ANNAPOLIS, SEPT. 29 -- Some dressed in colorful kente cloth outfits and others in T-shirts and jeans, about 100 people gathered today along the waterfront in the sticky morning haze to remember Kunta Kinte, a symbol of black Americans' ties to Africa.

It was at the docks here that he disembarked 223 years ago today as a slave to face a lifetime of brutality from his white masters. But today there were no tears, only celebration of the spirit of Kunta Kinte, who never gave up trying to be free, running away repeatedly. Kunta Kinte told each of his children the story of his home in West Africa and how he arrived in " 'Napolis" so they would never forget who they were.

That history was eventually passed down to Kunta Kinte's great-great-great-great-great-grandson, author Alex Haley, who told his story in the book "Roots." The book was made into a miniseries in 1977, and was widely credited for creating a new wave of interest among blacks about their African ancestry, a connection that festival organizers said is as important today as during slavery.

"He is symbolic of all of us who would like to know of our unbroken {history}," said R.B. Jones, who portrayed Kunta Kinte in a dockside skit early this morning. "That continuum is very important psychologically. This festival keeps his spirit alive."

The dockside ceremony is part of the annual Kunta Kinte Commemoration and Heritage Festival. It will continue on the grounds of St. John's College from 11 a.m. to dusk Sunday.

For many in the mostly black crowd at the festival, the celebration offered a look at a part of Annapolis's history that is often obscured in a city that prides itself on being a cradle of democracy and the temporary U.S. capital in 1783.

However, Annapolis also was the entryway of thousands of Africans brought to this country as slaves; during the 1700s, the city was one-third black.

"I've been here 32 years, and only in the last 15 years did I realize that Maryland was a slave state," said Winnie Matthews, of Annapolis.

Susan Crabb, of Queenstown on the Eastern Shore, said the city's role as a port for bringing in slaves in the 18th century is overlooked because "a lot of people don't want to know."

"The only thing they think about Annapolis is the Naval Academy, it's a naval town," Crabb said. "They don't think about blacks or acknowledge slavery. What I got {about the history} I got from public television, movies like 'Glory' and this {festival}."

The festival was a family affair. Children squirmed while artists painted their faces with markings from some of Africa's largest tribes. Mary Carter Smith, a renowned "griot," or storyteller, told dramatic stories about life during slavery, and the Kan Kouran Dancers performed West African dance steps. Jazz, rap and rhythm and blues music also were featured. Merchants hawked artwork, sculpture, Africa-inspired cloth and clothing, and T-shirts with slogans of black pride.

For many parents, some of whom drove or took buses from Baltimore, Washington and the Eastern Shore, the festival helped reinforce for their children a message of history and purpose.

"It is a good way of instilling in the children the importance of knowing their heritage and who they are," said Denise Ryles-McKoy of the District, who brought along her daughter, Davina, and a family friend, Aaron White.