Culture  /  Obituary

Overlooked No More: Adefunmi I, Who Introduced African Americans to Yoruba

A pivotal conversation led him on a quest to understand African history and create a one-of-a-kind village for practitioners of the Yoruba religion.

Walter Eugene King was born on Oct. 5, 1928, in Detroit to a Baptist family, one of five children. His mother, Wilhelmina Hamilton, worked for the Works Progress Administration, the New Deal agency. His father, Roy King, owned and operated a furniture reupholstery and moving company. They were followers of the Black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey and were committed to his Back to Africa movement. But Walter was more interested in learning about Africa’s cultures and religions than emigrating there.

By the time Walter graduated from Cass Technical High school, he had stopped going to church. At 20, he joined the Katherine Dunham Dance Company in New York. Dunham’s performances often included songs to the orisa, Yoruba deities, and the company performed in places like Egypt and Haiti.

The Yoruba Temple in Harlem, which Adefunmi established in 1960, attracted Black activists, like the poet and playwright Amiri Baraka and Queen Mother Moore. The three served together in the Republic of New Africa, a Black nationalist organization formed on the idea that a self-governed Black nation should be created out of five Southern states. The group also sought reparations of $4 billion.

“He was a territorial nationalist,” Hucks said, “and really wanted to know, How do we build a nation for ourselves in this country?”

The answer was Oyotunji Village, the South Carolina community that Adefunmi established in 1970 as “a place of rehabilitation for African Americans in search of their spiritual and cultural identity,” he told Essence magazine. The name refers to the African Yoruba kingdom of Oyo and means “Oyo rises again.”

Adefunmi chose a rural location in Sheldon, in the heart of the Gullah Geechee Corridor, where descendants of enslaved West Africans retained their Indigenous traditions in the remote sea islands dotting the southeastern Atlantic coast.

A sign posted in both Yoruba and English welcomes visitors to the village: “You are leaving the United States. You are entering Yoruba Kingdom … Welcome to Our Land!”

Walking through the village, replete with life-size carvings and shrines, “you see the magnificence of the buildings,” Kamari Clarke, author of “Mapping Yoruba Networks: Power and Agency in the Making of Transnational Communities” (2004), said in an interview.

“You would hear the roosters crowing in the mornings,” she added, and see “people walking just in their lappas wrapped around them to go and get water, and only the Yoruba spoken.”

Clarke lived at Oyotunji and traveled with its community members to Nigeria. Its evolution from a Black-only space to a site of pilgrimage and learning open to all is one of the things that has sustained it, she said.