- Associated Press - Sunday, September 17, 2017

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) - On a sunny day in September 1981, state, county and city officials joined author Alex Haley dockside in Annapolis to dedicate a plaque in honor of his ancestor, an enslaved African named Kunta Kinte, who had been brought to the city in chains 214 years earlier.

“I wish our grandma was here,” Haley, an author whose book, “Roots,” had been turned into a blockbuster 1977 TV mini-series, told a crowd of about 350 people. “She used to tell tales of Kunta Kinte, the African, as she told it. All our early boyhood, we had heard about this place called Napolis.”

Two days later, the plaque was gone, pried out of the sidewalk and taken away either by pranksters, who thought stealing the much-publicized tablet would make for a good joke, or by the Ku Klux Klan. A calling card left behind, presumably by the vandals, taunted, “You have been patronized by the KKK.” Klan representatives from both Maryland and Annapolis denied any involvement with the crime.

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But regardless of who was responsible, the action infuriated those who had pushed for the plaque to be erected in Annapolis in the first place. Whoever did it should be “given the same kind of punishment they had in Kunta Kinte’s day,” Annapolis Mayor Richard L. Hillman was quoted as saying in The Sun of Sept. 24. 1981. “I would have a stock and pillory down at the dock and everybody in town could come by and spit in their faces.”

The idea of commemorating Kunta Kinte’s arrival in Annapolis had been tossed around since shortly after the eight-part “Roots” mini-series, based on Haley’s 1976 novel, aired in January 1977. (Although most historians agree that Kunta Kinte was a real person, Haley himself acknowledged that some of the events in his book were fiction, and once said he preferred to refer to the book as “faction.”) An effort to place a marker in the City Dock area later that year was voted down by the town council, 5-4. Then-Annapolis Mayor John Apostol had opposed the idea, saying he did not think the city “should single out the City Dock for one individual, especially for somebody who is not an Annapolitan or Marylander.”

Four years later, however, with Apostol out of office and Hillman, a proclaimed supporter of the plaque idea, in, the project was resurrected. The bronze plaque, dedicated to Kunta Kinte and “all those who came to these shores in bondage and who, by their toil, character and ceaseless struggle for freedom have helped to make these United States,” was unveiled, bolted and glued to the pavement, on Sept. 21, 1981. Haley was there, as were Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes, Anne Arundel County Executive Robert Pascal and Hillman.

Others in attendance included Carl Snowden, a civic activist (and later town alderman) who had led the drive for the plaque’s installation, and representatives from two groups that had picked up much of its $500 cost: Vote, a voter registration organization, and the Anne Arundel Coalition of Tenants.

Local officials saw a grand future for the plaque and Annapolis‘ connection to a best-selling book, a TV series that had set ratings records and the growing movement among African-Americans to study and celebrate their past. “Annapolis will be the Plymouth Rock for black people in this country,” Hillman predicted.

Two days later, however, the celebration took a nasty turn. The theft was discovered shortly before 7 a.m., according to The Sun, by a bread delivery man who, in the course of his rounds, had stopped by to read the inscription. “He found only the Klan card mired in glue, police said,” The Sun reported.

Divers searched the waters near the dock, but turned up nothing. While state and county officials quickly pledged to pay for a replacement, community representatives said they preferred to raise money on their own; Gov. Hughes said he would make a personal contribution. By late October, the $2,000 needed to replace the plaque, and to secure it so that vandals could not remove it so easily, had been raised.

A second plaque was unveiled on Nov. 22, 1981, weighing 1,500 pounds - 1,425 pounds more than the original, set into a concrete and granite foundation and bolted to the ground. Alex Haley’s brother, Julius Haley, was on hand.

Thirty-six years later, the replacement plaque remains, part of a larger installation honoring Haley, his story and all the men and women brought to these shores in bondage. In September 1997, the plaque was placed on a raised pedestal, so visitors could read it more easily. Members of Haley’s family - the author had died in 1992 of a heart attack - were there, as were descendants of John Ridout, the auctioneer who sold Kunta Kinte into slavery. After the repositioned plaque was unveiled, members of the two families shook hands.

Since then, two more plaques have been added to what is now known as the Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Memorial, as well as a statue of a seated Haley, speaking to three children of different ethnic backgrounds. Nearby is a “Story Wall,” containing quotes from “Roots.” And an adjacent “Compass Rose” installation, oriented due north, encourages visitors to stand in its center and “face the direction of your ancestors’ origins.”

Next weekend, Sept. 23, Annapolis‘ annual Kunta Kinte Heritage Festival, a tradition dating back to 1987, will take place at the City Dock, in the same area where Kunta Kinte arrived in Annapolis in 1767, 250 years ago.

“While vandals can remove a plaque,” a happily prescient Gov. Hughes had said upon hearing of the original theft, “they can never remove what this site means to all citizens concerned about justice and equality.”


Information from: The Capital, https://www.capitalgazette.com/

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