Two Calhoun County Sheriff’s Office patrol cars led a modest march down Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Hobson City early Saturday as Hobson City Mayor Alberta McCrory and the town council welcomed Kpoto-Zounme Hakpon III, the king of Porto-Novo, a province of the West African country of Benin, to Alabama’s oldest incorporated black community. Hakpon was visiting the United States as a guest of the Cunningham family, descendants of Howard Cunningham, a mayor of Hobson City in the 1940s. Hakpon is distantly related to the family.
Although heavy rain Saturday morning meant the event had to be moved from its planned location at the historic Hobson City cemetery, where Cunningham is buried, to nearby town hall, the king said, through a translator, the rain was a blessing from his ancestors on the joyous occasion.
Joyce Hope Scott, a descendant of the Cunningham family and professor at Wheelock College in Boston, acted as translator on behalf of the king. She told the crowded room of Hobson City residents and Cunningham family members that although Hakpon understood English, as king, he could only speak in the native tongue of his ancestors.
During his trip to the United States, Hakpon said he went to the Civil Rights Museum in Birmingham and was impressed by the history of Hobson City. When he became king, he said it was a goal of his to acknowledge the role of his country in the slave trade that brought Africans to the United States.
“I want to apologize for the role my ancestors played in the slave trade,” Hakpon said through his translator. “I knew one day I wanted to come to this land and ask forgiveness of my black brothers and sisters. I wanted to cross the ocean to see the land where my ancestors suffered.”
To a loud applause, Hakpon told the Hobson City residents he was the first king of his nation to ever visit the United States.
After his speech, the king exchanged gifts with McCrory. Hakpon welcomed the mayor to Porto-Novo and gave her keys to his kingdom. In return, McCrory gave the king an American flag, flown over Washington on request by U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Anniston, on behalf of Hobson City. McCrory noted the flag flew during President Barack Obama’s first term, which lead to applause from those in attendance.
“There are still organizations out there that won’t recognize their role in slavery,” McCrory said. “So for a king to come here and recognize that, I think that’s very special.”
Hakpon said he hoped to establish a connection between Porto-Novo and Hobson City, and for the two cities to become sister cities.
Porto-Novo is no longer governed by kings, but has elected governors. Scott told The Star that Hakpon still works closely with the government and is officially recognized as king of the city.
The king answered a few questions from residents after his speech, gave a blessing to the town and said he felt a spiritual connection with Hobson City.
“For him to come all this way and to be interested in us here in little Hobson City, that means a lot,” said Dennis McKinney, the pastor at New Hope Ministry Baptist Church.
And while it’s not every day a king comes to Calhoun County, it’s not exactly the first time royalty has visited Hobson City, so to speak.
“The king of soul, James Brown, came to Hobson City once,” said Councilwoman Deneva Barnes with a laugh. “We’ve had a lot of celebrities in Hobson City, just not a ‘king’ king.”
Staff Writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star.