Reliving the struggles, traditions of slavery

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By Jesef Williams

Slavery frustrated and drained Kessie so much that she asked God to take her life away.

She had been dragged from her homeland of Africa, brought to America on a ship and forced into life as a slave. Through the process, she was separated from her family and doubted if she would ever see them again.

Kessie's frequent loud calls to God and emotional hymns represented the pain she had been feeling for a long time.

She and other slaves were often whipped by their masters, leaving blood running from their backs and mouths. She wondered if life could get any worse.

"The auction block, the slave ship – I remember it like it was yesterday," said Kessie, during a passionate talk with God.

"As soon as I was sold, I was put into a wagon with other slaves," she said. "I'm tired of being sold. I'm tired of not knowing what happened to my mother and brother."

Kessie's struggles came to life Saturday at the Mount Carmel AME Zion Church camp grounds.

Kitty Wilson-Evans of Lancaster has been portraying the 17th century slave Kessie for years. She's done readings and re-enactments here and works regularly as a slave interpreter at Historic Brattonsville in York County.

At Mount Carmel, Wilson-Evans and other re-enactors acted out skits depicting various aspects of life for blacks held in bondage, including prayer rituals and gift giving. The skits were part of The African American Odyssey, a month-long celebration of black history sponsored by the University of South Carolina at Lancaster.

Dorothy McNally, another Brattonsville re-enactor, gave a presentation on some of the foods slaves ate. Yams, turnip greens, corn and okra were commonplace in this region.

With meats, the slave owners and their families ate the more desirable parts of the animals and gave the leftovers to the slaves, McNally said.

For example, pig intestines - known as chitterlings - were consumed mostly by black slaves and, as a result, are popular today mostly within the black culture.

Re-enactor Laura Stevens handed out cotton to the crowd and asked them to separate the seeds as slaves were required to do. She and Wilson-Evans then led an activity in which children made dolls using just rosemary, fabric and yarn.

Slaves often gave rosemary to each other as gifts. The fragrance of rosemary was regarded by slaves as strongly as many would think of perfume today.

Participants and onlookers gathered under a brush arbor that was made specifically for the re-enactments. Similar brush arbors once served as a sanctuary for slaves who'd gather under them to hold worship services.

"They would shout and praise God," said Dr. Bertha M. Roddey, an African-American studies professor a USCL who organized the day.

Even people who weren't re-enactors dressed in period clothing to help give the celebration a stronger sense of authenticity.

"I thought this would be a great opportunity to get a little hands-on experience about our culture," said USCL freshman Jazmine Belk, who was wearing a black dress that resembled those worn by slaves centuries ago.

Lancaster resident Rick Stevens did not dress the part, but said he still gained a lot from Saturday's activities.

"To see it acted out - it's alive," Stevens said. "It really touches down in your heart."

Stevens said he realized that faith was sometimes the only thing that kept slaves strong.

"They had to trust God to be in such an oppressive state," he said. "That brush arbor shows us that they always believed in a higher power, a true master."

Contact Jesef Williams at 283-1152 or jwilliams@thelancasternews.com