Tiffany Dena Loftin stood barefoot inside a slave dungeon at Cape Coast Castle in Ghana and cried. A tour guide was explaining the horrific conditions captured Africans endured inside those walls more than 400 years ago.
Black bodies were chained together; women on one side, men on the other. There was no toilet or light or water, and little air. Food was thrown onto the floor through a tiny slit in the wall. The small dungeons were hot and dark, each crowded with as many as 100 bodies steeped in blood, sweat, tears and human waste. Those who did not survive the horrific conditions were thrown into the Atlantic Ocean and eaten by sharks.
White chalk markings on the walls three or four feet high were left by the archaeologists who had to dig through centuries-old piles of dirt, food and human remains to get to the bottom of the dungeon.
“They had to live in their own filth, sleep in it for months,” said Loftin, 30. “(Slave traders) didn’t even consider us human beings.”
She took off her shoes in the dungeon to feel the floor underneath her feet where so many Africans had suffered. Overwhelmed, she broke down and cried. A tour guide, Michael Orleans, comforted her.
“He told me, ‘I want you in your tears to recognize that your ancestors who fought, struggled and died are rejoicing because the journey that they could not complete to return back home, they used you to do it. They used you to finish the journey that they could not finish. Welcome home,’” remembers Loftin. “I cannot tell you how powerful that moment was to me.”
Loftin, director of the NAACP’s Youth and College Division, was part of a nearly 300-person delegation from the organization that visited Ghana last August in celebration of the country’s Year of Return. The NAACP’s journey started in Jamestown, Virginia, the first permanent English colony, less than an hour’s drive from where the “20 and odd” Africans landed at Point Comfort in 1619.
“For 400 years we have been here, building, participating, liberating as well as making democracy work,” NAACP President Derrick Johnson told the crowd in Jamestown as they prayed and held rituals to honor the ancestors. “We are embarking on this journey in this 'Sankofa' moment to understand the ground we stand on.” (The term Sankofa is of Ghanaian origin and relates to the concept of finding wisdom in the past and bringing it into the present.)
The spirit of DuBois
The first stop after landing in Ghana was to another Jamestown, one of the oldest districts in the capital city of Accra, to be welcomed by President Nana Akufo-Addo for a 10-day visit that included an economic business summit and tours of the W.E.B. DuBois Memorial Centre for Pan African Culture and the Kwame Nkrumah Memorial.
DuBois, who in 1909 was a principal co-founder of the NAACP, is recognized as the father of Pan-Africanism, an idea that Africans on the continent and those of African ancestry in Western countries should bond over their shared heritage and work together toward common social and economic goals. DuBois moved to Ghana in 1961 at the invitation of Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president, after the country gained its independence from Great Britain in 1957. DuBois died on the eve of the 1963 March on Washington, while working on an encyclopedia of Africa. He and his wife, Shirley Graham DuBois, are buried in a mausoleum on the grounds of the DuBois Centre.
DuBois was not the only U.S. civil rights leader to embrace Ghana. The King Papers Project at Stanford University notes that Martin Luther King Jr., who attended Ghana’s independence ceremony, saw parallels in the country's struggle for freedom and the civil rights movement in America. Coming as it did after the success of the Montgomery bus boycott, the celebration in Ghana gave him hope.
King told a Ghanaian radio station that Ghana’s new independence, “will give impetus to oppressed peoples all over the world. I think it will have worldwide implications and repercussions — not only for Asia and Africa, but also for America… It renews my conviction in the ultimate triumph of justice.”
Former congresswoman Diane Watson (D-Calif.) joined the NAACP’s journey to mark African Americans' connections to Ghana. During her 12 years in Congress, Watson served on the foreign affairs committee and traveled to Africa many times.
“These are our roots. These are our people,” Watson said during a bus ride to the village of Kumasi, about 130 miles from Cape Coast Castle. “We’re learning about the passage that brought us to the United States, the hardship we endured, and that only the strong survived.”
One hardship was a miles long trek to the Assin Manso Slave River, where captured Africans were bathed before they were branded, auctioned and either marched or taken by boat 40 miles to the slave dungeons on the coast.
“Our souls floated through that water,” said Paul Wallace, 65, a cosmetic dermatologist from Los Angeles interested in opening medical spas in Ghana. “And the river flowed like tears, the tears of our ancestors.”
Tears and awakening
The journey to Ghana was emotional for many in the group, including the nearly 100 people in the delegation who were on an active search for their roots. They had sent in DNA samples to African Ancestry to find out where on the continent they might come from. The reveal took place at Cape Coast Castle and the Hanes family of Howard County, Maryland, was called up last.
While others in the group had DNA that could be traced to Senegal, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and other African countries, the Haneses were the only ones whose DNA could be traced to Ghana.
Lesley Hanes, who traveled to Ghana with her two daughters, Maya, 10 and Jasmine, 14, and her 75-year-old mother, Ophelia Stephens, says she was shocked.
“That means that there was a girl who was able to survive in one of those dungeons right underneath our feet,” said Hanes, 43. “To think that there was a girl who looked like me or one of my daughters who was down there, who was able to make it, gave me chills. ”
Hanes says she had an awakening in Ghana. Some parts of the trip were mesmerizing, she said. The group learned about Ghana’s history at Independence Square in Accra. They were guests at the Akawasidae Festival in Kumasi, a commemoration of ancestors held every 42 days. The group visited Ashanti craft villages and bartered at the open air Makola Market, where between 6,000 and 8,000 vendors sell everything from food to jewelry to household goods.
Other parts, like the tour of the Cape Coast Slave Castle, left her speechless.
“To have this architecturally and structurally beautiful place, a very majestic and pretty castle, but then to know these demonic practices were happening within its bowels — enslaved people, tortured people, depriving people of their humanity — the juxtaposition was a little overwhelming,” said Hanes, a physician for the Food and Drug Administration.
Wallace left Africa recharged. “I’m so proud that those individuals, my people who had the will to live and the belief of a living spirit held on,” said Wallace. “I’ve got to pass this on to the next generation. I have a moral obligation to pass on what I saw and let everyone know who we are.”
Lottie L. Joiner is editor-in-chief of The Crisis magazine. Her visit to Ghana with the NAACP was partially funded by the Pulitzer Center.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Year of Return: NAACP honors African ancestors with journey to Ghana