Return to story

Man achieves royalty

November 17, 2008 1:08 am


As a customary sign of appreciation, the Rev. Jarvis Bailey (center) places a dollar bill on the head of musician Okyerema Asante. lo1117ghana3.jpg

Paula Royster (second from right) and a delegation from Ghana pray before the ceremony Saturday at Belmont. lo1117ghana1.jpg

Howard Robertson of Memphis, Tenn., (right) is reunited with his African relative, Chief Nana Ndama Kundumuah of Princes Town, Ghana, during a ceremony at Gary Melchers Home & Studio at Belmont Saturday.


Amid the beating of bongo drums and audience members dressed in colorful African outfits, Howard Robertson of Memphis walked into a ceremony Saturday night as a public relations executive--and emerged a king.

He recently discovered through DNA testing that he shares the same blood as a chief from the West African country of Ghana. That makes him an heir to the throne of the Nzema tribe, according to those at a Stafford County ceremony Saturday.

Robertson shares a common female ancestor with Chief Nana Ndama Kundumuah IV of Princes Town, a sister city to Fredericksburg.

Their connection may go back 28 generations before families were separated by the slave trade, said Paula Royster, a genealogist who organized the reunion.

"What slavery tore apart 400 years ago, we are going to put back together today," she announced.

Worldwide, there has been a push in recent years for people to use DNA technology to trace their roots to a particular part of the world. The kit costs about $100. Participants swipe a swab inside their cheek, then mail it back.

Robertson did that two years ago, assuming he'd discover in what part of Africa his ancestors lived. "I had no idea it would lead to an individual," he said Saturday. "This is most amazing."

Royster said Saturday's reunion marks the first time people from two continents have been matched by DNA. She said it also was the first time an African chief performed this ceremony on America soil, although the chief did a similar ritual last week at a slave burial ground in Richmond.

"We're on the threshold of history," she told those at the event.

Royster is founder of the Center for African American Genealogical Research, a free online service that helps black families learn about their ancestors.

She's also president of the Fredericksburg-Princes Town Sister City Association.

At Saturday's event, Robertson and four men from Ghana gathered in an indoor pavilion at Gary Melchers Home & Studio at Belmont.

Most of the 90-minute service was devoted to speeches about the history of Ghana and slavery. When it was time for the "main course," as described by the master of ceremonies, the Rev. Hashmel Turner Jr., several of the 70 people in attendance got out of their chairs and gathered up front. Few others could see what was happening. There was no explanation of the rituals involved in the atonement and reconciliation ceremony and no introduction of participants.

As it turned out, the chief took off a sandal and one of Robertson's shoes. He dipped his finger into a bowl and wiped three streaks of red on his foot and Robertson's. (The red liquid was the American substitute for goat blood, used in the African version.)

Then, the chief held out a knife with a gold handle and an elaborately carved blade. Traditionally, the chief--also called the king--would use the same knife to beckon his tribes into battle.

The chief pressed the knife against his chest, then Robertson's, three times. Then, the chief wrapped Robertson in Kente cloth--a colorful woven garment native to Ghana--and the two long-lost relatives hugged three times.

The ceremony was meant to reconcile their two families and atone for the evils of slavery, Royster said. Its goal was to heal the individuals involved, their tribes or families and their nations, she said.

Robertson, 56, said he had trouble describing his emotions after the ceremony. He wished his father, who died in 2004, could have seen it.

"This would be the most amazing deal to him, right up there with Obama being elected president," said Robertson, who wants to visit the chief in Princes Town.

He also plans to tell his first grandchild, who is due next month, about his DNA discoveries.

"This allows me to give my family some priceless information about where we come from," he said, "and that's something most African-Americans don't get."

Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425

Copyright 2014 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.