Kunta Kinte Heritage Festival

Kunta Kinte Heritage Festival

Date Observed: Late September
Location: Crownsville, Maryland

The annual Kunta Kinte Heritage Festival is a two-day event that marks the arrival of Kunta Kinte, an African ancestor of acclaimed novelist Alex Haley, on the Annapolis, Maryland, docks on September 29, 1767. Since 1987 the festival has educated, entertained, and energized participants about black experience and culture.

Historical Background

During the 1960s and 1970s, Alex Haley researched his genealogy. In 1976 the story of his family's origins in Africa was published in Roots, which quickly became a bestseller. Haley had traced his great, great, great, great-grandfather Kunta Kinte back to his ancestral roots in The Gambia. It was here that Kinte was born and lived prior to being captured, then transported across the Atlantic Ocean and ultimately sold into slavery on the shores of North America.

Over the course of its history, The Gambia witnessed many stories similar to that of Kunta Kinte. The region was once part of the Ghana and Songhai empires. Several European countries struggled for control of the area from the 15th through the 18th centuries. It was a valuable trade base for gold, ivory, and human slaves. Of the latter, most were initially sent to Europe, but as the need for labor expanded with growing colonization of new lands, Gambian slaves soon found themselves on ships bound for the West Indies and North America.

Slave trading was abolished by the British Empire in 1807, which, at that time, had a substantial yet shared interest in The Gambia. However, various efforts by the British to put an end to the region's slave trade were subsequently unsuccessful. It was not until passage of a 1906 ordinance, sometime after The Gambia had become a self-governing British Crown colony, that slavery was officially abolished.

Alexander Murray Palmer Haley

Alex Haley was born in Ithaca, New York, and, during his first career in service with the U.S. Coast Guard, spent 30 years on the high seas and in various locales. Regardless, Haley considered himself to be a native son of the state of Tennessee.

Both of Haley's parents were teachers: Simon, his father, was a college professor and his mother, Bertha, taught grade school. The eldest of three sons, Alex spent a good deal of his youth with his mother's mother in Henning, Tennessee. At her side, young Haley first heard the family tales of his ancestors.

After completing high school at age 15, Haley attended college for two years, then enlisted in the Coast Guard. Writing was his passion, and he practiced his craft while onboard ship, submitting manuscripts and receiving rejection letters for eight years before his work gained some acceptance. Thirteen years after his enlistment, the U.S. Coast Guard created a new rating for Haley, that of Chief Journalist. Haley remained in the service for seven more years, until he decided to pursue writing full-time.

Haley's first published book was The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965). He spent hours talking with Malcolm X to put the black leader's life story into prose (see also Malcolm X's Birthday). The book became a classic. From there, Haley researched and then wrote the epic novel Roots that would change his life - and those of many others, particularly African Americans. Based upon his extensive genealogical investigation, Haley discovered that his maternal great, great, great, great-grandfather was a man named Kunta Kinte born in The Gambia, a region of west Africa, and sold into slavery. Haley's compelling storytelling, which traced his family lineage from Kunta Kinte to his own family's arrival in Henning, Tennessee, vaulted Roots into becoming the #1 bestselling hardback book in U.S. publishing history. The tale was made into a television mini-series in 1977, attracting a record-breaking viewing audience.

Many would make a strong case that, with Roots, Haley did as much to strengthen black pride and to increase awareness of the many indignities and injustices wrought upon people of color over the past centuries as did almost any African-American leader of the 20th century.

Kunta Kinte's and Alex Haley's Roots

One day, while out in the west African jungle making a drum near his native town of Jufferee in The Gambia, 17-year-old Kunta Kinte was accosted by four men. Before long, he and 139 others were aboard the Lord Ligonier, a slave ship setting sail on July 5, 1767, and bound for Annapolis, Maryland. When the ship docked on September 29 that year, 42 of its human cargo had perished.

On October 7, Kunta Kinte became the property of John Waller of Spotsylvania County, Virginia. Despite being renamed "Tobey," Kunta Kinte demanded that his fellow slaves call him by his birth name. He made repeated escape attempts, the fourth of which resulted in a choice of punishments: castration or amputation of his foot. Kinte chose the latter and ended up being taken in by Waller's brother, a doctor, who was horrified by John's cruel retribution. Kinte remained with Dr. Waller for the rest of his life, working as a gardener and buggy driver. At Dr. Waller's home he met Bell, the woman with whom he would father Kizzy, ensuring the future of his lineage. From the time that she was born, Kizzy was regaled with Kunta Kinte's stories of his African youth; she learned the words of his native tongue and of the value he placed on human freedom.

At age 16, Kizzy was sold to a North Carolina plantation owner, to whom she bore a son, to be one day known as Chicken George due to his skills as a gamecock trainer. He went on to marry Matilda; they and their family of eight children were eventually sold to a man named Murray. The fourth of these eight children was named Tom. He married a slave girl (also of half-Indian blood) named Irene. They, too, raised a family of eight.

Once emancipation was declared in the United States, Chicken George and his numerous offspring banded together with Tom and his large family (see also Emancipation Day). They headed west and ended up in Henning, Tennessee. There, one of Tom's daughters, Cynthia, met and married William Parker. Their daughter, Bertha, would give birth to Alex Haley in 1921.

Haley's literary saga, Roots, first appeared in print in 1976 and received the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. It has since been translated into more than three dozen languages.

Creation of the Festival

In 1987 Kunta Kinte Celebrations, Inc., coordinated the first Kunta Kinte Heritage Festival. Nearly 10 years after the publication of Alex Haley's Roots, there was a desire to celebrate the author and his book, as well as to commemorate the arrival of Haley's now world-famous ancestor, Kunta Kinte. Organizers selected the site of Kunta Kinte's disembarkment in America as the ideal location for the event. However, the festival was created not only as a means of commemorating two men. Organizers also aimed to educate people about the broader cultural contributions of African Americans. The festival was designed to provide a prominent showcase for individuals and groups from a vast array of literary, performing and visual arts.


The Kunta Kinte Heritage Festival is held at the Anne Arundel County Fairgrounds located on Route 178 in Crownsville, Maryland. Events run from approximately 10 A . M . until 7 or 8 P . M . on a late September weekend. The date is selected to closely coincide with the timing of Kunta Kinte's arrival in America at the Maryland docks, recorded as September 29, 1767. Maryland Gazette. The festival is heavily family oriented, and all age groups are encouraged to attend and participate. There is a Family Education Tent with booths manned by a variety of organizations and businesses with displays on social issues, health, and history. Black authors, storytellers and oral historians are also popular annual draws at this venue.

More specifically for young people, the Chesapeake Children's Museum offers such activities as instrument and mask making, and traditional storytelling. Staff members share Kunta Kinte's tale and life lessons.

Two stages, main and performing arts, ensure that the entertainment bill holds something for everyone. In addition to nearly non-stop live musical entertainment that spans such styles as Caribbean, gospel, hip hop, jazz, rap, and rhythm and blues, African dancers, marching bands, magicians, steel drum bands, storytellers and others perform.

In addition, the Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Foundation, Inc., assists with numerous genealogical efforts each year, as individuals and families - anticipating or inspired by the festival - seek to reconnect and/or discover their own personal "roots."

Contacts and Web Sites

Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Foundation, Inc. 31 Old Solomons Island Rd., Ste. 102 Annapolis, MD 21401 410-841-6920; fax: 410-841-6505

Kunta Kinte Celebrations, Inc. P.O. Box 314 Arnold, MD 21012 410-349-0338; fax: 410-439-0069

Further Reading

Burroughs, Tony. Black Roots: A Beginner's Guide to Tracing the African American Family Tree. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001. Eichholz, Alice, and James M. Rose. Black Genesis: A Resource Book for African- American Genealogy. Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2003. Haley, Alex. Roots. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1976.
African-American Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2007

Kunta Kinte Heritage Festival

Last weekend in September
The Kunta Kinte Heritage Festival is a two-day event held at the Anne Arundel County Fairgrounds in Crownsville, Md., that celebrates the heritage and culture of African Americans. The festival, which draws about 8,000 visitors annually, is named in honor of Kunta Kinte, a Gambian youth who was forced into slavery in the United States during the late 18th century. His descendant, Alex Haley, listened to family stories he heard from his grandmother and became inspired. He researched his family history and published it in 1976 in the worldwide bestseller Roots.
First held in 1987, the Kunta Kinte Heritage Festival was conceived as an opportunity both to celebrate the contributions of African Americans to American culture and to educate younger generations about their history. The festival is held on the last weekend of September each year to reflect Kinte's arrival on the slave ship Lord Ligonier at the Annapolis port on September 29, 1767. Music and entertainment range from African dancers to Caribbean steel drum bands, jazz bands, gospel choirs, and hip hop acts. Family activities are emphasized, including games, storytelling, instrument-making, and mask-decorating. A Family Education Tent also offers exhibits and information on a variety of education, career, and health topics as well as information on social groups and political action organizations.
Kunta Kinte Celebrations, Inc.
P.O. Box 314
Arnold, MD 21012-0314
410-349-0338; fax: 509.561.8274
Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Foundation Inc.
31 Old Solomons Island Rd., Ste. 102
Annapolis, MD 21401
410-841-6920; fax: 410-841-6505
AAH-2007, p. 261
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
References in periodicals archive ?
* 2006 Kunta Kinte Heritage Festival. Anne Arundel County Fairgrounds.
Other fun-filled state activities include the Annapolis Jazzfest held June 1, the Ethnic Heritage Festival held June 7 in Silver Spring and the Kunta Kinte Heritage Festival held August 9 and 10 in Annapolis.