Throughout much of this week, King Toffa IX of Porto-Novo in Benin has spoken before African-American audiences across the Southern and Southeastern regions of the United States. Organizers described it as an opportunity to address the wrongs his ancestors committed against Africans who endured the Middle Passage and chattel slavery.
King Toffa IX’s five-city tour started Saturday afternoon at Macedonia Baptist Church, what’s considered the last bastion of Black history on River Road in Bethesda, Maryland. There, he joined congregants in praise and worship and poured out his heart. He, his entourage, and community members later walked nearly a mile to Moses African Cemetery, home to the remains of nearly 500 African ancestors of River Road, and ground zero of a battle between the River Road community and Montgomery County government.
“To be a king in Africa means that you bear the burden of this history, whether you like it or not,” King Koffa IX said in what would be his first public statement during the U.S. reconciliation tour.
“You inherit the past, the present, and the future. I’ve always known that reconciliation was necessary for Black people in America and elsewhere. Without the heart, there is no reconciliation. I’ve heard the songs of the heart. The words [of that song] came from God the Almighty. The reconciliation is here. Consider it God’s work.”
On the day following King Toffa IX’s visit, the Rev. Graylan Hagler of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Northwest announced to his congregation that he had been selected as a chair of the upcoming negotiations between the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition (BACC)/ Macedonia Baptist Church and the Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission (HOC) about Moses African Cemetery.
For the past three years, members of Macedonia Baptist Church have vied for control of Moses African Cemetery, buried under a parking lot that HOC purchased with a $20.5 million loan from United Bank. On the first Wednesday of every month, during HOC’s meetings in Kensington, BACC members have pressured members to reveal their intentions for the landmark.
Last November, shortly after his electoral victory, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich vocalized support for BACC’s cause. Since then, Elrich and BACC have been at odds about the best course of action for Moses African Cemetery. In July and August, Moses African Cemetery and Macedonia Baptist Church counted among several landmarks highlighted at an exhibit about Montgomery County’s history of Black rebellion and resilience at the American University Museum at the Katzen Center in Northwest.
In her call to transfer ownership of Moses African Cemetery to Macedonia Baptist Church, Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, Macedonia’s social justice coordinator and mistress of ceremonies during Saturday’s program, evoked the struggles of African people living in slave quarters where Macedonia sits on River Road.
“You should be very, very proud of how our people fought the evil forces of barbarism [with] the skills they acquired in Africa. They acquired these skills sitting with and learning from elders,” Coleman-Adebayo said to King Toffa IX.
“The bodies of those little African girls, your daughters from Benin, Nigeria, Ghana, Congo, and Angola, that were torn apart, through sexual violence, during slavery are across the street under a parking lot in a cemetery that we call Moses,” she continued. “Like our ancestors, we are also warriors and we cannot and will not be stopped from our mission of justice.”
U.S.-born descendants of enslaved Africans hailing from Benin have ancestors representing commoners and people of royal lineage, due to the eventual annexation of the Dahomey Empire into French colonial territory in the mid-19th century.
During the early 18th century, Porto-Novo, the capital of Benin and King Toffa’s IX ancestral home, served as a Portuguese slave port at its inception. It soon came under British bombardment and French control. By the early 1900s, Porto-Novo had been incorporated into the colony of Dahomey. Migration patterns and its proximity to Nigeria has helped Porto-Novo maintain its position as a multilingual society.
People from Benin counted among the first enslaved Africans to arrive in the present-day United States. Many of them would end up residing in South Carolina, Florida, the Gulf Coast and Virginia. King Toffa visited all the aforementioned sites, except Florida, on his United States tour this week.
On Saturday, some of King Toffa IX’s American-born family joined him at Macedonia. Alvina Smith, an activist hailing from Harlem in New York City, traced her lineage back to three kingdoms of the Republic of Benin in West Africa. She said that experience brought her closer to her ancestors, at whose behest she said she visited Benin in 2015.
Upon her return to Harlem, Smith took a DNA test, which revealed a connection to Benin and Cameroon.
“I’ve fulfilled my ancestral quest. I had to share that with my children,” said Smith, who attended the service with her daughter and granddaughter. Years ago, she had been given the title of Princess and Ambassador of the Tikar Bankim Kingdom, Cameroon.
“It was an honor to see my relatives,” she said. “I’ve always been about the community and plan to bridge that gap in advocating for our human rights and dignity in the United States and Africa. This is bigger than all of us. Reconciling is important for all of us.”