By Brenda H. Andrews
New Journal and Guide
A blistering August sun did not deter guests from attending a special outdoors ceremony last Saturday at Fort Monroe in Hampton. The event, staged to remember the 1619 arrival of the first 20 Africans to America, was held on the grounds near the site of the first arrival. WHRO’s Barbara Hamm Lee served as the Mistress of Ceremonies for an hour-long program of patriotic music and speakers, to include national news and political commentator Roland Martin.
The ceremony was organized by American Evolution as part of an ongoing national project that will culminate in 2019, the 400th anniversary of the year chosen for its historic significance on the unfolding of the principles and values of the United States as we know it today. The year 1619 was selected, among other reasons, because of the arrival of the first 20 Africans and the impact of subsequent generations of Africans and later, African-Americans in shaping the nation’s economy and culture; the impact of the native Indian population on the settlers; and the first meeting of a “General Assembly” by the settlers to establish a way to govern themselves.
Speakers included the Mayor of Hampton, Donnie Tuck; Co-Chairs of the 2019 Commemoration Steering Committee, Sen. Thomas K. Norment, Jr. and Del. M. Kirkland Cox; Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe; and U.S. Congressman Robert Scott. Keynote speaker Roland Martin, host of News One Now, spoke frankly about the horrific impact of American slavery that left Blacks suffering to recover even to the present.
Although the first 20 Africans were involuntary servants who were to be freed after working for a period of time, by 1624, the value and efficiency of Blacks as forced laborers had been recognized and Blacks began to be imported to America as permanent slaves. “There is a song that says, ‘Woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom’,” began Martin. For Blacks in America, he continued, “waking up everyday is unlike any other immigrant group.”
Martin said Americans have learned “his” story and not the real history of how centuries of enslavement shaped Blacks who were the unpaid and forced labor that allowed for the creation of a great system of American capitalism. “It wasn’t great if you were in chains,” he said. “You must understand that what took place in 1619 affects today … to unpack that notion of (Blacks) today being finally free. “No, we’re not free.”
Martin, who is a resident of Northern Virginia, took to task state legislators who continually thwart efforts to restore the right to vote for ex-felons, a significant number of whom are African-Americans who have served their time and paid their fines. “When you serve your time, you should get your right to vote back,” he said. “There should be a desire of people of conscience in 2016 to ensure freedom, to do what’s right.”
Martin said Black Americans have lived with “the challenge to have courage to keep living under an oppressive system and still put on a uniform, still fight for America.” “Black folk made America. When America didn’t love us, we loved America.” Martin said the day’s observance of the first 20 Africans should be viewed as “not a commemoration; not a celebration; but a remembering.”
“Our challenge is to develop as a people of conscience who will join on the battleground of freedom for the invisible struggles we can’t talk about. “If I see an injustice, I am going to do something about it. Public policy should reflect that – just do it.” Virginia’s Gov. McAuliffe, who followed Martin, noted “we must remember our history to right the wrongs of the past.”
He spoke of the need for ongoing dialogue on how to live as Virginians and Americans and on ensuring the history of Virginia’s role in the making of America. McAulliffe ordered a cannon blast from the replica ship of the 1619 Godspeed sailing alongside the gathering, thereby officially launching the order of the day’s event. Over the next four years, the 2019 American Evolution Project is planning eight signature events around three American values that were birthed in 1619: democracy, diversity and opportunity. Other events were held during the weekend to mark the occasion, to include a marker dedication ceremony for the William Tucker family cemetery where descendants of the first child of African descent born in America are buried.