Dr. Charles Sampson is a founding member of the Harry S Truman School of Public Affairs and the Department of Black Studies at the University of Missouri. He obtained a Ph.D. in Public and International Affairs from the University of Pittsburgh in the 1970s. His studies focused on urban and regional planning.
Dr. Sampson has published two books to date, the most recent being Sparrows of Senegambia: A Memoir. In this book, he imparts the lessons he has learned from his parents, inspired words of exhortations, thoughts on race and ancestry, and reflections and insight from his travels.
The author recently appeared on America Tonight with Kate Delaney, in which he talked about his book Sparrows of Senegambia, among other things.
Significance of “sparrows” in the title
“Sparrows are small birds,” said Dr. Sampson to his host Kate Delaney who asked what readers could get from his book. “They are very, very sturdy birds that fight against the environment that they find themselves in.
“As I thought about what my family had faced, we were like sparrows in my mind. Sparrows fly above their circumstance to get away from doom and dismay.” (In another media, Dr. Sampson said, “My life and work experiences caused me to compare my American family to be as the sparrows, birds that symbolize power hard work, diligence, productivity, and persistence.”)
Dr. Sampson added to his answer the following, “Senegambia is a place that no longer is known by that name. Senegambia is only a tip-off the west coast of Africa, and it includes the Gambia, Senegal, and other adjoining countries. That doesn’t exist anymore.
“The sparrows of Senegambia suggest to me the generations that I found in my family, and we can only go back to the years immediately following the Civil War and the census of 1870. So I could only find six generations of my family, and I trace all of that back.
“I trace how illiteracy held us back. I trace how the founding of the country, the impact of the country and how it developed, the wealth and planters played a big part in the development of our country. I’m kind of wondering, but all of those things come together.”
Background for writing
Dr. Sampson explained his reason for writing Sparrows of Senegambia, which has to do with his travels to locations in Africa that are connected to slavery. “In 2005, I was working with a group called the Consortium on International Management, Project and Development. It’s a group of professors and other scholars working to develop democracy. At this instance, we were working with developing democracy in Sub-Saharan Africa. That trip took us to Senegal.
“We were at a slave port in Senegal, the Gorée Island in particular. We had had a conversation with Senegalese professionals about the impact of Senegalese participation in the slavery movement. I was flabbergasted when my colleague from Senegal indicated that his ancestors were really not aware of the long-term impact of slavery.
“I was absolutely floored, and so I began to think about my growing-up in America. I’m very proud to be an American. I have a very, very good life. I lived through segregation and second-class citizenship. I was thinking that once we travel to Africa, we would find folks who were aware of what their ancestors had done to my ancestors, but that was not the case.”
On the Church’s role in slavery
What’s the most surprising thing that Dr. Sampson had put in Sparrows of Senegambia? It’s the Christian churches’ participation in slavery, among several things. He said to Kate Delaney, “I am a Christian, but I was surprised at the participation of the churches in Africa because in Gorée Island and off Dakar, Senegal, the slaves who lost the inter-group battles were stored in the basement of churches very adjacent to the Atlantic Ocean.
“So, I was surprised that churches participated in that and discovered that I was really naïve about those things.”
In his travels throughout Africa, Dr. Sampson had also observed the difference between English and French colonization patterns. “I was also surprised when we traveled to other parts of the continent how friendly the people are and how unaware it seemed to me that they were of their condition. The continent was divided by large European countries. I found that in places where the English were the colonizers, those countries were better off. Where the French colonized, those countries were not so well-off.”
Make sure to listen to the whole interview.
Order Dr. Charles Sampson, Sparrows of Senegambia: A Memoir today on Amazon.