From his home near Coral Bay, St. John, Navy veteran Alvis Christian can see a part of V.I. history. Fortsberg Hill is the place where transplanted slaves staged an uprising in 1733, sending planters fleeing for safety to the North Shore and holding the island for six months.
But as he shared his recollections in honor of Black History Month, Christian, 68, spoke about a time almost 30 years ago when a love of history took him to an island off the coast of Senegal and a place called the House of Slaves.
That trip was one of three he took to West Africa in the mid to late 1980s, he said. It provided an opportunity to share the experience with the children of Virgin Islanders living in New York. At the time Christian said he was winding up a career in the Wall Street Financial District, making plans to head back home.
Guiding the youth through educational adventures turned into something he would continue after founding the Johns Folly Learning Institute on St. John’s southeast shore. JFLI recently marked its 22nd anniversary.
“I’m going back to the beginning to think about how our people made it in the Caribbean. They didn’t fly, they didn’t come here because they wanted to. They were put in chains to get here. I was fortunate enough to go to Africa three different times and I’ve been to Senegal, Goree Island, with the Door of No Return, and to listen to what our people had to go through,” he said.
“A friend of mine who is deceased now and I worked a lot with kids in New York. We decide that we ought to take these kids to Africa, to the homeland where the majority — not all — of black people came from. The idea was that you had to visit Goree Island the minute you got over there. We went to Senegal, we went to the Gambia, where Alex Haley traced his family back to. Then we went to Ghana, in which I had visit Elmina Castle, which was the largest slave castle in western Africa,” he said.
About 13 members of a New York youth sports league made the trip to Goree Island. Former U.S. President Barack Obama took his family there in 2013.
The House of Slaves is described as a museum dedicated to the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Between the 15th Century and for 400 years after that, the building served as a market for merchants dealing in humanity – men, women and children.
The entire market area, he said, was about the size of Fortsberg.
The Door of No Return is found at the end of a narrow hallway. Around the time of the Obama’s visit a story appearing in the Washington Post cited research by African scholars, questioning the lore around the door.
But in an interview with the Source, Christian spoke about the legend of the door as it was told by tour guides to him and the young New Yorkers, circa 1987.
‘”You had to go to Goree Island, because it was a little island off of Senegal. You take a boat. It’s about a half hour ride from Senegal.
‘It was amazing, the story that is told about the slaves. How they were shipped off, and how they were sectionalized – woman, boys, girls, men. Everybody was weighed. The strongest survived and they went aboard. Those that weren’t up to the weight, they would feed them and after a time, if you didn’t make your weight, there was no use for you. They got rid of you – throw you over the side, or somehow get rid of you. That was an experience I’ll never forget,” Christian said.
“And seeing how they would have them chained. And in the court yard, if they disobeyed an order, so that the rest of the slaves could see what would happen to them if they disobeyed an order. It was something you could never forget, the Door.
“After you went through the door, the ship was right there. It was called the Door of No Return. There was a narrow hallway, and once you go down there, you go through the door. That was it, straight to the ship.”
About 33,000 captured Africans made their westward passage across the Atlantic from Goree Island, although local scholars said there were other massive structures – called castles — that shipped hundreds of thousands more.
Scholars also questioned the use of the Door of No Return. Despite the legend, some said, most of the human cargo did not pass that way to board the ships.
Since then, trips sponsored by the learning institute have not relived those times. But students taking part in its after school activities have gone on organized tours of Disneyworld, the Kennedy Space Center and most recently, Cuba.
Shared content for Virgin Islands Source and St. John Tradewinds.