The stories about the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade are often too painful for descendants of enslaved Africans to bear, but for the hundreds of African Americans that traveled to Ft. Monroe in Hampton, Va., last weekend, the stories instilled strength, pride, faith hope and perseverance.
The 1619-2019 Commemoration of the First African Landing signaled many additions and corrections to the history of the first Africans brought to America, marking the beginning of two centuries of slavery started in the British colony, in what later became Virginia. It also established a commitment from researchers and politicians, alike, to ensure the inclusion of a more complete story of slavery and the efforts to abolish it in the American story.
“Slavery started here in Virginia,” Gov. Ralph Northam said to an audience of more than 200 gathered under a large tent on the grounds of Ft. Monroe.
“And it is here where the end of slavery began. It is here where slaves sought refuge and were granted a decision that led to emancipation.”
“How do we tell the full and true story of our past 400 years?” Northam asked. “How do we do so with honor and dignity for people whose honor and dignity were taken away from them? Who should tell the story, and how do we learn from those lessons as we move forward?”
Despite the controversy the embattled governor’s received earlier this year over racist photos in his medical school yearbook, he was favorably received by applause throughout his speech in which he admitted, “Over the past several months … I have had to confront some painful truths about my own incomplete misunderstanding regarding race and equity. I’ve also learned, the more I know, the more I can do.”
“For too long, the burden has been on individuals and communities of color to lead these discussions, but if more of us had these hard conversations, and truly listened and learned from them we’ll be better able to shine that light of truth, because the eyes can’t see what the mind doesn’t know, ” Northam said.
The weekend observance commemorated the day on Aug. 25, 1619, when the first “20 or some odd some Negroes” from Angola, located on the west coast of Africa, were brought to America, to Fort Comfort, now Ft. Monroe in Hampton, Virginia, marking the beginning of slavery that lasted 246 years in the U.S., and where the vestiges of racism and inequality still impact Americans today.
Legislation introduced by Virginia Rep. Bobby Scott and Sen. Tim Kaine and signed into law by President Donald Trump, established the 400 Years of African American History Act and a 15-member commission to coordinate programs commemorating the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in the English colonies.
Perseverance marked the theme for the weekend, that began on Thursday with a town hall hosted by Voice of America and Norfolk State University, an HBCU. On Friday, observers gathered at the Tucker Family Cemetery to pay tribute to the ancestors believed to be descendants of William, the first African child born in the British Colony in 1624. William was born the son of Isabella and Anthony, the first Africans to arrive at the British Colony from Angola, and among the first forced into slavery.
Virginia congressional and state lawmakers made their round of speeches, along with Rep. Karen Bass, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, P. Daniels Smith, acting director of the NPS, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Hampton Mayor Donnie Ray Tuck. Van Jones was the keynote speaker and Common, along with the Sounds of Blackness were featured artists at the African Landing Commemoration Concert. Several scholars presented research on slavery and its impact on issues facing Black Americans including health disparities, educational inequities, and criminal justice during the 400 Years of Perseverance program hosted by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) at Hampton University Memorial Chapel on Friday.
“With all of the atrocities that we as a people have endured, we’re still here, and that’s a testimony to our legacy,” said Audrey Perry-Williams, president of the Hampton Roads chapter of the Association of African American Life and History (ASALH). “We believe what Carter G. Woodson said; he wants us to tell our story because if we don’t tell it, it’s not going to be told correctly.”
But many said the weekend meant so much more than history and facts. It was also an emotional and spiritual journey of remembrance and homage paid to the millions of Africans who died and survived the wretched conditions on slave ships transporting them to the Americas. They included men, women, and children shipped as cargo, bought and traded by immigrant Europeans, and used to create wealth by providing free labor to build a nation called the United States of America.
As the sun rose on Saturday morning, nearly 200 men and women, dressed in white, stood on the shore of the Chesapeake Bay at Buckroe Beach, looking towards the Atlantic Ocean. Many waded into the cool water and received a “spiritual cleansing” and later participated in an African Naming Ceremony conducted by several Cameroonian chiefs.
“I feel like I’m here to reclaim something that was lost,” Tammy Isaac of Newport News, said upon receiving her African name. “This is really important because my name is Isaac, which is a Jewish name. I’m not Jewish, so it’s just good to have something that’s mine.” Adaeze, which means princess, is the name she was given. “I’ve been on this journey since 2011 … searching for my roots.”
Terry E. Brown, who’s served 20 years with the National Park Service, is the superintendent of the Ft Monroe National Monument. In 2016, upon his arrival at Ft. Monroe, he called it a “game-changer” when he discovered that Africans landed at Ft. Comfort in 1619.
“I couldn’t sleep for months because I felt like no one was paying attention that Africans landed here. For years they’d been talking about they landed in Jamestown, but they landed here. And, to work in a place where they landed, it’s just so emotional, I can’t explain it. I’m happy to see people from all over the world come here and honor their ancestors. It’s a meaningful and honorable thing to do.”