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Willow Hill event celebrates culture, commemorates the past
"Go back into your past, reclaim your culture!" proclaims Amir Jamal Toure' during the Willow Hill Heritage Festival and Commemoration of 400 Years of African-American History opening ceremony. Shown at left, Toure' is from the Geechee Kunda Cultural Arts Center in Riceboro, and was one of several storytellers featured at Willow Hill last weekend. - photo by AL HACKLE/Staff

Costumed storytellers, African rhythms on drums, word from experts in community preservation and exhibits offering a clear-eyed look at  slavery and its aftermath were part of last weekend’s ninth annual Willow Hill Heritage Festival.

This year, the Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center, based in the historic Willow Hill School near Portal, made its festival the key event of a commemoration of 400 years of African-American history.

While a light rain fell the morning of Aug. 31, about 40 people gathered for the opening ceremony emceed by Khalil Maycock of WSAV-TV. Father-and-son drummers Abu-majied Mayor and Yusuf Major played West African djembe, songba and dun dun drums in the center’s entranceway.

Amir Jamal Toure', from the Geechee Kunda Cultural Arts Center in Riceboro, appeared in colorful headdress and persona for the “From Our Homeland to America” story.  Ngoanathabo Hall, originally from Liberia, told of its establishment in 1847 by African-Americans who fled slavery, followed by oppression of indigenous peoples by the “Americo Liberians,” recent civil wars and a period of renewed hope.

Dr. Alvin Jackson, Willow Hill Center board president, appeared as Father Time to tell true stories of local ancestors. Two other storytellers, Lillian Grant-Baptiste on Saturday and Patt Gunn, who was accompanied by guitarist and folksinger Sirdeepy Frazier on Sunday, drew from traditions of the Gullah Geechee culture of Georgia, the Carolinas and eastern Florida.

Saturday night, a Willow Hill all-class reunion attracted a few generations of alumni, some of whom trace their lineage to the original school’s founding by former slaves in 1874.

New exhibits “Tragedy at Ebenezer Creek,” “Many Thousands Gone,” and “Beyond Property: Slavery in Coastal Plain Georgia 1650-1865” remain up. The museum is slated to open for tours 1-6 p.m. on three upcoming Sundays: Sept. 15, 22 and 29.

Because of uncertainties created by Hurricane Dorian, the Maternal Health Symposium slated for Sept. 7 has been postponed without a new date. But watch the Statesboro Herald for other Willow Hill events planned through September.

Savannah storyteller Lillian Grant-Baptiste shares some of her favorite tales in the Gullah-Geechee tradition at the Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center Saturday. Grant-Baptiste was one of many storytellers, historians and speakers who contributed to the celebration of Willow Hill and African-American history and traditions. - photo by By SCOTT BRYANT/staff
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