06 September 2008

On a Rolle

On Monday, I wrote about a great Bahamian breakfast I had at Kermit's Airport Lounge in Exuma and the great conversation I had with the Lounge's proprietor, Kermit Rolle.

Kermit is a walking encyclopedia when it comes to the history of The Bahamas and he's a man who's very proud of his heritage. He has ample reason to be so, and a cursory Google search of his name shows that the Rolle clan is a pretty influential bunch in both The Bahamas and in the U.S. In addition to bringing us the likes of Esther Rolle and Estelle Evans, a number of Rolle descendants have risen to great heights in the world of professional sports. So much so that two years ago, Sports Illustrated ran a great feature on the Rolle family in the Bahamas and in the world of U.S. professional sports. SI sent a reporter to spend a day with my new pal Kermit and here's what he had to say:
WE ARE coming to the point where my father took me as a little boy," says Kermit Rolle, after the car, rolling along Queen's Highway on Exuma, has passed Jacob Rolle's Christian Academy, Rolle's Chat and Chew restaurant and nurse Lydia King Rolle's clinic and jounced through two bumpy detours around floods caused by Tropical Storm Noel. Sunlight blasts through the windshield. He motions the driver to slow. Kermit is 72 years old, but for a moment he is young again. The turquoise sea flashes through the trees. To understand anything about the Rolles, you must begin right here.

Kermit was nine or 10 that day. His father took him to this spot in Steventon to retrace the route of a slave named Pompey, one of hundreds working five settlements owned by an Englishman, Lord John Rolle. In 1829 the physically imposing Pompey led a protest against a plan to move a group of Rolle's slaves from Exuma to another island in the Bahamas . Pompey and others seized a boat and took it to Nassau to plead their case with the colonial governor. They were caught and whipped, after which Pompey escaped and famously ran five miles to Rolleville to warn other slaves that British soldiers were coming to seize them. The slaves "put hell" on the soldiers, Kermit says, laughing. "Pompey knocked them down left, right and center."

Pompey's rebellion earned him a place in history; he is credited with sparking the Bahamian antislavery movement. For the Rolles, who in the custom of the day took the name of their owner, Pompey is an icon of resistance: He didn't take servitude passively; he stood up and fought. A document from the time tells how soldiers were constantly being called out to quell the Rolle plantation workers. "They were always troublesome," says Gail Saunders, a historian and former director of the Bahamas ' national archives. "They wanted their freedom."

"Maybe that's how we get some of the strong players in the U.S. today," Kermit says. "My father always said of someone who's big and strong and healthy and runs fast: 'That could be one of Pompey's.'" Kermit, a restaurateur and businessman, is one of Rolleville's most prominent figures, a living repository of history. His great-grandmother, the daughter of a slave, told him that Lord John's overseers whipped any slave they caught trying to read and that some slaves risked their skins to secretly teach each other the alphabet.

During that walk with his dad on Pompey's route, Kermit also learned about the source of the Rolles' distinctive pride: Lord John's benevolent deed. Legend has it that, instead of selling off his land after the British fully ended slavery in the Bahamas in 1838, John Rolle willed the 5,000 acres in perpetuity to his freed slaves. Not one clod of that prime Caribbean waterfront land could be bought or sold. It could only be handed down to other Rolles.

This alone, Kermit says, makes Rolles different from other Bahamian blacks, not to mention their counterparts in the U.S. Kermit worked for 14 years in the postwar U.S. , shuttling in and out of the Bahamas on the Contract, and never understood the acceptance of second-class citizenship by many African-Americans. "John, Lord Rolle, was a perfect man," Kermit says. "That's why we ask God to bless him: His mind was so clear that after emancipation, all the lands he had he willed back to his people. That made us the most happiest people, because he treated us as human beings. He set you up in such a way that you can be proud, and there's still that proudness. The other slave owners? They just turned those people loose. [The freed slaves] didn't know where to go. They don't know where they are. But my father showed me the boundaries—and within those boundaries, the land belonged to our people."

A vast simplification? Perhaps. But Kermit is right about the psychological heft a prize such as Lord Rolle's can provide. In a recent essay, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. cited lack of property as a key reason for the growing wealth gap between poor and middle-class African-Americans. Studying 20 successful African-Americans, Gates found that 15 are descended from families that obtained property before 1920. By then, the Rolles on Exuma had been in possession of their land for more than 80 years. "People who own property feel a sense of ownership in their future and their society," Gates wrote. "They study, save, work, strive and vote. And people trapped in a culture of tenancy do not."

In the Rolles' case, the slave owner's gesture imbued its recipients with a sense of grace. "I heard that story about Lord John Rolle," says Florida State 's Myron Rolle, who was born and raised in the U.S. "Something like that just makes life more fulfilling. It makes you feel more connected with who you are, knowing where you came from and the people who came before you."

Amen Kermit.

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