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Obama begins Africa tour, visits Senegal slave house

President Obama visits Goree Island, which he described as a powerful, meaningful experience, and calls for vigilance in the defense of human rights.

June 27, 2013|By Kathleen Hennessey
  • In Senegal, President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama look out from the "door of no return" at the Goree Island slave house, described as the exit for Africans boarding slave ships bound for America.
In Senegal, President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama look out from… (Saul Loeb / AFP/Getty Images )

DAKAR, Senegal — President Obama arrived in this corner of West Africa to deliver messages about civil society and good governance, democracy and development. Senegal's message to him was simpler: Welcome home.

The greeting was plastered on signs and T-shirts wherever Obama went Thursday during his first full day of a weeklong, three-country trip to Africa. Although Obama was born and largely raised in Hawaii, his father was born and is buried in Kenya, and on this day Senegal treated the president as one of its own.

Lampposts were covered with signs reading, "Welcome home, Mr. President." The greeting, and Obama's likeness, appeared everywhere. Crowds of people danced and waved.

Obama seemed to claim Senegal too, shaking hands and posing for pictures, but also acknowledging the dark history of slavery the country shares with the United States.

The president and his family visited a small slave house on Goree Island off the coast of Dakar, the nation's capital, where it is said men, women and children were traded, sorted, shackled and weighed before being sent across the Atlantic to the Americas.

The president stared pensively out the "door of no return," described as the exit for those boarding slave ships, while spending about half an hour in the two-story salmon-colored house filled with dark holding cells.

"Obviously, for an African American — and an African American president — to be able to visit this site, I think, gives me even greater motivation in terms of the defense of human rights around the world," Obama said afterward.

"I think more than anything, what it reminds us of is that we have to remain vigilant when it comes to the defense of people's human rights — because I'm a firm believer that humanity is fundamentally good, but it's only good when good people stand up for what's right," he said.

Other U.S. presidents and their families have toured Goree Island, but the Obamas were the first to make the visit with the knowledge that their ancestors had experienced such cruelty.

Obama, whose Kansan mother is believed to have had at least one slave among her ancestors, was accompanied by First Lady Michelle Obama, whose great-great-grandfather was freed from a South Carolina plantation; his mother-in-law, Marian Robinson; and his daughter Malia.

The first family has rarely commented on the revelations about their forebears, which have largely come from outside researchers who have made studying the first family's genealogy a cottage industry, but the president described the visit as a meaningful experience.

He said it was especially powerful for his family "to be able to come here and to fully appreciate the magnitude of the slave trade, to get a sense in a very intimate way of the incredible inhumanity and hardship that people faced before they made the Middle Passage and that crossing."

Michelle Obama did not comment on the family's private tour of Goree Island.

The slave house on Goree Island is a frequent destination for celebrities and world leaders wanting to acknowledge the horrors of the international slave trade. The walls of the small, crowded gift shop are covered with faded images and yellowing newspaper clippings of visitors: Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, as well as former South African President Nelson Mandela and entertainers Harry Belafonte and Stevie Wonder.

Historians have debated whether the slave house at Goree Island was actually a major slave trading post. Some historians have suggested the dusty island was largely a shipping stop, and the slave house, built in 1776 by the Dutch, may have primarily served as a merchant's home.

Still, the symbolic significance remains a powerful draw. For the equivalent of a dollar, Goree Island tour guides tell stories of slaves to visitors, describing the moment Africans may have passed through the door for the last time before, as one put it, "bye-bye Africa."

Eloi Coly, the curator of the slave house who led the president's tour, said the weight of that moment hits visitors of all races.

"It is impossible not to feel — it is a question of being a human being," Coly said. "It is very difficult for everybody. No matter the position of who is visiting the slave house."

Earlier Thursday, Obama praised the U.S. Supreme Court's rulings the day before on same-sex marriages, but was not joined by Senegalese President Macky Sall in celebrating gay rights. Sall said Senegal is tolerant but that the issue requires greater review.

"We are still not ready to decriminalize homosexuality," Sall said, according to news reports. "This does not mean we are homophobic."

kathleen.hennessey@latimes.com

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