Bearing candles, an intimate group gathered June 15 around the grave of John Ramsey at Westwood Cemetery for a Maafa memorial service.
Maafa comes from the Kiswahili term meaning “great disaster” or “terrible occurrence” and references the millions of Africans who died in captivity during their abduction to America.
This year, the event honored Ramsey, born near Salem, Ky. He was a “hod carrier” in Oberlin in 1842, and carried stones to help build First Congregational Church. He also attended one of Oberlin’s elementary schools.
At the time, Ohio law refused black men the right to vote — but Ramsey was the first in line at the voting booths demanding suffrage.
He was later enslaved to work as a fireman on a freight boat. After escaping, he served in the Canadian military and converted to the Methodist faith. He brought his teachings back to Oberlin and became known as “The Deacon” for his lectures to the city’s African-American community.
“As the African-American population increased in Oberlin, it was inevitable that Ramsey would be a part of the religious and logistical planning for what would become Rust United Methodist Church,” the Rev. Roger Dickerson said during an invocation.
“The man who led such a compelling life and a struggle against bondage, as a warrior in battle, and as a free servant of his community spent his last days at the Lorain County reformatory where he died, where he left his memories,” he said.
The group sang a rendition of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” before offering a libation “in the tradition of our African ancestors,” said Adenike Sharpley, the long-time coordinator of the ceremony. She has been working for two years to get a tombstone for Ramsey placed in the city’s cemetery.
One by one, people placed candles atop his grave and were encouraged to say a few words while Michael Spearman played a somber tune on his trombone.
“I want to place (this candle) here for all the black soldiers who have been forgotten through all the wars,” said Phyllis Yarber Hogan. “I want to thank God for people who are willing to do the work so that the young people know who they are and what their sacrifice was.”
Laurie Hamame can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @HamameNews on Twitter.