Virginia has been preparing since 2016 for this year’s American Evolution commemoration of the 400th anniversary of events that took place in 1619 in Virginia which continue to define America. These events have shaped the democratic process, cultural diversity, historical traditions, and the entrepreneurial spirit of the United States. One of those events was the arrival in 1619 of the first enslaved Africans. For the past 20 years, Calvin Pearson of Hampton led a grassroots effort to tell the true story of the arrival of the first Africans that he says had been purposely falsified since 1619. They were brought not to Jamestown, as generations of schoolchildren have been taught, but to what is today Fort Monroe in his native Hampton, Va. It is a history lesson that is guiding the Commemoration activities planned for 2019.
By Calvin Pearson
Founder and President of Project 1619 Inc.
In the latter part of August 1619, the first ship carrying the captured 20 and odd enslaved Africans to the Virginia colony arrived at Point Comfort (today’s Fort Monroe) in Hampton, Virginia. From that perilous voyage, their presence has had a profound impact on the cultural manifest of America’s past and still impacts the social, economic and political disparities facing families of color today.
For many years scholars and historians have recognized August 20th as the date the first Africans landed at Point Comfort, but there has never been any documentation to substantiate that date. Where did that date come from? No one knows.
The one official document that confirms the first Africans landed at Point Comfort is a journal entry by John Rolfe, who was the widower of Pocahontas and also the Secretary of the Virginia Company. His job was to keep a daily journal and report back to England what was taking place in the colony.
In August 1619, John Rolfe was at Point Comfort supervising the planting of the fall crop. On September 30, 1619, he wrote a letter back to England which stated, “About the latter end of August, a Dutch man of Warr of the burden of 160 tons arrived at Point Comfort, the Commanders name was Capt. Jope. He brought not anything but 20 and odd Negroes [sic.]”
The first Africans did not arrive at Ellis Island, Plymouth Rock, or Jamestown, but arrived as captured human cargo on the high seas during the transatlantic slave trade. In August 1619, the English ship White Lion, flying a Dutch Flag, carrying the captured 20 and odd Africans arrived at Point Comfort.
The first enslaved Africans who were brought to Point Comfort were not immigrants, but their landing was one of the most significant events in our future country’s history. The first generations of Africans to Virginia were skilled farmers and artisans. Along with their culture, they also brought many ideas and innovations. It was their labor that helped build Hampton, America, and the White House, but they toiled through many generations of bondage servitude, civil unrest, and the march for civil rights, before becoming legal citizens.
For the past twenty plus years members of Project 1619 Inc. have been the catalyst to change the narrative of the arrival of the first Africans. In 2008, they created African Landing Day in the City of Hampton to commemorate the landing of the first Africans in the Virginia Colony at Point Comfort.
Many mathematicians will say the 20th is not the latter part of August. So when did they arrive? The National Endowment for Humanities was instrumental in creating a database of slave voyage records incorporating 40 years of archival research from 35,000 slave crossings through the middle passage.
“Voyages: The Transatlantic Slave Trade Database” has allowed those records to be combined and collated so that the public can follow for the first time the routes of slave ships that transported 12.5 million Africans across the Atlantic from the 16th through the 19th century.
That database has revealed that the White Lion, bringing the first enslaved Africans to Point Comfort arrived on August 25, 1619. This aligns their arrival with John Rolfe’s statement, the latter part of August. Further analysis was conducted on the research by Spanish researchers, Engel Sluiter and Enriqueta Vila Vilar, and the Archivo General de Indias archives. Based on a comprehensive study of the information, Project 1619 Inc., now for the first time ever, confirms that the actual date the first Africans arrived at Point Comfort is August 25, 1619.
The privateers, White Lion and the Treasurer, each captured Africans from the Sao Joao Bautista and headed to Virginia – the closest English port. The White Lion arrived at Point Comfort on August 25th.
Among its cargo were 20 and odd Negroes. They were called Negroes because the Portuguese people referred to all people with dark skin as Negroes. Two of the original Africans who arrived on the White Lion in 1619 were Antoney and Isabella.
In January 1625, according to the Virginia census, those two Africans, Isabella, Antonio and their son William were living in present day Hampton in Capt. William Tucker’s home; who was the commander at Point Comfort, (today’s Fort Monroe). Their son William was the first documented African child born in English North America. He was baptized on January 4, 1624, but no one knows for sure when he was born.