Celebration this week to honor African prince Ibrahima

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 29, 2003

NATCHEZ &045; The search for his roots led Artemus Gaye to Natchez. From a sketchy story told by his aging great-grandmother in their native Liberia, Gaye traced his family to an antecedent named Simon. The amazing story

then began to unfold.

To share the story and an anniversary important to his family history, Gaye has organized The First Ibrahima Freedom Fest, to be held in Natchez April 5-6.

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The Simon in Gaye’s family tree turned out to be a child of Prince Ibrahima Rahaman-Mawdo and his wife, Isabella. The story of Ibrahima is a well-known one in Natchez history, as he was indeed an African prince, captured in 1788 by a rival tribe and sold into slavery.

Slave traders brought Ibrahima to Natchez, where Thomas Foster bought him. In 1807, a chance meeting in a market between the slave and Dr. John Cox, who had known the king and his son in Africa, made clear that Ibrahima’s claims to royalty were true.

Ibrahima was a prince in Futa Jallon, an independent kingdom for 150 years in West Africa and now part of the nation of Guinea. He met and married his wife, a second-generation slave, in Natchez.

Gaye recounted the story of Ibrahima and Isabella’s manumission in 1828 and how the two traveled to Africa in the hope that Ibrahima could see his native land once again.

The story caught the attention of Andrew Marschalk, a newspaper publisher, who helped to raise funds for Ibrahima’s journey.

Marschalk also tried to raise funds to provide a farewell banquet in honor of Ibrahima and his wife but was not successful.

The banquet planned during the celebration is in honor of the two who were not feted 175 years ago but will be now, Gaye said.

Ibrahima died in Liberia, however, the quest to return home unfulfilled.

His son Simon traveled a year later to Liberia, Gaye said.

That is where one Liberian line of Ibrahima’s descendants begins.

Now living in Chicago and a research affiliate in the Northwestern University Program of African Studies, Gaye, with the assistance of David S. Dreyer, has amassed new information about his family to prepare the celebratory program to be held in Natchez, a recognition of the 175th anniversary of the couple’s first day of freedom.

&uot;The essence of the program is the bringing of people together,&uot; Gaye said. &uot;Let’s look at their lives, at the lives of Ibrahima and Isabella, and see what freedom is all about.&uot;

Gaye knows something about freedom and oppression, as he is a political refuge from Liberia. He hopes to return if elections scheduled for October should result in a change of regime.

&uot;I was a political activist,&uot; he said. &uot;I worked for programs to address poverty, health and justice for women, youth and children.&uot;

Gaye is a graduate of Africa University in Zimbabwe, where he received a B.A. in divinity and education. He continued his education at Trinity College and Seminary at the University of Liverpool with a degree in counseling.

He holds a master’s degree in theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary.

He has devoted his life to programs including healing and reconciliation, health issues and community and economic development, he said.

He found in Natchez the intriguing possibility of gathering many more of Ibrahima’s descendants or possible descendants.

&uot;The whole idea came about after three successful visits to Natchez to find out information about my family,&uot; he said. &uot;I was amazed at what I found.&uot;

Anyone with a name such as Prince or Abraham &045; or Foster, Collins or Lyons &045; should attend as possible Ibrahima descendants, Gaye said.

However, he stressed that the event is for the entire community.

&uot;It is both a family celebration and a community celebration, and we hope to attract a cross-section of the entire community &045; interfaith, interracial and international.&uot;

The Natchez program will include re-enactments of the freeing of Ibrahima and Isabella by their owner.

Special guests will include Rafiou Barry, envoy of the Republic of Guinea to the United States, and Borbor Gaye, father of Artemus and a once famous Liberian soccer star.

Special performances at the celebration will include enactment of a new play about the famous Natchez couple by the African-American Theater Ensemble from Northwestern University.