Learn, discuss the prince among slaves

Published 12:04 am Thursday, May 26, 2011

Communicated for the National Republican

Natchez, April 7, 1828

“This letter will be handed to you by a very extraordinary personage — no less than your old acquaintance Prince, (or Ibrahim;) who is now free, and on his way to his own country; where he was captured in battle, nearly forty years ago, and has been in slavery nearly the whole of that period, upon the plantation of Mr. Thomas Foster, of this county. I am much gratified to have been the instrument of his emancipation — although from his advanced age (sixty-six years) he can but possess merely a glimpse of the blessings to which he was entitled from his birth.”

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Thus begins an article in a national newspaper dated 1828, describing the fight for the freedom by Abdul-Rahman Ibrahim ibn Sori, an educated African prince who spent the majority of his life as a slave on Foster’s Plantation north of Natchez, now known as Foster’s Mound.

The man writing it (probably local newspaperman Andrew Marschalk) clearly thinks of Abdul Rahman not as chattel, but as a person, a man in his own right.

Yet, here was an African slave who had powerful white allies fighting to gain his freedom while ignoring the fact that there were millions more for whom there was no fight, no hope for freedom.

Although the capture and enslavement of the prince robbed him of his potential kingship of his home country, his descendants think of him not only as royalty but as a family patriarch who gives a specific identity to otherwise innumerable faceless African ancestors.

One of those descendants, Adams County resident, Beverly Adams, says, “It is a bittersweet tale, which contrasts his identity with the injustice done to him. His faith brings honor and nobility from his native country, Futa Jallon, to Natchez, like jewels dug out of the muddy water of the Mississippi.”

She adds, “It is ironic that the indignity and suffering of slavery created such a rich history for my own African-American family, as portrayed by Dr. Terry Alford’s book, Prince Among Slaves.”

Many of us in Natchez are familiar with the story and the 2008 award-winning PBS documentary, Prince Among Slaves, which faithfully follows that story. It deserves more than one viewing.

The public is invited to a screening of the film at 2:30 June 5 at the City Auditorium at Jefferson and Canal streets with an introduction by the author himself, Dr. Terry Alford, who is making his first return to Natchez in nearly 30 years.

Following the screening, the audience is invited to participate in discussions of small groups led by special guest, Amadou Shakur, founder of the Center for the African Diaspora in Charlotte, N.C.

Similar events are being held in major cities throughout the country. It has met with success because these discussions reveal aspects of African heritage and culture not portrayed in most films. Some educators have noted that textbooks often neglect to mention the advanced societies from which African slaves originated, and their impact on the cultural history of America.

“The DVD added a wonderful teaching experience to my class. Students liked the format of the film, following the Prince’s life as a slave. Many also noted that they never really thought about people of all classes or people of different faiths being taken as slaves.” — Beverley High School teacher, Beverley, Mass.

“For me,” says Ms. Adams, “this is an authentic ‘Roots’ story, not just for my interrelated family, but for many other families in the Natchez region.”

The article from 1828 reflects this bittersweet story when Abdul Rahman was forced to return to Africa without having gained freedom for his children:

“Prince called to see us yesterday, with his wife and sons, who are really the finest looking young men I have seen. They were all genteely drest; and although they expressed themselves pleased with the freedom of their parents, there was a look of silent agony in their eyes I could not bear to witness.”

Please join us for a screening and discussion from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. June 5 at the City Auditorium and a reception with refreshments afterwards at the NAPAC Museum. All attendees will receive a free DVD of the film. This event is free and open to the public.

Event partners include Adams County, Alcorn State University, Antioch Missionary Baptist Association, Bluff City Post, City of Natchez, Copiah-Lincoln Community College, Friends of the Armstrong Library, Historic Natchez Foundation, Judge George Armstrong Library, NAACP, Natchez Association for the Preservation of Afro American Culture, Natchez Convention and Visitors Bureau, Natchez Historical Society, National Park Service, National Endowment for the Arts and Unity Productions Foundation.

For more information, contact Judge George Armstrong Library www.naw.lib.ms.us.

Elodie Pritchartt is a Natchez resident.