day Celebration will extend beyond the night of festivities with events including both Muslim and Christian prayer services in the days following the event, Rose said.

He also said he hopes both Sierra Leoneans and non-Sierra Leoneans are able to learn and understand connections between them as part of the celebration, particularly with the current turmoil in many African nations.

Opala, who is currently working on a $5 million project to preserve Bunce Island and build a museum there, agrees. According to him, the exhibit will highlight the shared history between all Sierra Leoneans and Americans.

“Wherever we’re from, we’re all part of the American story,” he said. “This is Sierra Leone’s part of the American story that they have to tell.”

Sierra Leone 50th Independence Anniversary Celebration

DATE: Saturday, April 23, 2011

TIME: 7:00 pm- 2:30 am

PLACE: East Side Neighborhood Services
1700 Second Street Northeast
Minneapolis, MN 55413

THEME: Continuing Education for a Better Future

Academic scholarships will be issued on Friday, April 22, 2011.

KEYNOTE SPEAKER: State Rep. Jeff Hayden

DONATIONS: $20.00 (IN ADVANCE) and $25.00 (AT THE GATE)

Exhibits from Bunce Island (A primary hub during the transatlantic slave trade) will be displayed at the event.

Contacts: Hassan @763-228-0650; Kehf @ 612-251-7134

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