Still, how do you
calculate the odds that two villages—not New York or Los Angeles but Rolleville
and Rolle Town—would produce one of the leading names in American sports? How
do you resist asking what, exactly, made the Rolles so special?
WE ARE coming to
the point where my father took me as a little boy," says Kermit Rolle,
after the car, rolling along Queen's Highway on Exuma, has passed Jacob Rolle's
Christian Academy, Rolle's Chat and Chew restaurant and nurse Lydia King
Rolle's clinic and jounced through two bumpy detours around floods caused by
Tropical Storm Noel. Sunlight blasts through the windshield. He motions the
driver to slow. Kermit is 72 years old, but for a moment he is young again. The
turquoise sea flashes through the trees. To understand anything about the
Rolles, you must begin right here.
Kermit was nine
or 10 that day. His father took him to this spot in Steventon to retrace the
route of a slave named Pompey, one of hundreds working five settlements owned
by an Englishman, Lord John Rolle. In 1829 the physically imposing Pompey led a
protest against a plan to move a group of Rolle's slaves from Exuma to another
island in the Bahamas. Pompey and others seized a boat and took it to Nassau to
plead their case with the colonial governor. They were caught and whipped,
after which Pompey escaped and famously ran five miles to Rolleville to warn
other slaves that British soldiers were coming to seize them. The slaves
"put hell" on the soldiers, Kermit says, laughing. "Pompey knocked
them down left, right and center."
rebellion earned him a place in history; he is credited with sparking the
Bahamian antislavery movement. For the Rolles, who in the custom of the day
took the name of their owner, Pompey is an icon of resistance: He didn't take
servitude passively; he stood up and fought. A document from the time tells how
soldiers were constantly being called out to quell the Rolle plantation
workers. "They were always troublesome," says Gail Saunders, a
historian and former director of the Bahamas' national archives. "They
wanted their freedom."
how we get some of the strong players in the U.S. today," Kermit says.
"My father always said of someone who's big and strong and healthy and runs
fast: 'That could be one of Pompey's.'" Kermit, a restaurateur and
businessman, is one of Rolleville's most prominent figures, a living repository
of history. His great-grandmother, the daughter of a slave, told him that Lord
John's overseers whipped any slave they caught trying to read and that some
slaves risked their skins to secretly teach each other the alphabet.
During that walk
with his dad on Pompey's route, Kermit also learned about the source of the
Rolles' distinctive pride: Lord John's benevolent deed. Legend has it that,
instead of selling off his land after the British fully ended slavery in the
Bahamas in 1838, John Rolle willed the 5,000 acres in perpetuity to his freed
slaves. Not one clod of that prime Caribbean waterfront land could be bought or
sold. It could only be handed down to other Rolles.
Kermit says, makes Rolles different from other Bahamian blacks, not to mention
their counterparts in the U.S. Kermit worked for 14 years in the postwar U.S.,
shuttling in and out of the Bahamas on the Contract, and never understood the
acceptance of second-class citizenship by many African-Americans. "John,
Lord Rolle, was a perfect man," Kermit says. "That's why we ask God to
bless him: His mind was so clear that after emancipation, all the lands he had
he willed back to his people. That made us the most happiest people, because he
treated us as human beings. He set you up in such a way that you can be proud,
and there's still that proudness. The other slave owners? They just turned
those people loose. [The freed slaves] didn't know where to go. They don't know
where they are. But my father showed me the boundaries—and within those
boundaries, the land belonged to our people."
simplification? Perhaps. But Kermit is right about the psychological heft a
prize such as Lord Rolle's can provide. In a recent essay, Harvard professor
Henry Louis Gates Jr. cited lack of property as a key reason for the growing
wealth gap between poor and middle-class African-Americans. Studying 20
successful African-Americans, Gates found that 15 are descended from families
that obtained property before 1920. By then, the Rolles on Exuma had been in
possession of their land for more than 80 years. "People who own property
feel a sense of ownership in their future and their society," Gates wrote.
"They study, save, work, strive and vote. And people trapped in a culture
of tenancy do not."
In the Rolles'
case, the slave owner's gesture imbued its recipients with a sense of grace.
"I heard that story about Lord John Rolle," says Florida State's Myron
Rolle, who was born and raised in the U.S. "Something like that just makes
life more fulfilling. It makes you feel more connected with who you are,
knowing where you came from and the people who came before you."
And because of
that past, Samari Rolle says, "I don't view myself as just an average black
man. I think we're here to do more."