Tue, 11/26/2019 - 22:26 By Akindele Decker
Mary Moran
Imagine, singing a song from memory, with all the melody in it’s tune, in a language you don’t understand, the meaning of the song, you don’t know. Yet this song you know must be important, especially since it has survived in your family for almost 200 years, through several generations.

This would seem strange and unreal, but this is the story of Amelia Dawley and Mary Moran, native of Harris Neck, Georgia.

In the 1930s, almost a hundred years after the emancipation proclamation, Lorenzo Dow Turner, one of the first African American Linguists, carried out a few studies of the Gullah people of the lowcountry south, recording their stories, songs, and words. His was interested in learning more about the speech of the Gullah people and possible connections to their African past. He must have been aware that South Carolina especially, was one of the most important gateways where most enslaved Africans went through before being sold to the other colonies. During his quest, Turner recorded a 5-line song by Amelia Dawley, which she had heard from her mother, Tawba Shaw, and Grandmother Catherine, both who had been enslaved. Turner later discovered a decade later that the song lyrics were actually in Mende, one of the major languages in Sierra Leone, West Africa.

The song would gain noteirity about 20 years later in 1989, when American Anthropologist Joseph Opala and Ethnomusicologist Cynthia Schmidt came across the song again and this time, Amelia Dawley’s daughter 69-year old Mary Moran now carried the legacy of singing the song to her family. Opala and Schmidt took it a step further and travelled to Sierra Leone, searching for anyone who may recognize the lyrics. Certainly, one can imagine that after 200 years, even though the Mende song had survived, so much had changed within that time, communities had evolved, people migrated, cultures changed.

Baindu Jabati, in Senehun Ngola, a Mende village in Sierra Leone, recognized the traditional funeral song right away and even began to sing along. Almost a decade later in 1997, Opala and Schmidt traveled with 75-year old Mary Moran and her family from Georgia to Sierra Leone for the first time, where Mary and Baindu met and instantly shared a historic intimate connection, 200 years in the making, held together by a song.

Since the visit of the Morans, both families have maintained an active connection and the Morans have invested in health and educational facilities in the village. Wilson Moran, Mary’s son, who accompanied her on the trip to Sierra Leone in 1997, has taken the mantle of continuing his family’s epic legacy, and his dedication to Sierra Leone has certainly retraced the footsteps of his Ancestors back to where they came from. Sierra Leoneans have embraced him and the Moran family right back.

In December 2019, Wilson will join a group of about 40 African Americans, mostly from the lowcountry regions of South Carolina and Georgia, for another historic trip to Sierra Leone. The group are set to experience some of those Wilson experienced years ago, including a visit to Senehun Ngola and Bunce Island, a historic slave fort off the coast of Sierra Leone, where their Ancestors may have very well passed through. The Family Tree bends, but it never breaks.

Imagine that!