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Joseph A. Opala (born August 4, 1950) is the historian who documented the "Gullah Connection," the historical link between the Gullah people of coastal South Carolina and Georgia and the West African nation of Sierra Leone. Opala's findings are based in large part on his four decades of research on Bunce Island, the British slave castle in Sierra Leone that sent thousands of African captives to South Carolina and Georgia in the 18th century. But Opala also lived for long periods in rural communities in both Sierra Leone and the Gullah region, giving him a platform for comparing the speech, customs, and culture of the two groups. Opala was one of the first scholars to point to a significant connection between Sierra Leoneans and Gullahs. He was also the first to recognize that Bunce Island has greater importance for the Gullahs -- and for African Americans in general -- than any other West African slave castle. He calls Bunce Island, "the most important historic site in Africa for the United States."Opala has traveled back and forth between Sierra Leone and coastal South Carolina and Georgia for almost 25 years, doing research on the Gullah Connection and looking for meaningful ways to bring Sierra Leoneans and Gullahs back together. As a public historian, he has produced major commemorative events, documentary films, museum exhibits, traveling exhibits, popular publications, etc. so that Sierra Leoneans and Gullahs can have the information they need to explore the many common elements in their history, language, and culture. To create these educational tools, Opala draws on his own original research, but also on the findings of other scholars, especially the celebrated African American linguist, Lorenzo Dow Turner.On April 27, 2012, Sierra Leone’s President Ernest Bai Koroma awarded Opala the Order of the Rokel, Sierra Leone's equivalent of the British knighthood, "in recognition of his pioneering role in documenting the historical link between the Gullah people in the United States of America and Sierra Leone, and his outstanding contribution to preserving Bunce Island." A year later President Koroma nominated Opala for Sierra Leone citizenship, and after an official review board confirmed his suitability for that honor based on his years of service to the nation as a public historian, he took the oath of citizenship at State House on May 10, 2013. Opala is now a duel citizen of the United States and Sierra Leone.
Garçon, 25, MacDill AFB, Tampa, Florida
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