Freedom Fest is a bridge not a barrier’

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 17, 2006

When Dr. John Cox saw Abd Al-Rahman at a market in Washington in the late 18th century, he was stunned.

The young man the Irish doctor had known as a prince in Africa was amazed to see Abd Al-Rahman &045; who came to be known as &8220;Prince Ibrahima&8221; in Natchez &045; as a slave.

According to historian Dr. Allan Austin, who spoke Saturday at the first Freedom Fest celebrating Ibrahima, Cox tried to persuade his owner Thomas Foster to let him go.

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&8220;This man should not be a slave,&8221; Cox argued, according to Austin.

&8220;We all have to agree that we’re dealing with a remarkable man with a remarkable story,&8221; Austin told the audience, made up of some of Ibrahima’s descendants and some of Foster’s descendants.

Ibrahima had been raised as a Muslim, well-educated. At 26 he was the leader of a cavalry group.

&8220;He was being trained in Africa to be a credit to his people … to be a leader,&8221; Austin said.

Ibrahima was captured during a battle with a rival tribe, sold into slavery, brought to New Orleans and eventually came to Natchez to Foster’s plantation.

Despite one early attempt to run away, Ibrahima eventually accepted his fate, Austin said.

&8220;Allah doesn’t ask too much of anybody,&8221; Austin said, imagining Ibrahima’s thoughts on his situation. &8220;He doesn’t ask more than a man can bear.&8221;

And then Cox came into the picture, and the effort to free Ibrahima began.

It would take decades &045; and more people &045; to convince Foster that Ibrahima should be freed, and even then he let him go only when someone paid a price for his freedom. Foster did not release Ibrahima’s children with him.

It is true that Ibrahima’s story is remarkable &045; it has captivated Natchez residents and historians for as long as it has been told.

And Ibrahima was a remarkable man, so impressive, Austin points out, that people in Natchez called him &8220;Prince&8221; &045; believing his story that he was an important man in his native country.

But it wasn’t that importance that should have kept him from slavery, as Cox argued.

It was the simple fact of his humanity.

Ibrahima’s remarkable story makes him more than a footnote in history, but what he represents in the larger story of slavery is what we also must remember, what we must talk about, what we must face as we cope with the sins of the past.

David Dreyer, who has studied the Ibrahima story and family tree for years, believes that is what makes Ibrahima &045; and the Freedom Fest &045; important for all of Natchez.

It’s not just that he was a remarkable man, but that his story is representative of thousands of stories of Africans who were brought in chains across the ocean to a life of slavery.

And talking about that story &045; as descendants of the families of both slave and slaveholder did on Saturday &045; is a way to help heal those sins of the past.

&8220;It’s a way to make it a bridge, not a barrier,&8221; Dreyer said.

Kerry Whipple

is editor of The Democrat. She can be reached at (601) 445-3541 or by e-mail at kerry.whipple@