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Virginia Honors African Americans’ Contributions Throughout 400 Years of History

Fort Monroe's Superintendent Terry Brown at the exact point where Africans first arrived. (Photo: Yasmine Jumaa/WCVE)
Fort Monroe's Superintendent Terry Brown at the exact point where Africans first arrived. (Photo: Yasmine Jumaa/VPM)

Four hundred years ago, enslaved Africans who were abducted from what is now Angola arrived in Virginia. Initiatives across the Commonwealth are marking this anniversary by giving recognition to the significant role free and enslaved black people have played in building this country and shaping its democracy. 

In 1619, two English pirate ships, the White Lion and the Treasurer, attacked a Spanish slave ship headed to the Gulf of Mexico. 

Calvin Pearson has been researching the history of Virginia’s Africans for 35 years. 

“When the captain of the White Lion opened up the hatch looking for gold and silver, he found hundreds of African eyes looking back at him,” Pearson said.

Pearson founded  Project 1619. The Hampton-based initiative has identified 500 African descendant families in the Tidewater area.

“This is where it all started here in English North America. This is the land of our ancestors,” Pearson said. “We tell people to come to Virginia, come to Hampton and do your research to see if you are a direct descendant of one of those first African families.”

The first African woman to appear in census records was “Angelo,” whose name was changed to Angela in official documents. She arrived in the colony on the Treasurer, and was enslaved by Captain William Pierce.

The Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation and the National Park Service initiated excavations of Pierce’s property in 2017. The site’s Lead Archaeologist Lee McBee said the most significant finds are three cowrie shells -- possibly used to adorn clothes.

“Those are actual pieces that would’ve been on their person” McBee said. 

McBee said the shells may have been one of the few objects from home carried by the enslaved Africans. 

“As we dig, we find pieces of that story -- of the enslavement here from 1619 ‘til the end of the Civil War. We have something in our hands that people can develop empathy for,” McBee said.

Pearson said when Africans arrived at present-day Hampton there were no laws referencing slavery. It was a period of blurred lines between indentured -- contract-bound servitude -- and bondage. He says they worked from sun-up to sun-down with no promise of freedom. 

Pearson said if Africans had children, they too were subject to inhumane conditions.

“There were a lot of plantations where they made these young children remain naked until they were old enough to work,” Pearson said. 

Pearson said once Africans were freed, if at all, they had the same rights as any free person in the colony. They could marry freely and interracially. They could also purchase their own land and indentured servants. 

“They had white servants and black servants working on their plantation,” Pearson said.

But Africans’ hopes for freedom grew slimmer as slavery became a commodity. Enslavers capitalized on free African labor and  headrights, meaning they got 50 acres of land for each worker brought to America. 

“It was the goose laying the golden egg,” Pearson said. “You're not going to get rid of the goose. And the goose in this situation were Africans who were providing free labor with little return.”

In 1705, the colony enacted a  series of laws that ultimately codified the institution of slavery. 

On the shore of Jamestown Island, about 70 people gathered this month to pay tribute to the Africans who arrived in Virginia in 1619. 

Dancers of all ages performed traditional African dances and were accompanied by drummers.

The daylong event, 1619 Fest, is one of several organized to honor the history of Africans and African Americans over the last four centuries. 

Terry Brown is superintendent of Fort Monroe. It’s the largest stone fortification in the country and it used to be Point Comfort, the place where the first documented Africans landed in the Virginia Colony.

“Fort Monroe is in a lot of ways, it's America. It has racism and classism. It has all kinds of -isms and you can find that in this little space historically,” Brown said.

Like many structures that still stand today, from the White House to the University of Virginia, Fort Monroe was built by enslaved people. 

“I think when you learn about African American history, you begin to humanize that culture a little bit,” Brown said. “You begin to not view them as others.”

Brown said most of Fort Monroe’s visitors are white, so he’s focused on engaging more people of color, especially youth.

A stewardship program offers youth ages 16-21 the chance to go through park ranger training. The Fort’s internship program invites Hampton University students to work on preserving historic buildings. 

Fort Monroe is also building a new education center to tell a more complete history about indigenous peoples, the arrival of Africans and the white colonists. One exhibit shares the story of first Africans Antony and Isabella and their son William Tucker. 

Vincent Tucker is a descendant, and head of the  William Tucker 1624 Society. Through research and preservation, his family’s nonprofit aims to share a history that’s been overlooked.

“We have grown and demonstrated, not just African Americans, people of color across the board, an excellence in many areas. This is not always highlighted,” Tucker said.

Commemorations for the 400 year anniversary continue this week, including at the Tucker family cemetery. Vincent Tucker said this is an opportunity to share his and other families histories, but it’s also bittersweet.

“We have survived 400 years of hatred and slavery and a lot of injustice,” Tucker said. “So to come forth and remember those times and talk about those times and share the stories with many folks even in that region and throughout the United States, it's pretty significant”

Fort Monroe has four days of events, including a day focusing on healing. Superintendent Terry Brown wanted something anyone could participate in - no matter where they were. He organized a nationwide bell ringing ceremony set to begin at 3:00 PM Eastern.

“There are bells being rung in California, in Montana, even the cathedral in Washington D.C.; They’re ringing bells in Alabama where the last slave ship was discovered,” Brown said. 

Brown says he hopes the  weekend’s events will inspire people to practice unity and compassion in their communities.

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