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Anton de Kom University Archives - Community | Union Institute & University

Ph.D. student receives second Fulbright Award

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History hidden in plain view. Ph.D. student receives second Fulbright Award to restore the effects of African diaspora in Suriname.

Paula Royster

Current Student | Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Studies

Paula Royster is the founder of The Center of African American Genealogical Research, Inc. (CAAGRI), a non-profit, volunteer based organization with the mission to reunite as many African descended Americans with their distant African relatives as possible. She holds a Master of Arts in History and Culture from Union Institute & University and is a current Ph.D. student in Union’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Studies Specialization degree program. She is the recipient of two Fulbright Scholar Program awards. The prestigious program of the United States Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs is an educational and cultural exchange program that connects people and encourages them to learn about each other’s cultures and values.

What’s in a name? Just ask the millions of people of African descent whose ancestors were captured and transported into the slave trade. “Slaves identity, culture, traditions, and customs were stolen. They were unimportant,” said Paula Royster, Union Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Studies Specialization Ph.D. student, recipient of her second Fulbright Award and founder of the Center for African American Genealogical Research, Inc. (CAAGRI). “Imagine not knowing who your ancestors are? How can we answer the question who we are and where we are going if we don’t know where we have been?”

Royster will try to help answer these questions for the people of the Republic of Suriname, located in the northeastern Atlantic coast of South America, when she travels to Anton de Kom University to teach an African Diaspora Studies class, a Research Methods class and tackle a public history project to capture the oral histories of Suriname’s eldest community members. She wrote the syllabus while enrolled in the master’s program at Union. 

“Suriname was colonized by the Dutch. Most people of African descent captured and transported into the slave trade, like all other South American and Caribbean nations, are disconnected from their ancestral origins: my task will be to try and help them identify the various origins,” said Royster. “Suriname expressed a desire for someone to help them with this project to rediscover history hidden in plain view. I will also work with faculty and staff on developing a sustainable curriculum on African Studies after my term is over because the teachers do not have the educational backgrounds to teach these courses nor do they have the resources (books) or research methods to adequately teach the course over the long-term. So I will be in the classroom 50 percent of the time and researching the other 50 percent.”

The term African diaspora has been historically applied to the descendants of the West and Central Africans who were enslaved and shipped to the Americas in the Atlantic slave trade. It is estimated that about 12.5 million Africans were shipped to North America, the Caribbean and South America between 1525 and 1866. (Henry Gates Jr. Many Rivers to Cross)

Royster and her students will record memories of the eldest people first and then others as time permits. She anticipates conducting over 150 interviews. Her passion for genealogy research started innocently enough when she tried to locate her grandmother’s birth certificate.

“I stumbled into genealogy quite by accident. My grandmother was suffering from the early stages of dementia and my mother needed to get a copy of her birth certificate. When the birth record was not found in Texas, I began to ask questions about my grandmother’s birth parents. Answers led to more questions and I have not looked back since,” said Royster. “I discovered that the processes for genealogists researching African American families transcended the obvious physical deprivations of humanity via slavery but also that those deprivations persisted in other parts of our cultural attitudes about whose records were important and whose were not. The invisibility of African Americans in society is what caused me to found CAAGRI.”

That wake-up call resulted in the founding of the CAAGRI in 2004 located in Fredericksburg, Virginia. “I founded the Center with the goal of helping African American novice genealogists begin their genealogy research because the official records for African Americans prior to the Civil War did not include us by name, DOB, parent’s names, etc. We were recorded as property of the slave master,” said Royster. In 2006, the Center included genetic DNA as a research tool and sought a partner in Africa to help with oral histories as well as the collection of DNA. Little did she know that the partnership would have far reaching implications for her first Fulbright Award.

“I reviewed old maps and came across Fort Gross Fredericksburg in Prince's Town, Ghana and proceeded to establish a sister city relationship. We had a delegation from Ghana come to Fredericksburg to sign the official proclamation. As I began to learn more about the history of the Nzima people, they told me about a folk hero named King Gyane Kone (John Connie) who had been in a protracted battle (almost 20 years) with the Danish over control of Fort Gross Fredericksburg,” said Royster. “Kone was eventually captured but negotiated with his captors that he would leave peacefully if they agreed to take his son to Germany to be educated. Kone was then sent to Jamaica where he implemented his cultural harvest celebration called "Kundum" (koon-doom) into Jamaican society now called "Jonkonnu." Kone's son later became known as Anton Wilhelm Amoo, the 18th century African philosopher.”

Royster was able to share the history of the Jamaican folk hero and his contribution to one of Jamaica’s most cherished traditions during her first Fulbright Award assignment. “My first Fulbright was as a Specialist (designed for short-term assignments) to Jamaica to help the University of West Indies at Mona in Kingston develop a curriculum on African Studies as a legitimate interdisciplinary study. As I traveled through the country, I shared the information on Jonkonnu and its connections to Prince’s Town,” said Royster.

Royster is proud of the light she has been able to shed on the origins of people of African descent and their contributions to human civilizations. Her second Fulbright will provide the opportunity to teach in her area of interest at the university level, which is a short term goal of Royster’s. “Teaching others about their history requires a new writing of history that I hope will inspire a new sense of purpose within the Diasporic community. I believe that family history is important and provides context of not only where you come from but where you are going.” If you would like to know how other MLK students are working for social justice, read “MLK Student Fights To End Sex Trafficking.” 

Learn more about Union’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Studies Specialization program