Leonard Blackshear Biography
Worked for IBM, Raised Funds for Plaque, Faced Cancer Diagnosis
Organization executive, entrepreneur
As founder and president of Annapolis, Maryland's Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Foundation, Leonard Blackshear shepherded the creation and development of one of the most distinctive monuments of African-American history in the United States. The Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Memorial, visited annually by crowds estimated to be in excess of one million people, both marks the spot where Gambian slave Kunta Kinte arrived in America aboard the slave ship Lord Ligonier on September 29, 1767, and honors his descendant Alex Haley, who told Kinte's story in his pioneering historical novel, Roots. The memorial was just one of several important imprints Blackshear left on the Annapolis community, where he had lived since young adulthood.
Born June 29, 1943, in Savannah, Georgia, Blackshear moved with his family of six to New York City when he was six months old. His father was an electronics worker who hoped to become an educator. Blackshear told Dionne Walker of the Annapolis Capital that his father "was determined to pursue the career of his choosing and Georgia, at that time, was inclined not to let him." Blackshear's father eventually became a teacher, and Blackshear himself graduated from John Adams High School in 1959 and went on to New York's Hunter College. Outside of the classroom, he was an avid chess lover who played the game competitively on a high school team and later organized chess tournaments.
Enrolled in electrical engineering courses at Hunter, Blackshear became involved with Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited, a community-service organization. Idealism and volunteer work squeezed studying out of his schedule, and soon he had dropped out and taken a job at a clothing shop. A union member, he was picked by his co-workers to represent them at the great March on Washington civil rights demonstration in 1963.
Worked for IBM
The following year, Blackshear was drafted and joined the U.S. Air Force. After technician training in Colorado, he was sent to Germany. He finished his tour of duty in 1968 and landed in Maryland, moving in with a family member and taking classes at the University of Maryland. He graduated with a physics degree in 1970 and got a job as an operations supervisor at an IBM corporation office in Baltimore. An early admirer was his wife Patsy, whom he had met while they were both students at Maryland. "It's sort of like living with Don Quixote," she told Walker. "[He] has this real vision out there and is able to connect the dots before other people are able to even see dots." They moved to Annapolis after marrying in order to split the commute between her home base in Alexandria, Virginia, and his job in Baltimore.
Blackshear was a young star at IBM, developing a marketing database system that was eventually implemented company-wide. He worked toward an MBA degree at American University in Washington, D.C., completing that program in 1975. But then, seemingly headed toward a high-flying corporate career, Blackshear found himself steered by more idealistic impulses once again. He worked for several years with a community development agency in Maryland's Anne Arundel County, taking a leave of absence from IBM. Finally, in 1978, the company insisted that he either return or leave for good, and he chose the latter course.
"I never looked back," Blackshear told Johnathon E. Briggs of the Baltimore Sun. He started his own company, TeleSonic, which specialized in computer voice recognition technology. Among the company's products was a software system called TICAL, or TTY Information and Communication Access for Libraries, that merged computer technology with traditional text telephones to allow hearing-impaired patrons to communicate with librarians throughout an entire branch system, rather than having to rely on a single phone number. The TICAL system was installed in the library system of Maryland's Anne Arundel County. Other TeleSonic products included a captioned radio for the hearing-impaired and a county cancer-awareness telephone system.
While launching his new company, Blackshear continued his involvement in community service work. Such work was a lifetime commitment for Blackshear; he served on state boards including those of the Maryland Health and Welfare Council and the Small Business Council of the state's Chamber of Commerce, and he became a board member of the Anne Arundel Medical Center. Local Rotary Club projects in Annapolis, such as the Books for International Goodwill book drive, could count on Blackshear's involvement.
Raised Funds for Plaque
But Blackshear reserved his strongest efforts for Roots and its Annapolis connections. He learned about the landing of the 17-year-old slave Kunta Kinte from Haley's 1976 book and from its hugely successful television dramatization that aired the following year. Sensing the special significance of the story for Annapolis, he began raising funds for a plaque to mark the spot where Kinte arrived and was sold into slavery. At first, he relied on connections he made within a group called the Strategic Communications Network for African Americans.
By 1978 the group had made a proposal to the Annapolis City Council, requesting permission to place a commemorative plaque on the city's waterfront. They were turned down at first, as city officials argued that Kinte, who was sold into slavery in Virginia, had not been an Annapolis resident. The plaque was finally installed in 1981 after a new mayor, Richard Hillman, was elected. Two days after its unveiling, it was stolen by still-unknown thieves who left a card claiming affiliation with the Ku Klux Klan. The theft, Blackshear told the Baltimore Sun, "consecrated" the memorial, which was soon rebuilt and was left undisturbed.
Blackshear built on this successful beginning, organizing an annual event called the Kunta Kinte Celebrations (later the Kunta Kinte Heritage Festival) held on the steps of the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts. By 1985 the event had spawned an organizational entity, Kunta Kinte Celebrations, of which Blackshear served as president. The festival grew and was moved to nearby St. John's College, adding concerts and educational components and attracting vendors of African products and foods. By 2002 the Kunta Kinte Heritage Festival was drawing upwards of 20,000 visitors a year from all over the metropolitan Baltimore and Washington areas. "Everybody knows that it's fine to go to an Italian festival and enjoy an Italian sausage, or a Greek festival to enjoy Greek food," Blackshear observed to Eileen Rivers of the Washington Post. "But somehow European Americans have felt that they need permission to go to an African festival. But this is a festival that all people can appreciate."
The next step in Blackshear's campaign to bring a consciousness of black history to Annapolis was to expand the Kunta Kinte plaque to a full-fledged memorial, said to be the only one in the United States that commemorates the arrival of an individual African-born slave. In 1992 Blackshear founded the Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Foundation and won approval for a three-part installation centered on the Annapolis City Dock. The centerpiece was a sculpture of Alex Haley, shown reading to a trio of children of different races, was finished in 1999. The memorial also encompassed a "story wall" along nearby Compromise Street, interpreting a sequence of ten quotations from Roots, and a large compass built into the ground that enables visitors to orient themselves toward the homelands of their ancestors.
Faced Cancer Diagnosis
In the midst of the busy rush toward the memorial's completion, Blackshear was diagnosed with blood cell cancer in the year 2000. At one point he was given six months to live, but then his condition improved. "It was what you might call a life-altering experience that I think has certainly given me a stronger commitment to help," Blackshear told Walker. "Somebody has some work for me that is not yet done." The Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Memorial was completed and dedicated in 2002.
That further work included a unique symbolic observance called the Reconciliation Walk, which began in England around the year 2000 and which Blackshear and his foundation brought to Annapolis for its first American enactment in 2004. During a Reconciliation Walk, white participants donned yokes and chains as symbols of repentance for having enslaved Africans, while black walkers affirmed their forgiveness of the injustices of slavery by joining the procession. "The goal of the walk," Blackshear wrote in the Annapolis Capital, "is to show that Europeans, Africans, and European and African Americans can walk in harmony, learn about the past, and resolve to take positive steps toward commitments for penitence and forgiveness."
The Reconciliation Walk attracted marchers from Europe and Africa as well as the United States, and it drew its share of controversy. A white supremacist organization from West Virginia distributed racist flyers around Annapolis in advance of the event. But the walk, held on September 29, 2004, went off without incident and featured a handshake between Haley and Orlando Ridout, a descendant of the family that had originally enslaved Kunta Kinte.
Blackshear planned to follow up the Reconciliation Walk with a series of Reconciliation Study Circles, interracial meetings designed to explore the effects of racism in the community. "The circles will lead to action," Blackshear wrote in the Capital. "We will then be on the road to Annapolis becoming the first city of healing in America." Honored with several Annapolis community awards in the early 2000s, Blackshear continued to look toward opportunities for service. "If you look back and you haven't helped anyone," he asked Walker, "what was your life about?"
Afro-American Red Star (Washington, DC), June 8, 2002, p. A1.
Baltimore Sun, January 15, 2001; July 17, 2003.
Capital (Annapolis, MD), August 29, 2004, p. A11; November 8, 2004, p. A1.
Maryland Gazette (Glen Burnie, MD), October 2, 2004, p. A1.
Washington Post, August 12, 1999, p. M1; June 6, 2002, p. T3; August 8, 2002, p. T10; August 26, 2004, p. T2.
"Leonard Blackshear," The History Makers, www.thehistorymakers.com/biography/biography.asp?bioindex=815&category=civicMakers (April 25, 2005).
—James M. Manheim
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