Legacies of slavery and freedom

By PENDA HONEYGHAN Observer writer

Sunday, June 26, 2016

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A 2008 dream of University of the West Indies (UWI) Professor of Social History Verene Shepherd to witness a reunification between ancestors of an African-Jamaican boy known to many as Little October, who along with 27 other slaves were emancipated in 1795 by their owner Quaker David Barclay in one of the most famous mass emancipations in Atlantic World history, was on Thursday actualised at the UWI regional headquarters in St Andrew.

The historic meet was held under the theme, ‘Legacies of Slavery and Freedom: A Family Journey through the Atlantic World’.

It saw Humphrey Barclay from the UK, a descendant of Quaker David Barclay, who not only freed but transported and sought a better life for his slaves in Philadelphia; and Keith Stokes of the US, descendant of Little October, who later took the name Robert Barclay, reconnecting the legacies of their families through documents and scholarly research.

"When I was a student at the University of Cambridge, I came across the story of these enslaved Africans from Unity Valley Pen in St Ann who were freed by David Barclay," Professor Shepherd said.

"Inspired by the story, I wrote an article and at the very end of it expressed my interest in learning about their lives in Philadelphia. The article was picked up by Keith Stokes, then by The Guardian in the UK, and Mr Humphrey Barclay learnt about it then. Mr Stokes contacted me and soon after Mr Barclay, who asked for me to make the connection, which I did, and they expressed a wish and I am happy to have played a small part."

Humphrey Barclay, who spoke of David Barclay’s decision and preparation to free his slaves, said that more than his commitment to see his slaves freed was a more compelling desire to give them an opportunity to lead normal lives. As such, he made arrangements with a group in Philadelphia to ensure that when the slaves arrived they would be housed, educated and apprenticed, and sent out into the world to experience a world of equal opportunities. However, there was a minor hiccup as the slaves heard stories of a re-enslavement in a new land. It took much persuasion before Humphrey, in his writings, said John, age 32, identified as one of the more mature and intelligent, finally gave in.

"We will go. You are our massa and you have the right to do with us as you please," John is reported to have said, the only solace coming with knowing that these were the last submissive words that he would have used as a free man.

Barclay is a producer of TV comedy in the UK. His programmes have successfully promoted black talent on screen and behind it. Since 2001 he has been a development chief in Ghana, doing community work which earned him a local award for humanity and the honour of a British Empire Medal from the Queen.

Stokes, on the other hand, delineated a picture of transformation, growth and success of the freed slaves who led good, upstanding lives by contributing in varying ways with their newly acquired talents; many, including his uncle and ancestors before him, who stepped forward to serve and bleed for a country that did not see them as equals because of the colour of their skin.

However, he also paused to laud the efforts of David Barclay, who he said did not merely free the slaves, but created a logical plan for their reparation.

"In my own thinking and understanding of the processes that took place in this historic transition, let us think of this story of Little October and his fellow brothers as not one of enslavement, but a story of survival," he said.

Stokes is a native of Newport, Rhode Island, and has served as a Rhode Island advisor for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, along with serving on numerous regional and national historic preservation boards. He has been the recipient of the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society’s Fredrick Williamson award and Daughters of the American Revolution Excellence in Community Service Award.

Said Professor Shepherd: "I believe the story of survival after slavery is a powerful one. It is important for us as Jamaicans to hear about our ancestors, to know what happened to our ancestors, to understand our history, and we got a chance today to hear from actors in history, even if only two of them."

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