Whites wore T-shirts that said "So Sorry" and armbands labeled "Penitent." Blacks displayed bands that said "Forgiver." They converged yesterday on what is now the Annapolis City Dock, a spot where slaves were once bought and sold.
About 400 people joined what organizers described as a "reconciliation march" through downtown Annapolis, ending at the Maryland State House, where descendants of the slave Kunta Kinte and of auctioneer John Ridout, the man who sold him into bondage in 1767, embraced.
Orlando Ridout IV, left, a descendant of a slave auctioneer, embraces Chris Haley, right, a descendant of Kunta Kinte's, and Kunta Kinte foundation official Leonard Blackshear.
(Mark Gail -- The Washington Post)
"Today we are here to show that we in Annapolis have the will to take persistent steps toward applying chemotherapy to that cancer, racism," said Leonard Blackshear, president of the Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Memorial Foundation, which helped organize the event. Kunta Kinte was memorialized in the best-selling book "Roots," written by Haley, another descendant of the slave's.
The march comes during a troubled period for race relations in Anne Arundel County. A series of racially tinged incidents over the past few years has raised concerns among government officials and community leaders.
In 1999, County Executive Janet S. Owens canceled the county's "Adopt a Road" program rather than let a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan put its name on a road sign. Last year, five South River High School students were arrested and charged with hate crimes for allegedly spray-painting pro-Klan messages in school stairwells and distributing neo-Nazi fliers.
Supporters of Sojourner Douglas College, a Baltimore-based African American institution that plans to open a campus in Anne Arundel, accused residents who recently opposed the plan of doing so out of racial animus -- a charge that residents denied. And this week, the FBI announced that it was opening a civil rights investigation into the death of an African American student who died last summer during a brawl.
"Given those incidents, that's all the more reason why we should reverse the tendency toward hatred," said John Coursey, pastor of Sollers United Methodist Church in Lothian.
The Annapolis rally was the first of several in the United States to be staged by the Lifeline Expedition, which has sponsored similar marches in Europe. Organizers said they hope yesterday's demonstration will help ease the county's racial tensions. They said they are planning community meetings to help residents deal with the harmful ways in which slavery resonates.
City officials feared that the rally could spark unrest or violence. About a dozen uniformed officers were on hand throughout the 2 1/2-hour event; they reported no arrests or incidents.
As the marchers made their way to the capitol, members of the white supremacist group National Alliance held up signs that said, "You are entering a WHITE GUILT zone" and followed the marchers along the quarter-mile route.
"Many would say it's over, that racism is a dead issue," said David Pott, a Lifeline member." But pointing to a demonstrator, he added: "As we can see, it's not. That just means we have more work to do."
As part of the rally, several white descendants of slave owners were chained together by the descendants of slaves. Those whites also wore a yoke around their necks.
Pott said the chains and yokes were merely symbols and were not meant to offend. By reversing the roles -- having the whites led in chains by blacks -- "we're creating a new story," he said. "We're transforming this into a message of togetherness. . . . I don't think it goes too far. Slavery went too far."
At one point, he bowed his head and apologized for his English ancestors. "I ask forgiveness of African Americans here today for the horrors endured by your ancestors on London slave ships," he said.
Orlando Ridout IV, 82, who lives on the Annapolis farm his family has owned since 1783, said he joined Alex Haley's nephew, Chris Haley, also a descendant of Kunta Kinte's, to signal a healing of slavery's lingering wounds.
"I think it's very important to make people realize that we can be friends, that we are friends," he said.