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Faculty Profiles


Joseph Opala

JOSEPH OPALA is an historian who lived in the West African nation of Sierra Leone for 17 years.

He is known for his research on the "Gullah Connection," the long historical thread that links Africans in Sierra Leone and other countries on the "Rice Coast" of West Africa with the Gullah people of coastal South Carolina and Georgia.

Opala's research resulted in a visit by Sierra Leone's president to a Gullah community in 1988, and an historic "Homecoming" to Sierra Leone the following year by nine Gullahs from South Carolina and Georgia.  These events were chronicled in "Family Across the Sea," an award-winning PBS documentary broadcast throughout the US in 1991.

Mr. Opala later made headlines with his research on an ancient African song preserved by a Gullah family in coastal Georgia.  Opala and his colleagues found a village in Sierra Leone where the same song is still sung today, and in 1997 brought the Georgia family to Africa for an unforgettable reunion.  A documentary based on that remarkable story, called "The Language You Cry In," was released in 1998.

More recently, Mr. Opala found documents in the New-York Historical Society that helped link a Gullah woman living in Charleston, South Carolina with her great-great-great-great-great-grandmother, a enslaved African child taken from Sierra Leone in 1756.  His research resulted in a "Priscilla's Homecoming" to Sierra Leone in 2005.

Mr. Opala's research has been covered by the New York Times, Washington Post, and Associated Press.  He has appeared on CBS "60 Minutes" and CNN, and on NPR's "The World, "Fresh Air," and "All Things Considered," programs.  In 1991, his research was featured on Channel 7 TV in Washington, DC in a week-long series called the "African American Connection."

Mr. Opala taught African Studies at the University of Sierra Leone from 1985 to 1991, and was an advisor to Sierra Leone's president on cultural policy.  In recent years, he has acted as an advisor to the US National Park Service on African American history and as Scholar-in-Residence at Penn Center, St. Helena Island, South Carolina.  In 2004 he was a research fellow at the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale University.  In 2005 he was a fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle, Germany.

Mr. Opala teaches Honors courses on the "History of Slavery" and "African American Folk Culture Through Film."  He has worked with Honors students over the years to carry out a number of projects that have had impact beyond the university community.  In 2002 he and his students produced a 175-page proposal for the U.S.National Park Service, outlining a plan for a "Gullah Connection Trail" that would link historic sites relating to African American history over a wide geographical area stretching from West Africa, to the S.E. United States, to the Bahamas and Northern Mexico.  In 2003 Opala and his students organized a two-day "Gullah Film Festival" at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History.  In 2007 Opala and his students designed a traveling exhibit on Bunce Island, an 18th century British slave castle in Sierra Leone.  The exhibit is now traveling to universities throughout the U.S.


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