In 1988 he organized a visit by Sierra Leone's President Joseph Saidu Momoh to a Gullah community in South Carolina. He later organized three African American homecomings to Sierra Leone: the "Gullah Homecoming" (1989), the "Moran Family Homecoming" (1997), and "Priscilla's Homecoming" (2005). These events are chronicled in the documentary films "Family Across the Sea,"
"The Language You Cry In," and "Priscilla's Homecoming" (in production).
Opala has uncovered remarkably specific connections between the Gullahs and Sierra Leone. The Gullahs are African Americans who live in the coastal Low Country region of South Carolina and Georgia. In isolated rural communities in that semi-tropical area with its swamps and coastal marshes, the Gullahs have preserved more of their African cultural heritage than any other black community in the U.S. They are the most African of African Americans.
Opala and two other scholars located a Gullah family in coastal Georgia that has preserved a song in the Mende language of Sierra Leone, passing it down from mother to daughter for over 200 years. Their 5-line song -- an ancient Mende funeral hymn -- is likely the longest text in an African language known to have been preserved by a black family in the U.S. Opala and his colleagues found a Mende woman living in a remote rural area of Sierra Leone who still knows the song today, a discovery that led to the "Moran Family Homecoming" in 1997.
Later, Opala brought to Sierra Leone a Gullah woman from South Carolina whose family can claim an unbroken 250-year document trail linking them to a 10-year-old girl taken from Sierra Leone to Charleston in 1756. This may be the only black family in the U.S. with a continuously documented history starting with records of an enslaved ancestor in Africa. Their document trail includes slave ship records, slave auction accounts, and plantation records. This discovery led to "Priscilla's Homecoming" in 2005.
Opala began his research in the 1970s with an investigation of Bunce Island, the British slave castle in Sierra Leone. Opala was the first scholar to recognize that Bunce Island has stronger connections to North America than any other West African slave trading base. He showed that Bunce Island sent slave ships on a regular basis to South Carolina and Georgia in the mid- and late 1700s during the period when American rice planters in those colonies were eager to have the skills of African farmers from Sierra Leone and other parts of the West African "Rice Coast." Opala calls Bunce Island "the most important historic site in Africa for the United States."
Opala has devoted decades to researching Bunce Island and promoting public awareness of its importance for African Americans. He took Colin Powell to Bunce Island in 1992, and after visiting the castle, Powell recorded the experience in emotional terms in his autobiography, My American Journey. "Iam an American" Powell said, "...But today, I am something more..I am an African too...I feel my roots here in this continent."
Opala and computer artist Gary Chatelain are now working on a 3-D computer model of Bunce Island, showing in great detail how the castle appeared in the year 1805, two years before the slave trade ended there. African American TV actor Isaiah Washington recently donated $25,000 to the project. Opala is prominent in the campaign to preserve the ruins of Bunce Island, a project that will ultimately cost millions. His computer model will be used to explain the castle to visitors when the site is finally preserved.
Joseph Opala has shown that the Sierra Leone-Gullah Connection is a two-way link. Not only were slaves taken from Sierra Leone to South Carolina and Georgia, but free Gullah people also returned to Sierra Leone. Many of the Nova Scotian settlers who helped establish Sierra Leone's capital city of Freetown in 1792 were Gullahs from South Carolina and Georgia. Opala says the Nova Scotians were "really African Americans." Some Gullah people also came to Sierra Leone in the early 1800s, including Edward Jones, a South Carolina man who became the first principal of Sierra Leone's Fourah Bay College.
This two-way connection, Opala says, means that all Sierra Leoneans -- both the indigenous people from the country's interior and the Krios, the descendants of freed slaves who live in Freetown -- have family ties to the Gullahs in South Carolina and Georgia.
The three "Gullah homecomings" to Sierra Leone Joseph Opala organized in 1989, 1997, and 2005 focused national attention on the "Gullah Connection" in that country, and Sierra Leoneans responded with enthusiasm. When the first Gullah homecoming group made a pilgrimage to Bunce Island in 1989, hundreds came in boats and canoes to witness that historic occasion. Today, the "Gullah Connection" is an "evergreen" story in the Sierra Leone media -- a story of continuing popular interest. There are now several civic groups in Sierra Leone dedicated to nurturing the family ties between Sierra Leoneans and Gullahs. Sierra Leone's standard high school history textbook covers the Gullah Connection, and most Sierra Leoneans are now aware of their historical ties to the Gullah.
The Gullah homecomings also generated a great deal of publicity in South Carolina and Georgia. The documentary films based on those events have been broadcast repeatedly on local TV and shown in schools and colleges in the region. During Sierra Leone's civil war Gullah civic leaders lobbied the U.S. Congress, asking for help for their "ancestral homeland." Many Gullahs have visited Sierra Leone, and a group of recent Sierra Leonean immigrants, called the "Sierra Leone-Gullah Heritage Association," celebrates the family ties between Sierra Leoneans and Gullahs in the U.S. itself.
Professor Opala's historical research and public history work have made a strong impact in both Sierra Leone and the United States. Opala was a lecturer at Sierra Leone's Fourah Bay College from 1985 to 1992. He now teaches history at James Madison University in Virginia.
Joseph Opala is the scholar who identified the "Gullah Connection," the historical link between the Gullah people in South Carolina and Georgia and the West African nation of Sierra Leone. An American, Opala lived in Sierra Leone for 17 years, working with community leaders to highlight that country's links to African Americans. In 1988 he organized a visit by Sierra Leone's President Joseph Saidu Momoh to a Gullah community in South Carolina. He later organized three African American homecomings to Sierra Leone: the "Gullah Homecoming" (1989), the "Moran Family Homecoming" (1997), and "Priscilla's Homecoming" (2005). These events are chronicled in the documentary films "Family Across the Sea," "The Language You Cry In," and "Priscilla's Homecoming" (in production).