Cousins search Natchez for clues to ancestry

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 18, 2000

Centuries of slavery, two civil wars, the Providence of God and the spirit of African ancestors brought two young men in search of their past to Natchez this week.

By digging through the city’s historic archives and talking with local historians, African cousins Youjay Innis and Artemus Gaye found the answers to many of their questions about their princely ancestor, Ibrahima.

According to family records and local folklore, Ibrahima was an African prince captured by slave traders in the 18th century and brought to Natchez, a hub of the slave trade at that time.

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Ironically, the men learned Thursday that Ibrahima, who they know as Abdul, was sold into slavery on Aug. 18, 1788 – 112 years ago today.

Gaye said they were amazed by the connection but do not see it as mere coincidence.

Their religion, a blending of native Islam and Methodism, includes a belief in ancestral spirits.

&uot;The spirits of our ancestors are guiding us,&uot; Gaye said.

The journey to Natchez began three and a half years ago when Gaye, 25, decided to begin piecing together family stories as part of a book he plans to write about the recent Liberian civil war.

Because of the turmoil in his country, Gaye fled to neighboring Zimbabwe six years ago and is now attending a seminary college in Chicago.

Innis, 22, came to America in 1998 to study at the University of Evansville in Indiana. Both men plan to return to Africa and use their education to help their people.

Separated for 10 years by the war, the cousins only recently reunited to trace their shared heritage together.

&uot;Everything was leading to Mississippi,&uot; Gaye said.

A stop-over in Jackson yielded little information, the men said. &uot;It has not been successful until we came to Natchez,&uot; Gaye said.

While searching the archives at the NAPAC Museum of African-American History and Culture Wednesday, Gaye said they explained their mission to museum employees.

In an outpouring of excitement and interest by local historians, the men spent Thursday being shuttled around town to various historic sites, including Foster Mound, the site of the plantation where Abdul was enslaved.

&uot;That was very emotional,&uot; Gaye said. Agreeing with his cousin, Innis said they were both close to tears.

&uot;Just to see they fields they toiled (in) &uot; Gaye said solemnly.

Records show Abdul was a slave to Thomas Foster in the late 1700s. Abdul’s claims to royalty went unheeded by Foster who valued his slave as an accountant, Shirley Wheatley, NAPAC museum, said.

On a visit to Natchez, an Irish surgeon recognized Abdul as the son of an African king who saved his life while in Africa.

Gaye and Innis repeat the same story in more detail. While peddling sweet potatoes one day, Abdul recognized the surgeon by his eye patch.

Approaching the surgeon, the slave asked if he would like to buy his ware, at which point the Irishman realized the Natchez slave was the prince, Gaye said.

After convincing Foster to free Abdul, the surgeon helped him raise money to return to Africa through speaking tours, Wheatley said.

Forty years later, Abdul finally made it to the African coast, but died before reaching his homeland, Gaye said.

Strangely enough, Liberia is the only country in Africa to grow and eat sweet potatoes – a commodity which has become their staple, Gaye said.

With more research and future visits to Natchez, the men hope to answer that questions as well as many others.

After a quick stop at City Hall Thursday afternoon to meet Mayor F.L. &uot;Hank&uot; Smith, the visitors’ host, the Rev. Hiram Coker of Grace United Methodist Church, fulfilled a special request by the men – to see a cotton field like the ones their enslaved ancestors worked.

While Coker explained the plants to Innis, Gaye softly narrated a home video as documentation for his book.

&uot;(There is) no bit of anger,&uot; he said. &uot;But a sense of healing and reconciling the past and the present.&uot;