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How the legacy of African slaves brought to North Carolina still affects the state

Black History Month kicked off Saturday as thousands of people packed the N.C. Museum of History to learn more about African and African-American culture and history.

Musical and spoken word performances, panel discussions, and arts and crafts helped attract 9,627 people on Saturday to the museum’s 17th annual African American Cultural Celebration. The theme of this year’s celebration was “From Africa to the Americas,” tracing how the culture the enslaved Africans brought to the New World continues to affect African-Americans today.

“We’re really emphasizing what I call the ‘African retention,’ ” said Michelle Lanier, executive director of the North Carolina African American Heritage Commission. “The cultural traditions and history that kind of illuminate the connection of the people from the continent of Africa and the people who are of African descent here on North Carolina soil.”

The N.C. African American Heritage Commission has created a website, https://aahc.nc.gov/, that will go live Feb. 1 when Black History Month officially starts.

From the literature to the food to the music and dance and in many other ways, Lanier said the state was heavily affected by the African diaspora.

For instance, culinary historian Justin Robinson pointed to how common Southern foods such as rice, black-eyed peas and okra came to North America because slaveholders were trying to feed their new slaves from West Africa what they were accustomed to eating.

“These black-eyed peas that I eat all the time and my mom ate and her mother ate and her mother ate, is an unbroken chain that links us directly back to West Africa,” Robinson said.

Lanier, who attended Robinson’s panel, told the crowd that learning about the history “allows us to tear down these negative stereotypes around our food and shame around our food.”

Lanier pointed to how frying food like chicken was an ancestral food preservation technique and eating watermelons helped keep people hydrated as they worked outside in the heat.

“It was part of the brilliance of our ancestors,” she said.

Malcolm Beech, president of the United States Colored Troops Living History Association, came with around 20 re-enactors to educate the crowd about the pivotal role African-American soldiers played in the Civil War.

“A lot of times people just don’t think there was anybody from North Carolina that fought with the Union,” he said. “There were 6,000 U.S. colored troops from North Carolina that fought with the Union.”

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Members of different U.S. Colored Troops re-enactment groups, led in front by color guard of David Theroith (left), Marshall Williams (center) and Julian Tripp (right), march to the N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh for the 17th Annual African American Cultural Celebration on Saturday, Jan. 27, 2018. T. Keung Hui khui@newsobserver.com

The event attracted a number of African-American families.

This year’s celebration was the third one attended by Melina Mitchell of Durham. She brought her 11-year-old daughter, Joceyln Coleman.

“We’re still learning different things about our culture,” Mitchell said. “I want her to know where she came from and how far we’ve come and how much more we’ve got to go.”

Jocelyn, a sixth-grade student at Lowe’s Grove Middle School, said learning about her heritage will help her toward her goal of going to college.

“I want to learn about my heritage and history,” she said.

But the event also brought people from other racial and ethnic groups. Rose Railey of Bahama in Durham came with her husband and son to learn more about how slaves used the Underground Railroad network in Halifax County to escape to freedom.

“I like to learn more about black history and U.S. history,” Railey said. “The Underground Railroad tells the story of all of us.”

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui

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