By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
On August 20, 1619, according to American history books, the first “20 and odd” Africans walked off a ship and joined the inhabitants of the British Colony of Jamestown on the shores of what would become the Commonwealth of Virginia. They were not slaves, but “indentured servants,” and as such, could buy their freedom with their labor as could Whites under the same conditions.
But within a short time, the value of Africans as slaves to build the nation’s economic legacy was recognized, beginning their importation as slaves.
Despite the enslavement of Blacks in America until 1865, their presence contributed significantly to the social, economic, artistic and political heritage of the United Staes of America.
In 2019, the nation will celebrate the 400th anniversary of the first Africans to land at a British Colony. This weekend, on August 20, the nation will officially launch the commemoration of this key event in 1619 starting at 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Historic Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia. “The year 1619 is a landmark for the United States and especially for Virginia. Three cultures (American Indian, English and African) began forging the seeds of democracy, diversity and opportunity,” said 2019 Commemoration co-chair, Senator Thomas K. Norment, Jr.
Partnering with the City of Hampton, Fort Monroe Authority, and the U.S. Department of the Interior’s National Park Service, the 2019 Commemoration Steering Committee is presenting a day of educational and informative events commemorating African Arrival Day. The launching program, “American Evolution: Virginia to America 1619-2019,” will observe several events that took place in 1619, to include the impact of women on the Virginia Colony. Along with the arrival of the first recorded Africans to English North America in 1619, it also was the year of the first representative legislative assembly in the New World; and, it was the year of the first English Thanksgiving.
“The Virginia story is the first chapter of the American story. The year 1619 is a seminal moment in our history and the commemoration will take a holistic view, appropriately acknowledging the full history of our commonwealth,” said Delegate M. Kirkland Cox, 2019 Commemoration co-chair. State Senator Mamie Locke, who represents Hampton in the Virginia legislature, said August 20 is annually observed as “African-Americans Landing Day” by local residents.
She said Fort Comfort, where the first White Colonists arrived and where Blacks arrived as indentured servants and were later enslaved, is near Fort Monroe. Fort Monroe is where the first Blacks were freed during the civil war. “While the first Blacks were indentured servants and had the option to buy their freedom,” said Locke, “in “1624, laws were imposed which made Blacks slaves for life.”
Locke said years later during the Civil War, two Black slaves escaped to Fort Monroe (near Fort Comfort). The commanding officer at the facility, General Benjamin Butler, noted that since Virginia was part of the Confederacy, he would not comply with the Fugitive Slave Act. Thus, the escaped Blacks, who were deemed property in the southern states, would not be returned to their masters and would be deemed contraband. Other escaped slaves found freedom there during the war.
While renowned vessels such as the Santa Maria, Susan Constant, or Mayflower are anchored to the maritime narrative of the “New World,” few know of the White Lion. This ship transported the “20 and odd” Africans, natives of the Kingdom of Ndongo in what is now Angola to the British Colony of Jamestown. They were taken as captives aboard the White Lion from a Portuguese slave ship. These first Africans to English North America were sold there as involuntary laborers or indentured servants.
Their story has largely gone untold, obscured by the history of enslavement that beset Africans in America over the subsequent centuries. Leading the Opening Ceremony will be Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe and Roland S. Martin, national journalist, author, and host of TV One’s News One Now, who will provide special remarks on the importance of this history. The ceremony will also feature an exhilarating cannon presentation from Jamestown Settlement’s Godspeed, a replica of one of the three ships that carried settlers to the Jamestown colony in 1607.
On African Arrival Day, there will be a variety of activities meant to recognize the dignity of the men and women while revealing more about their role in the colony, their customs and what vestiges of their heritage remain today. “The long and painful journey that began in 1619 is Hampton’s story; it is Virginia’s story. But, most importantly, it is America’s story,” said Hampton Mayor Donnie Tuck.
Visitors will get to experience the history, culture and contributions of Virginia’s early Africans through a variety of interactive events. Terry E. Brown, Superintendent, Fort Monroe National Monument, National Park Service, acknowledged America’s painful past when he said, “We have to be intentional about making sure our parks and programs build relevancy for all Americans, which sometimes requires linking people to the most difficult period of our history. African Arrival Day will be a great opportunity for all audiences to explore our shared history at Fort Monroe.
Glenn Oder, executive director of the Fort Monroe Authority, is a lifelong resident of the Hampton Roads community. He and his team are committed to “…encouraging conversations regarding our country’s great African-American heritage and serving as a catalyst for improving relations in our community, state and country.”
For more information about the African Arrival Day events, www.africanarrivalday.com.