Preserving Black American History Through Song in the Dominican Republic

SAMANA, Dominican Republic — Martha Leticia Wilmore, a retired schoolteacher who lives in the port city with a inhabitants of roughly 100,000 individuals off the northeastern fringe of the island of Hispaniola, has had the identical Sunday morning routine for almost all 90 years of her life: She eats a chunk of candy bread, drinks a cup of ginger tea and will get dressed in a freshly pressed shirt to attend the service at the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) church, one in all two locations for worship for the neighborhood because it branched off years in the past from St. Peter’s, domestically generally known as “La Churcha.”

Ms. Wilmore is a descendant of a gaggle of greater than 300 African-Americans who chartered a ship to Samana in 1824 from Philadelphia. For her and 10 different older neighborhood members, ranging in age from 80 to 104, attending the weekly church service is a method to protect the historical past of the early African-American settlers, handed down by means of songs and the English language. It is a historical past that many worry will probably be forgotten.

“The church is where I go to praise God and preserve my family’s story,” Ms. Wilmore mentioned from the front room of her residence in the Wilmore neighborhood, established by her great-grandparents.

Inside St. Peter’s Evangelical Church, the oldest church in city that was based by the settlers, a gaggle of youngsters sang “Amazing Grace” in entrance of a crowd crammed with congregants who sang alongside whereas carrying an assortment of white outfits.

“It’s a beautiful story and if they don’t know it, it will get lost,” mentioned the Rev. Jerlin Feliz Diaz, 45, pastor at St. Peter’s Church.

The historical past is wealthy, starting in the early 1800s when President Jean-Pierre Boyer, one in all the leaders of the Haitian Revolution, used land and sources to lure black Americans, many who have been freed slaves, to the island that he and his compatriots had simply overtaken. in 1824, Rev. Richard Allen, an A.M.E. Church pastor, led a gaggle to the area, in line with Ryan Mann-Hamilton, an anthropology professor at LaGuardia Community College and a descendant of these immigrants.

The Haitian management of the island has been recalled by some Dominicans as a brutal interval, complicating the neighborhood’s relationship with its new neighbors. The city of Samana, the place the African-American neighborhood settled although, was geographically remoted, additional insulating them from Dominican society, complicating problems with id and acceptance on the island.

The relocation to the Dominican Republic got here throughout a again to Africa motion for black individuals in the United States, Professor Mann-Hamilton mentioned. Some estimates declare that as many as 6,000 African-Americans migrated all through the island and as many as 13,000 went to West African nations like Liberia and Sierra Leone.

“There was a large issue dealing with what to do with freed black people during this time period,” Professor Mann-Hamilton mentioned.

All passengers on that authentic ship to Samana obtained their freedom by escaping the slave-owning South or by buying their very own freedom papers. They hailed from A.M.E. church buildings in the South and all through the Eastern Seaboard and had surnames like Sheppard, Hamilton, Wilmore and King, which proceed to be frequent all through the port city.

Establishing a viable church turned the focus of the group in 1824. African-American cultural practices have been preserved by means of the weekly church actions, which proceed immediately. English was spoken in houses and in colleges established by the church buildings, and different culinary and cultural traditions have been handed alongside, like gingerbread and “johnny cakes,” a cornmeal flatbread.

In 1930, nevertheless, the use of English was stigmatized by President Rafael Trujillo, a brutal dictator. He started a course of to “Hispanicize” the whole nation by implementing Spanish-only legal guidelines in the area, which he enforced by means of ways like bodily violence and imprisonment. He closed down English-speaking colleges and exhibited violence towards any non secular or cultural practices that had roots in African custom. For the settlers, a black migrant group introduced in by Haitians, a tradition and neighborhood was in danger.

“His people banned us from speaking the language we had grown up speaking,” mentioned Franklin Wilmore, 75, a neighborhood music teacher and weekly A.M.E. church attendee. Many individuals in the neighborhood who solely spoke English and needed to be taught Spanish, developed a hybrid “Spanglish” language in the meantime.

In 1979, issues modified when cruise ships beginning arriving in Samana. Ricardo Barrett Green, 64, who grew up talking English earlier than the ban, was one in all the first descendants to get employed by Carnival Cruises to translate for English-speaking vacationers.

He remembers his first day on the job at age 18, “I was alone with 50 white people who were staring at me and I didn’t know what to do, so I began to sing a church song that I knew in English: ‘I’m up on the mountain and I will not come down! I’m up on the mountain and I will not come down,’” he mentioned, laughing whereas recalling the expertise. “They loved my performance and everyone clapped. I came back the next day and sang more songs and eventually learned how to be a good tour guide.”

Connecting to the music and songs of their black American ancestors has been vital to the neighborhood. Lincoln Phipps, 86, a retired music teacher and member of St. Peter’s, grew up enjoying the trumpet in the church and continued as an grownup. He doesn’t play in church anymore, however he performs his trumpet and sings gospel songs like “God Will Take Care of You” at residence for his spouse. Mr. Wilmore now teaches music composition in addition to African-American religious hymns he realized as a baby to school-age kids.

Ms. Wilmore and plenty of of the descendants of the 1824 wave of African-Americans, have an advanced definition of their Dominican id. While they have been born in Samana, and in some ways really feel Dominican, they acknowledge their roots in African-American historical past and have yearned to attach with distant kin in the United States.

“Singing with African-Americans has been one of the greatest experiences for me,” Ms. Wilmore mentioned, describing her expertise touring to Atlanta a number of occasions to take part in A.M.E. church occasions. “I’ve always felt more connected to black people in the U.S. than in the Dominican Republic.”

Others, nevertheless, haven’t been in a position to journey to the United States. When the African-American settlers arrived in Samana in 1824, the authorities gave a lot of them medals to differentiate themselves as Americans. The medals have been supposed to each have fun their arrival and have been initially advised that it will permit them to return to the United States. But many can not return as a result of their medals have been misplaced and plenty of of their paperwork have been destroyed over time.

When Barack Obama was elected as the United States’ first African-American president in 2008, Wilfred Benjamin, 45, a neighborhood tour information and cultural preservationist, pursued a longtime hope: He drafted a letter to the U.S. authorities asking for Samana residents to be acknowledged as the descendants of African-Americans. There was no response.

“There’s no way to identify our history,” Mr. Benjamin mentioned. “There’s no statue or official order or cultural center.”

Zoila Henriquez, 46, Pastor Diaz’s spouse and an lively member of the St. Peter’s Church, is main an initiative to protect the historic paperwork which are saved in a black suitcase inside the church. In addition to visiting the elder members of the church who can now not bodily attend Sunday companies, she spends hours attempting to protect authentic immigration paperwork from the church’s founding members.

So a lot of the paperwork that we now have are crumbling as a result of they haven’t been cared for in a correct manner,” she mentioned whereas she sifted by means of the church’s information, studying the dates and names of the settlers. “We have the names of each of the original descendants but it’s nearly impossible to restore them because they are nearly crumbling.”

While the older descendants of the African-American settlers are confronted with the worry of dropping contact with their historical past, youthful descendants like Jose Jones, 20, who think about themselves Dominican and communicate solely Spanish, know they’ve a historical past with roots in African-American tradition that they really feel stress to protect.

“The only history that we learned about was the story of Cristobal Colon, who came here and discovered this area,” Mr. Jones mentioned over the sound of a baseball recreation performed close to the heart of city. “Our ancestors left what they had in the U.S. and came here and we’re trying to learn more about them.”

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