By Dr. George F. Reed
The New Chesapeake Men for Progress sponsored its Black History Month Program February 18, 2023, in the Buffalow Family and Friends Multipurpose Center, Chesapeake, Virginia. The program was billed as a “must see and hear” based on the historians that would speak.
Featured speakers included Calvin Pearson, Founder and President of Hampton’s Project 1619; Audrey Landell Perry Williams, President, Hampton Roads Branch, Association for the Study of African-American Life and History; Dr. Ella P. Ward, President of Cornland School Foundation and Chesapeake City Councilwoman; and Ms. Brenda H. Andrews, Owner and Chief Editor of the New Journal and Guide.
The Program was moderated by Dr. George F. Reed, member of the Black History Month Planning Committee, who briefly commented on why we celebrate Black History Month. He explained three major ways enslaved Blacks resisted their enslavement to include rebelling against their enslavers; running away; and performing small, daily acts of resistance, such as slowing down work. Edward R. Hicks, New Chesapeake Men for Progress, provided the invocation followed by the Pledge of Allegiance led by James Young, secretary, New Chesapeake Men for Progress. Captain Michael Malone and his wife Delphin Malone led the singing of the Negro National Anthem.
Clifton Randolph, President, New Chesapeake Men for Progress, introduced the Honorable Richard West, Mayor, City of Chesapeake, who welcomed guests to the event followed by welcomes from Randolph and David K. Hamilton, Vice Chairman, The New Chesapeake Men for Progress Education Foundation, Inc. Herman L. Ward, Director and Chairman of the Black History Month Planning Committee, explained the occasion for this event and welcomed all guests.
Speaker: Mr. Calvin Pearson
Mr. Pearson began his speech by clarifying the difference between his Hampton Project 1619 which was founded in 1994, and the Pulitzer Prize winning author Nichole Hannah Jones’ New York Times “The Project 2019” created 25 years later.
His project, he noted, was and is the original Project 1619 which he created to tell and commemorate African-American history. In his speech, Pearson noted several inaccurate accounts of history as told by others.
He said that most history books and Jamestown organizers list Jamestown as the entry point of slaves in Virginia. Most people who visit the Jamestown tourist site with that understanding. Factually, Fort Comfort, now Fort Monroe, was the site the first 20 Africans landed in Virginia.
Pearson said that Jamestown historians literally deleted Point Comfort, but through research that disproved their narrative, they have changed their information to now reflect Point Comfort as the site where the first Africans landed in Virginia.
In his speech, Mr. Pearson dispelled the notion that Africans were heathens. In fact, he said, those brought to America were the “best Africans” who were skilled farmers, Blacksmiths, craftsmen, and herders. Many of the Europeans were men liberated from jails, shelters, and off the streets and sent to America. Without the help of Native Americans, they would have perished. In fact, they were about to pick up and go back to Europe.
Further, he said, the first Africans were probably not slaves, but were likely indentured servants who could purchase their freedom. Records indicated that the captured Africans were traded for food, thus, indicating they were seen as property. It is questionable whether they entered into an already unfree laboring system of indentured servitude or into a slave system already established.
Accordingly, slavery did not exist in Virginia until 1619. Chattel slavery began in Virginia in 1640 when a Virginia court sentenced a Black runaway servant to serve his master for the time of his natural life. Later in 1660, Virginia Law was enacted that any English Servant who ran away in the company of a Negro would be punished.
With respect to the history of Black people in America, it was written by their enslavers, as Blacks were not allowed to read and write. The first African-American to publish a book of poetry on various religious and morals against slavery was an enslaved Phyllis Wheatley, who at the age of 20, published her book in 1773. She was emancipated shortly thereafter by her enslaver.
Mr. Pearson encouraged reading the book titled “Before the Mayflower” which tells the history of Black America beginning in Ancient Egypt and flourishing in sub-Saharan African Kingdoms while Europe languished in the Middle Ages. The story continues with the first Africans to arrive in the future United States.
Speaker: Mrs. Audrey L. Perry Williams
Mrs. Williams explained the resistance of enslaved Blacks to slavery through the songs they sang and their poetry. The songs she chose were: “Hush, Hush, Somebody Calling Your Name;” “Wade in the Water;” and “Swing, Sweet Chariot.” More recent songs of resistance by Blacks she mentioned were “Strange Fruit” and “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.”
Songs served as a way for enslaved Blacks to communicate what village they were from, find family members and relatives, as well as issue codes that disguised their actions from their enslavers.
For example, the song “Hush, Hush, Somebody Calling My Name,” was code that somebody was going to run away and slaves were asked to be quiet. The song also represented death in the sense that the enslaved person was signaling that he’d rather be dead than to be a slave.
The “Swing Low – Sweet Chariot” melody signaled that the time to escape had arrived. The sweet chariot represented the Underground Railroad to carry them to the North.
“Strange Fruit,” popularized by Billie Holliday, was originally written as a poem after Abel Meeropol, a Jewish high school teacher and civil rights activist, saw a photo of two Black men who had been lynched in Indiana. The lyrics never call out lynching explicitly, but use a painful metaphor to describe the horrible terror that ravaged Black communities in the South.
Mrs. Williams proceeded to cite a poem by Ronald Duncan titled, “They See What We Do, They See What We Have, and Then They Kill Us.” The poem reflects on the cruelties, atrocities and inhumane treatment of enslaved Blacks by their enslavers.
Mrs. Williams challenged the audience to acquire a new perspective on what is history. She indicated that history represents past events, and contemporary events that we complete each hour and day. Each one of us makes history every day and these important events involve each one of us.
Speaker: Dr. Ella Ward
Dr. Ward spoke on Black Resistance in education from a personal point of view. She chronicled her life’s journey from Hertford County, N.C., where she was born.
She moved at the age of three to Nansemond County, Va., to live with her aunt, who along with other relatives and friends had high expectations for her to excel in life. An exceptionally bright student, she graduated with honors and was valedictorian for her high school. She went on to earn five college degrees, up to her Doctoral Degree from Virginia Tech, as she lived out her lifetime goal to teach. She completed 35 years as an educator before her retirement.
Today, her education-driven charge continues in her leadership to restore a historic one-room Black school in Chesapeake named the Cornland School. She led the effort in establishing Cornland School Foundation in 2011, raising funds, and assembling a full board of directors. The Foundation raised approximately $100,000 to make initial repairs, treat for termites and secure the building from further deterioration.
In 2021, the City of Chesapeake appropriated funds to move the school to a permanent location. Additional funding came from the Virginia General Assembly, and from the U.S. Congress through a bill introduced by the late Congressman Donald McEachin. Other donations have provided vital support.
The multi-million dollar School House Museum will be the focal point of a Historic Village and Tourist Center and the site will feature Cornland School Museum; Dismal Swamp Superintendent House, Outdoor Classroom, Trade and Commerce Exhibit; Underground Railroad Exhibit; Dismal Swamp Maroon communities Exhibit; and Native People Exhibit.
Dr. Ward noted that there were 51 schools in the country and 31 in Virginia after the Civil War and during the Reconstruction Period from 1865 to 1869. Prior to the Civil War, Virginia outlawed the education of enslaved African-Americans, and passed oppressive legislation to that effect.
Enslavers believed that educating Blacks might cause them to embrace the expectation of human equality, dispel the notion of Blacks’ presumed intellectual incapacity, and it was necessary to protect Whites as the superior race.
Blacks resisted these oppressive laws and practices and secretly operated clandestine schools in homes and churches in defiance of Virginia laws passed 1804, 1805, and 1831. After the Civil War, African-Americans, themselves, established the first freely accessible schools for African-Americans.
Following the Civil War, Dr. Ward indicated four known Black schools in Norfolk County: Cornland, Gilmerton, Deep Creek, and Bells Mill. John T. West School was the first public African-American school in the city of Norfolk to have high school classes for African-Americans. It is worthy to note, that before the end of Reconstruction in Virginia, African-Americans took a leading role in creating the states’ first system of free public schools.
Dr. Ward indicated that she and the board of directors have labored passionately to make the one-room Cornland School a Museum so that current and future generations can get a better understanding of the challenges faced by African-Americans. She encouraged and invited members in the audience to support the project, and noted that donations can be made on the Foundation website.
Speaker: Ms. Brenda H. Andrews
Ms. Andrews provided remarks and comments on the Black Press which was created in 1827 with the mission of telling our stories from a Black perspective. No longer did we have to rely on the narratives of who we are, and what we are from the narratives in the white press. She noted that in 1827, Enslaved Black and free Blacks were forbidden to learn to read or write.
The New Journal and Guide has being telling Black resistance stories for 123 years. She said, if you want to do something good, subscribe to the New Journal and Guide to learn about Black challenges, resistance, and accomplishments.
She further indicated that the New Journal and Guide has developed a Black History tabletop calendar for sale, and encouraged the audience to subscribe to the New Journal and Guide.