Former student shares story of royal ancestry

Elise Foley

Artemus Gaye knew he descended from slaves, but it took a civil war in his native Liberia, eight trips to Mississippi and years of research to discover he is also descended from royalty.

Gaye, an employee at Kellogg’s Allen Center and a former Northwestern student, traced back his ancestry and found that he is the seventh-generation descendant of Abduhl Rahahman, a West African prince-turned-slave who is the subject of a recent documentary film.

“Prince Among Slaves,” which is airing on PBS and will be released on DVD Tuesday, tells the story of Rahahman’s capture, 40 years in slavery and eventual freedom. The film, narrated by rapper and actor Mos Def, won Best Documentary at the 2007 American Black Film Festival.

For Gaye, who is interviewed during the final scene of the film, “Prince Among Slaves” is the culmination of a search for history that began in Liberia in his great-grandmother’s house in 1990.

His family was forced inside by the rebels, who also cut the electricity in the city of Robertsport, Liberia. Instead of listening to the radio, they gathered to pray and to listen to stories about their ancestors. This was the first time Gaye, then 16, was told that his ancestors were slaves in Mississippi, and he said it was a “sobering reflection.”

“It was the first time to think about the word ‘slavery,’ and it was not abstract,” said Gaye, 34, who is working toward a Ph.D. in Christian ethics at Loyola University of Chicago. “It was no longer thinking about them, it was thinking about us – our history.”

Months later, Gaye and his father fled Liberia. He never saw his great-grandmother again, and he never heard the rest of his family history. He vowed then to learn about his ancestors, but his research did not begin until he moved to the U.S. in 1997.

Gaye visited museums and libraries, armed with only a few details and the name “Simon,” Abdul Rahahman’s grandson. Once he began studying at NU in the Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and the Medill School of Journalism, he found records of Simon’s enslavement in Mississippi and his voyage to Liberia.

He then discovered that Simon was the grandson of a prince, Abduhl Rahahman.

“As long as I knew the name SiMonday, I felt confident that I was going to find documentation on them,” he said. “So when I came over to Chicago (to attend Northwestern), everything was just working well in my favor.”

Driving a car he bought for $800, Gaye and his cousin traveled to Mississippi in the summer of 2000 to look for more records of their ancestors.

“It was like an adopted child who had just heard about his parents, and he wants to see them, that is how I felt,” he said. “I survived civil war in Liberia. Nothing was going to stop me from going there to see where my folks were once living.”

They were welcomed into a family’s home, and the local newspaper ran a story about their search on its front page. The article led to help from a local historian, David Dreyer, who helped him to learn about Abduhl Rahahman and find other lost descendants.

At the same time, the Unity Production Foundation, a non-profit educational foundation, discovered a book about Abduhl Rahahman, also titled “Prince Among Slaves.” The foundation wanted to make a documentary about his story as an enslaved Muslim man.

In 2004, they approached Andrea Kalin, a filmmaker with Spark Media, to serve as director, writer and producer.

Kalin said she was attracted to “the sheer improbability” of Rahahman’s story. As Rahahman led his men back from a successful battle in what is now Guinea, they were captured and sold into slavery in 1788. In the U.S., Rahahman fought for his freedom for 40 years, aided by a Mississippi doctor who he had helped when the doctor was shipwrecked in West Africa.

Rahahman and his wife were granted freedom in 1828. They met with abolitionist leaders and the president to plead for money to buy their children from slavery, but only got donations to buy three of their nine children.

Rahahman and his wife returned to Africa as part of a movement for former slaves to settle in Liberia, where he died in 1829.

Kalin said Rahahman’s story is important because he was well-educated and a Muslim, which many people do not relate with slavery.

“We were taught in history classes that when the slaves came across the Atlantic, they were like a blank slate,” she said, “But it was his faith and his attachment and his sense of who he was that actually allowed him to endure.”

In the final scene of the documentary, Gaye and the other descendants gather at the plantation where their ancestors once worked. Most had not known they were descended from a prince until Gaye and Dreyer showed up at their doors to tell them. Kalin said it was important to her to see the family meet on the grounds of the plantation.

“It was interesting, in the far distance to see (the slave owner’s) dilapidated tombstone hanging out there in complete disarray, and in front was this thriving, dynamic family getting to know each other and getting to know our past,” she said.

Gaye started a foundation to help spread his ancestors’ story in 2002. The foundation focuses on improvements for Liberia and for the descendants of former slaves in the U.S.

Gaye said he hopes to help others to find their family history, because it was so important to him to discover Rahahman.

“It was like fulfilling a wish of my great-grandmother,” he said. “I’ve done something that she wanted us to know. Her oral history could actually prove a place in America.”

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