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“Look Backward to See Forward:” The Sankofa and the “When the War Is Over” Series

Posted by: Julia Eichelberger | April 15, 2018 | 3 Comments |

This year, the series When The War Is Over: Memory, Division, and Healing began as a loose collection of events at the College that focused on painful, traumatic, or shameful histories. How can we collectively remember, understand, and attempt to repair past suffering and injustice? To accompany us on that continuing journey, the When the War Is Over series has a new logo: a new interpretation of a Sankofa representing the College community’s mission of learning from the past.[1]


Design by Liz Howell, C of C’s Division of Marketing and Communication

A Sankofa is a pictogram, one of many Adinkra symbols used in Ghana for several centuries. One writer notes that these symbols “can be viewed as a message and a legacy from the dead to the living. They are symbols and forms of teachable knowledge meant to guide the actions of the living as they struggle through this complex world.”[2]

“Sankofa,” translated as “Return and Fetch It,” represents a proverb: “It is not a taboo to return to fetch something you forgot earlier on.” (Se wo were fin a wo sankofa a yennkyi.)[3] There are two versions of a Sankofa pictogram—one a stylized heart shape, and the other a bird advancing forward while its head faces backward to pick up an egg.

In Charleston, an iron sculpture of a Sankofa bird can be seen outside the Unitarian Church on Archdale Street, part of a memorial to enslaved laborers who made the bricks for the church. This iron bird was created in 2013 by ironworkers in the Philip Simmons Studio, where twenty-first century artisans continue traditions that Charleston’s most famous ironworker learned from former slaves,[4] who were continuing a much older West African ironworking tradition.[5] Ironworked Sankofa hearts adorn the steeple of St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans, a port city where, as in Charleston, many skilled artisans were enslaved people, some born in Africa.

Memorial to enslaved brickmakers, Unitarian Universalist Church, Charleston, SC, 21st century

Spire of St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans

Philip Simmons gate, 9 Stolls Alley, mid-20th century




Photo by Brian Graves, published in “Interpreting African American History at McLeod Plantation,” Studies in American Culture, Vol. 39, No. 1 (2015).

A Sankofa bird may be glimpsed on James Island at McLeod Plantation. This Sankofa, in fading paint, appears on a wooden sign at the entrance to the cemetery that identifies “The Sacred Burial Site of Our African Ancestors.” In 2015, this sign became infamous after a white supremacist photographed himself in front of it. Weeks later, when this young man murdered nine members of AME Emanuel during a Bible study, he explained his massacre by stating falsehoods about African Americans and our shared history.

We cannot ignore the Sankofa’s message of return and fetch it: we must explore our pasts and recall what some have forgotten. As more events and programs are presented next year under the banner of When the War Is Over, we will display our Sankofa and the Cistern to illustrate our resolve to learn from the past and forge a hopeful collective future.


Mr. Philip Simmons, Blacksmith, 1995. Avery Research Center & Lowcountry Digital Library. http://lcdl.library.cofc.edu/lcdl/catalog/lcdl:57994

“You know what I be thinking? That someday I’ll be putting some of those things together again. [You] look backward to see forward. To see forward, that’s the question.”[6]

Mr. Philip Simmons, 1992


[1] Many thanks to Liz Howell of the College’s Marketing Division for creating this logo.

[2] SAGE Encyclopedia of African Cultural Heritage in North America.

[3] Richard F. Brush Art Gallery, St. Lawrence University.

[4] In the 1990s, Philip Simmons expressed his admiration for Charleston blacksmiths of earlier centuries, stating, “The old work was good. The scrolls were curved nice and round. If you see it curve like that it’s either two hundred years old or I did it.” (Charleston Blacksmith: The Work of Philip Simmons. John Michael Vlach. U of SC Press, 1992, pg. 32.)

[5] Dr. Ade Ofunniyin, an artist and adjunct professor at C of C who is the grandson of Mr. Philip Simmons, has confirmed that the Sankofa motif is present in the work of Philip Simmon and others, including blacksmith Carlton Simmons, who work at the Simmons Studio. “So much of what Mr. Simmons created was inspired and connected to a ‘rooted’ way of being,” his grandson commented in an email (4.13.2018).

[6] Charleston Blacksmith: The Work of Philip Simmons, Revised Edition. John Michael Vlach. U of SC Press, 1992, pg. 121.)

under: African American Studies, C of C Program in Southern Studies, Charleston History, Events, Uncategorized

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[…] la izquierda una puerta de Philip Simmons en Charleston, Carolina del Sur por Colegio de Charleston/ En el centro una foto de Philip Simmons en 1995 por Avery Research Center y Lowcountry Digital […]

[…] una puerta de Philip Simmons en Charleston, Carolina del Sur, por colegio de charleston/ En el medio una foto de Philip Simmons en 1995 por Centro de investigación Avery y biblioteca […]

[…] la izquierda una puerta de Philip Simmons en Charleston, Carolina del Sur por Colegio de Charleston/ En el centro una foto de Philip Simmons en 1995 por Avery Research Center y Lowcountry Digital […]

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