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The Igbo Village in Staunton, Virginia (also known as the 1700s West African Farm exhibit) is a tangible recognition of the contributions of Igbo victims of the Atlantic slave trade to the development of Virginia and the greater American frontier culture. Enslaved Igbo men, women and children who traveled by force from many specific locations in the hinterland of Igboland to North America, helped to build what is now known as the United States.
A great majority of those who came to Virginia boarded slave ships in the coastal towns of Calabar, Bonny and Brass. Evidently, one of the starting points of Igbo slave journeys is the ancient Cave Temple Complex in Arochukwu. Arochukwu traders supplied slaves to the market in Bende (later Uzuakoli) which became the source of slaves traveling directly from Bonny to Virginia.
In 2002, after retracing the hinterland routes of Igbo slave journeys in Abia State, I established a direct link between major markets and the points of embarkation. I realized the tourism potential of my research and approached the government of Abia State. The governor provided some financial support and I worked with the staff of the Ministry of Information, Culture, and Tourism. The research team documented the cave in Arochukwu and other sites and monuments in Abia State.
In 2007 a team of cavers from the Hoffman Institute and I from Western Kentucky University went to explore how to protect the cave and nominate it for listing as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Working with the Nigerian National Commission on Museums and Monuments, the Arochukwu Cave is now on the preliminary list of the UNESCO World Heritage sites.
John Vlach, after hearing my paper at an annual conference of the American Folklore Association in 2003, recommended me to American Frontier Culture Museum of Virginia. At that time, the Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton of Virginia was planning a West African exhibit to complement the English Farm, Irish Farm, German Farm, and American Farm already in existence. I became a member of the advisory board and later, the principal consultant for the Igbo Farm Village project.
Let me quote from the Frontier Culture website:
“An Igbo Farmstead will represent the architectural patterns representing the areas from which the most number of slaves came to Virginia.” The Igbo were greater in number than all the other enslaved Africans put together in Virginia in the 1700s when tobacco was the mainstay of the colony’s economy. Some estimates put the number of Igbo imported from the Bight of Biafra at 40% of all the import to Virginia by 1775. “Their number continued to increase to the point that tobacco planters on the valley west of the Blue Ridge replaced their white indentured servants with Igbo slave workers.” The Igbo were among the first settlers. They were among those to cross the Cumberland Gap and open the gateway to the west.
In addition to making tobacco the mainstay of the Virginian economy, the Igbo also provided the labor in the Black Belt that made cotton king. They have continued to contribute to nation building and culture in the United States. The Igbo Farmstead (Ulo Ubi Igbo) in Staunton is, like the English, German, and Irish Farmsteads, “a tangible tribute to the Igbo settlers who helped to develop the frontier culture in America as well as in the territorial expansion of the United States.”
In March 2006, Museum staff and I traveled to Nigeria to document examples of Igbo architecture. While in Nigeria, the staff of the National Commission of Museum and Monuments joined the research team and we traveled to many villages, compounds, and remote farm villages documenting house-types and building traditions. Mrs. Umebe Onyejekwe of the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments became our primary contact and consultant in Nigeria for the collection of building materials. By June 2008, the building materials, along with objects for furnishing the completed exhibit were on site.
I opened discussions in the Igbo community in the United States and recruited Reverend Dr. Stanislaus Maduawuchi Ogbonna, a man with traditional building expertise to assist with the construction of the buildings and Dr. Kanayo Odeluga to mobilize and coordinate volunteers. The response was tremendous. Volunteers came from the greater Washington, D.C. area, Florida, Texas, Atlanta, Chicago, the Carolinas, Nashville, Bowling Green, Kentucky, California, and New Jersey.
Author: Ticha Akuma-Kalu Njoku
Ticha was a major contributor and consultant for the Igbo Village construction project.