Dozens of Black American college students have arrived in Ghana to explore their African roots during a unique 11-day visit sponsored by the NAACP and funded by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The 43 students from across the United States will paint schools for Ghanaian schoolchildren and visit the dungeon of a former slave castle. And at the end of the trip, the American students will learn their own specific African ancestry through a DNA test.
“I’m looking forward to painting the schools, because I love doing community service, as well as going to the slave dungeon, because I know that’s going to be powerful and leave me speechless. I know it’s going to be emotional and I’m trying to get ready for it because those are my ancestors right there,” said Erika Love Morris, 18, a sophomore at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee.
The trip is the joint brainchild of what the Rev. Amos C. Brown on Monday called a dream team of NAACP and Latter-day Saint leaders. They created the Amos C. Brown Fellowship to honor the civil rights activist and longtime pastor of San Francisco’s Third Baptist Church.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints earmarked $250,000 for the fellowship. Church and NAACP leaders announced the trip last summer at a joint news conference when they revealed the church’s commitment to provide $9.25 million in contributions to the NAACP and the UNCF (United Negro College Fund).
The Brown Fellows include 16 Latter-day Saint students, some of whom are white, and 16 NAACP-related students. Another 11 were identified by the Rev. Brown, who is helping to lead the tour.
“We must be agents of change and hope, and not of despair,” the Rev. Brown said at a welcome dinner on Monday night after the group arrived in Ghana’s capital of Accra.
He said the NAACP and the Church of Jesus Christ have assembled a team of leaders who have united as “people of goodwill, intelligence, industry, courage and a great spirit of hope.”
“We need to make it known to the world that through enterprises such as this that we can bring hope to America,” he said during remarks released on the NAACP’s Instagram account, “and let America know that with God, we are never check-mated. There’s always another move that can be made. You are making that move tonight, by going on this venture to Mother Africa, to Ghana, to witness where this evil Atlantic slave trade began.”
The Rev. Brown and other NAACP leaders have worked closely with President Russell M. Nelson and other church leaders since early 2018, when the leadership of both organizations held a joint news conference to call for racial harmony and an end to prejudice.
Since then, the church has worked together with the NAACP to tailor its self-reliance programs to inner-city American Blacks. President Nelson went to the NAACP convention in 2019 and said the church wanted “to build bridges of cooperation rather than walls of segregation” and has asked church members to lead out in abandoning racism and prejudice.
Leaders of both organizations and other observers have suggested that the unexpected relationship between the nation’s leading Black civil rights organization and the church is a healing model of cooperation and civility in an era of division.
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen, a former NFL quarterback, General Authority Seventy and new president of the church’s Africa West Area, is traveling with the students. He noted a plea for light in the opening prayer at Monday’s welcome dinner.
“The way that you find light is to connect hearts,” he said. “And so, in the next 10 days, to all of our fellowship students, and to our leaders and anybody else who has any part of this, as we connect hearts, get out of our comfort zone just a little bit, we’re going to have an even more amazing experience.”
Morris, the Fisk University student, is from San Francisco and knew the Rev. Brown. She always had a deep interest in Black American history, soaking up information about Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr.
“This trip really intrigued me because now I can go further than that,” she said in a phone interview. “I never thought it was possible for me to go farther back than that, to look further into where I am from, back to where my people started. This trip really started and sparked that interest.”
The fellows’ arrival in Ghana had an immediate, powerful effect on them, they said.
Morris said it was beautiful to be in a place where Africans and African Americans are the majority.
Lauren George, 22, a senior at San Francisco State University, thought about the largely unknown history of her family back to its African roots.
“It’s sad but also miraculous to think about all the things my people endured and survived for me to be able to be born and to even go back to Africa for myself and see all of these things. It’s just a miracle, honestly,” George said by phone.
“I want to know more about where I come from,” she added, “what people endured to get me to where I am today. I think it’s very important to know where you come from so you can help figure out where you’re going and motivate you to continue to make progress.”
Carter Martindale, 23, a Latter-day Saint graduate of Sky View High School in Smithfield, Utah, is about to start his senior year at Harvard in government and Russian studies.
“I’ve wanted to come to Africa for a while,” he said. “My mom is Jamaican, but beyond that we don’t know where we come from in Africa, but we know we have a home here.”
He’s looking forward to learning more through African Ancestry’s $299 MatriClan DNA test that was conducted for each student as part of the fellowship. The results are in, but the big reveal will happen on Monday near the end of the trip during an African naming ceremony.
NAACP President Derrick Johnson said students need to know the history of the Transatlantic slave trade “to ensure that the African diaspora is no longer preyed upon.”
Some 12.5 million captured African slaves were transported across the Atlantic Ocean for nearly 400 years, according to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History. Approximately 16% came from Ghana, and many left via the slave castles on Ghana’s coast. As many as 30 slave ships would line up at a time outside a castle port.
Martindale, the Harvard student from Utah, said he is hopeful the student fellows will return home to do more together.
“Optimistically, the sky’s the limit,” he said. “We’re having a lot of conversations about this. From the church perspective, we’re thinking about how can we love our neighbor like ourselves and how can we treat everyone entirely equally. The NAACP students may be looking at more structural, concrete changes.
“I’m hopeful that our different perspectives can come together to form meaningful friendships and in the future brainstorm meaningful action.”
George, the San Francisco State student, had a similar hope.
“I’d like everyone to know that God is good, first and foremost, and that anything is possible with unity,” she said. “don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone because you’ll never know who you’ll meet and how that will just change the trajectory of your future.”
Martindale, a returned Latter-day Saint missionary who served in Ukraine and Moldova, said that after one day, the trip already felt like a spiritual journey.
“It’s very spiritual. It’s very heavy. I’m getting emotional just sitting on a chair in the hotel lobby right now. There always comes a point I think in your faith journey as a Latter-day Saint, especially if you’re of African descent, where you have to confront the history and the things that happened in our church,” he said in a phone interview, referring to the church’s 1852-1978 policy restricting Blacks from the priesthood and temples.
Martindale said he was grateful for the church’s funding of the fellowship.
“The fact that the church is willing to pay for a trip and give the opportunity for young people like me to just come here and experience the motherland, I think it provides a lot of opportunity for personal revelation, for personal growth, to really kind of reckon and grow my personal relationship with God and understand that even if I don’t entirely understand why church policy was the way it was back before I was born, I can understand that now God is still very much loving and very much guiding this church and wants me to be involved as much as I can, regardless of what I look like, regardless of what my background might be.
“I’m just excited for what I think will be a very spiritual journey.”