Negro House at Sierra Leone, from an 18th Century engraving
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Valerie Tutson

Project Priscilla…

Joseph Opala called me in August, 2004 and said he wanted to talk about a story linking Rhode Island, Sierra Leone and South Carolina during the days of African captivity, and today as well. It was an intriguing idea! As a storyteller who tells the stories of Africans and African Americans, I am a story lover! And I particularly seek out the stories of people missing from the history books, the stories of black women and girls.

We met soon afterwards at a teacher’s workshop. It had been a year since I invited Joe to speak at the National Black Storytelling Festival and Conference which was hosted by the Rhode Island Black Storytellers (aka, RIBS). Joe had no idea then how large a role Rhode Island had played in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but he had the chance to visit Newport and one thing led to another. As the pieces fell into place, Priscilla’s story unfolded. Then, Joe asked if RIBS would help spread the story in Rhode Island.

RIBS is an organization dedicated to promoting awareness, appreciation and application of Black storytelling. Clearly, Priscilla’s story was one that needed to be told. RIBS members were excited and inspired, but we also knew that we could not do it alone. As a small non-profit organization of storytellers with only one very part-time staff member working to produce our annual storytelling festival, we would need lots of help.

We put out a call to the community and people came. With leadership from Jim and Judy Alexander, Faith Fogle and Pamela Pieras, we established “Project Priscilla,” a grassroots educational and fundraising effort. We started telling Priscilla’s story in the community and inviting Rhode Islanders to come together in an act of remembrance and reconciliation. Our hope is that10,000 people will give $1.00 each to help Thomalind Martin Polite return to her ancestral home in Sierra Leone and then come to Rhode Island after she returns to share her story with us — and to bring her own story full-circle.

It has been a fascinating process. People are captivated by Priscilla’s story. Most give readily, but some are still bound by the shame and guilt connected with the legacy of slavery. But allied projects have sprung up all around the State of Rhode Island:

  • RIBS member Melodie Thompson Thomas is working with Providence Black Repertory Company students to present Priscilla’s story in movement and rap.

  • Raffini and Abigail Ifatola Jefferson worked with young people in Woonsocket, Rhode Island this past January to perform Priscilla’s Story during FUNDA FEST: A Celebration of Black Storytelling.

  • Braima Moiwai, a professional storyteller from Sierra Leone now living in North Carolina, came to FUNDA FEST to share his African stories and songs with us and to make links between the Carolinas, Sierra Leone and Rhode Island.

  • St. Michael’s Church in South Providence, Rhode Island made Priscilla’s story the focus of their Kwanzaa celebration this year.

  • Gina Giramma and Kristin Hayes, teachers at Narragansett High School, got their classes involved in Project Priscilla, and the students went into the community to tell Priscilla’s story and raise funds for Mrs. Polite’s trip to Africa.

  • Robert Dilsworth, a Professor of Art at the University of Rhode Island, painted a portrait of Priscilla that Mrs. Polite will present to her Sierra Leonean hosts.

  • The African Alliance of Rhode Island is planning a grand African Homecoming for Thomalind Martin Polite when she comes to our state later this year.

Priscilla’s story is clearly far from over, and RIBS and Rhode Islanders are excited to be a part of its unfolding! And it’s not too late for everyone to join in and make it happen!

Valerie Tutson
Providence, Rhode Island