By Alessandra Prentice
Halfway across the Atlantic Ocean, the plane carrying Tani Sanchez and her daughter Tani Sylvester on a heritage tour to Ghana crossed paths with a powerful storm.
A sharp drop in elevation hurled flight attendants to the floor. Passengers started screaming and crying.
“‘Oh my God, I brought my mom! What did I do?’” Sylvester, 40, recalled thinking as the plane shook. “It was the scariest thing that has ever happened in my life.”
After a few minutes, the pilot pulled the aircraft to safety above the dark clouds.
Looking back, Sylvester sees the moment of terror as a nudge from the past, an invocation of the suffering of millions of Africans who were crammed into the lightless hulls of ships and sent in the opposite direction during the centuries-long transatlantic slave trade.
“I think my ancestors were telling me, this wasn’t an easy trip for us,” she said.
“They sailed over that same Atlantic Ocean. It was traumatising and scary for months, and I experienced five minutes of trauma and I was freaking out.”
The two Tanis are among a growing number of African Americans exploring their ancestral roots in Ghana, which has encouraged people with Ghanaian heritage to return in honour of the 400th anniversary of the first recorded arrival of African slaves to English settlements in what would one day become America.
They had set off the previous day from Los Angeles, where Sylvester works for a digital-streaming service. But their family’s journey began nearly two centuries before on a sugarcane plantation in Louisiana – and, before that, the homeland to which they were bound.
THE ‘LITTLE BITTY’ SLAVE
Sanchez’s great-great-grandmother Mary Ann Moss was born into slavery around 1838. Moss was a “little bitty lady” with long hair pulled back in a bun who was tough from growing up as a house slave on a Louisiana sugarcane plantation set on an isolated bluff. After obtaining permission from her master, she married her first husband according to slave custom by jumping across a broom together. He died at his plantation; no one knows how.
After the Civil War, she married a black former Union soldier from the North named Charles Wright who had moved to Louisiana to seek his fortune. Wright so cherished his memories of serving in a Union regiment that he kept his uniform carefully preserved in his home and was often called “Soldier” by family and friends.
The couple prospered after Wright bought his first piece of land, where he established orange groves and grew apricots, pears and pecans. They had six children, but only three survived childhood.
They lived in a well-appointed home filled with old-fashioned furniture and canopy beds and would go to church every Sunday in a stylish buggy pulled by “fine big old red horses.”
TRACING A FAMILY’S HISTORY
These stories from a beloved grandmother about the family’s experiences through slavery, the Civil War and early 20th century America sparked Sanchez’s lifelong quest to discover her ancestry.
Using oral histories, court transcripts, land deeds and census documents, Sanchez, who is an associate professor of Africana Studies at the University of Arizona, gathered enough information to form a clear picture of the past few generations on her mother’s side.
The result is a 300-plus-page book on her family’s history, “‘Didn’t Come From Nothing’ – An African American Story of Life.” All the details of the family’s history here are taken from the book.
For a long time, Sanchez’s efforts to glean insight on earlier generations came to nothing. Like most African Americans, her ancestry was erased by the machinery of slavery. Would-be family historians often reach dead ends because of a lack of personal records from a time when black people were treated as commodities.
The advent of genetic testing gave Sanchez hope that DNA could shed light on the family’s lost origins. The results, some showing a direct link to the Ashanti ethnic group in Ghana through her great-great-grandfather Wright, helped pave the way for the mother-daughter tour this month.
On the eve of the trip, sitting at her kitchen table in California with her mother, Sylvester talked about what the journey meant to her.
“We’re the first people in our family who’ve ever gone back home to Africa,” she said. “The last people that came from Africa, they came in chains. They were slaves, and we’re going back as free people.”
HANDMADE STOOL AND A HOMELAND
Family lore has it that Charles Wright was never enslaved, but contradictory public records muddy the picture. He was born in the 1830s or early 1840s in Maryland or Virginia and in older age looked like the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, according to one of his granddaughters.
He enlisted in the United States Coloured Troops in 1864 and served in Corpus Christi, Texas, before moving to Louisiana.
Very little is known about his early life or his origins. DNA tests now suggest he has an unbroken black male line extending back to the Ashanti people.
He made himself a personal prayer stool that ended up in the possession of grandson Taft Wright. The Ashanti have a tradition of carving wooden stools as seats for their owner’s soul. Sanchez sees Wright’s stool as a clue that he may have been within touching distance of his African past.
FOOTSTEPS AT THE SLAVE RIVER
After arriving in the sprawling, humid Ghanaian capital, Accra, Sanchez and her daughter joined a group of around 40 mostly African Americans. They got to know each other as they were taken around the city by a tour guide who taught them to sing a Ghanaian hymn and how to respond to a traditional call for their attention in the local Akan language.
Mostly strangers before the trip, the group bonded as they followed the torturous route their ancestors may have taken. In the dungeon of a slave fort, they stood together in shocked silence as they heard how the floor beneath their feet was still grouted with centuries of hard-packed human faeces, urine, blood and flesh. If one of the group appeared overwhelmed, others would quickly seek to console them, offering tissues, a hug or a sympathetic ear.
“I have taught introduction to African American studies and I have taught slavery, but there is something about being here and actually walking on the path and looking at the dungeons and looking at the devastation colonisation has left – there is nothing like it,” Sanchez said toward the end of the tour as Atlantic waves crashed onto the nearby beach.
The previous day, the group had visited a river farther inland where slaves were forced to bathe before imprisonment on the coast ahead of their journey to the Americas.
They picked their way down the bank past stands of bamboo to the shallow, sun-dappled water, helping the less sure-footed as they went. On the guide’s invitation, Sylvester stepped into the creek, closed her eyes and raised her hands in prayer.
“I felt what my mom was saying about honouring the ancestors, like my ancestors would want me to get into that water and retrace their steps,” she said. “And even just taking off my shoes and feeling the same ground that they walked on, getting into the water, I just feel like I came out of that water a different person.”
Afterward, Sylvester wrote with black marker on a pink memorial wall at the site, “Long journey home,” and she and her mother signed their names: Tani S + Tani S.
QUILT-MAKING AND THE PAST
Born in 1897, Mary Louise Wright had a happy childhood, attending quilting bees and gumbo parties at her grandparents’ house in Lake Charles, Louisiana. She was a favourite of her grandfather Wright, often accompanying him on visits to his orange groves.
Before she turned 20, Mary Louise married Curley Euell, who worked as a lumberjack in the local sawmill. His father had been the victim of a lynching in the area. Euell never spoke about his father or his death.
In 1924, the couple and their four children joined the “Great Migration” of African Americans moving away from the South. Euell had accepted an offer to relocate to Arizona, so the family loaded themselves and their belongings onto a freight car, sleeping on mattresses as they headed west.
They eventually settled in Tucson and bought a house that remained a gathering place for generations.
Quilt-making was an important social activity for Mary Louise throughout her life. Some of the quilts’ patterns or color schemes appeared to hint at an unconscious African influence. In the quilts, Sanchez could see her family’s connection to its forebears across the sea.
“WE ARE ONE”
Once in Ghana, Sanchez was electrified by the sense that she was meeting people whose grandparents’ grandparents’ grandparents may have known her African ancestors.
The tour involved long bus rides on bumpy roads hedged with tattered banana and palm trees. As they journeyed inland to the Ashanti capital of Kumasi and then back to the slave sites on the coast, they passed shops tacked together out of sheet metal, old boards and tarpaulin offering everyday services with a religious flavour: “Great Miracle, fax and printing,” “With God Tailoring” and “Peace Be With You Keycutting.” Street vendors weaved through the traffic, selling chilled drinks and snacks from bowls balanced on their heads. In the distance, a vine-draped tropical forest covered the rolling hills of what the passengers were being told was their homeland.
During a traditional Ashanti “durbar” ceremony of drumming and dance outside Kumasi, a local chief formally welcomed them back to the tribe and proclaimed: “We are proud of you. … We are one.”
In a small courtyard, musicians in black-and-white robes beat waist-high drums as the chief, his wrist stacked with chunky gold bracelets, performed a ritual dance under a large fringed parasol spun above him by an attendant.
The tour group lined up to greet the chief one by one. After stooping to shake his hand, Sanchez returned to her seat. Almost in surprise, she reached up to catch a tear sliding from beneath her glasses. She pulled a crumpled tissue from her handbag and dabbed her eyes.
“I certainly didn’t expect to cry. I studied this. … I’m actually crying?” she said afterward.
“I was thinking of my obsession with genealogy and how I’ve been doing it for years,” she said as curious locals stood in the back watching the event. With a friendly smile, one girl in skinny pink jeans pulled her phone out to film a member of the tour dancing to the drums.
“My ancestors would have given anything to go back, anything to escape the horrific situation,” Sanchez said. “And here we are. And I truly believe that they were looking down and they got a kick out of it.”
NOT A SECOND-CLASS CITIZEN
After the move to Arizona, the Wright-Euell family continued to encounter unequal treatment. They weren’t welcome in restaurants and were only allowed to sit in the balcony of cinemas. The children faced insults at school from white teachers and pupils, which their mother advised them to ignore.
Mary Louise’s determination that they receive a good education led her to work for wealthy white families as a maid, eventually putting all six children through university or nursing school.
She had inherited her grandfather’s resolute character and refusal to see herself as a second-class citizen despite the severe restrictions against black people.
In the 1960s, as the Black Power movement was getting into gear, a young Sanchez excitedly told her grandmother about what she had recently learned about African and black American achievements.
The information didn’t surprise Mary Louise. “Well, we didn’t come here empty-handed. We didn’t come from nothing,” she replied.
The phrase would ring in Sanchez’s ears during her years of research into the family’s history. She had a name for her book.
MISSING PIECE OF THE PUZZLE
As Sanchez and her daughter prepared to fly home from Ghana, Sylvester talked excitedly about her hope that black people in the diaspora might eventually take subsidised trips back to Africa similar to the “Birthright” program that offers Jewish youth from around the world a free trip to Israel.
“Everyone has a homeland. People go, ‘Oh I’m from Ireland, I’m from Scotland.’ Being African American, I tell people I’m from New Orleans, like that’s where I was born, you know?” she said.
“There’s something healing about being here, eating the food, meeting the people – it’s the missing piece of the puzzle that connects you to who you really are.”
Sitting side by side, the pair mused over what they would be feeling as they flew back over the Atlantic to the United States. They were still dressed in the white clothes worn for an earlier ceremony, where they had received a traditional name and sipped schnapps from a cup proffered by a local chief wrapped in a robe of densely patterned cloth.
No matter the flight conditions, their ancestors would not be far from her thoughts, Sylvester said.
“They went through all of this hardship so that I wouldn’t have to, but I need to acknowledge that every day that I’m alive.”
Sanchez said she was still processing everything she had seen and learned on the trip, but felt a sense of closure. When asked if she planned to continue her genealogical quest, she replied, “I’m actually kind of satisfied.”
Nevertheless, her book on the family’s history may need to be updated.
After the durbar ceremony in Kumasi, Sanchez seized a chance to talk to the chief and asked if he would be willing to be tested to find out if they share any genetic links. He agreed, and she kissed his hand.
Later she said she hoped to find someone to do the test. “And then find out,” she said. “Why not find out?”
Reporting by Alessandra Prentice; edited by Kari Howard. Additional reporting by Kia Johnson in Washington, D.C., and Rollo Ross in Los Angeles.