PAY TO ALL WHAT IS DUE THEM
RESPECT TO WHOM RESPECT IS DUE,
HONOR TO WHOM HONOR IS DUE. (ROMANS 13:7a, 7c)
To remember the 400 Years of Slavery, the National Park Service was commissioned by Congress to be responsible for the 400-year Commemoration of Slavery in the United States of America. The Commission's logo (appears above) symbolizes 400 years of African American History. The drum stands for global communication and healing; segmented chains represent breaking the cycle of slavery and the perpetual struggle for equality; the two stars depict the balance between inspiration and aspiration. (Ted Ellis/400 Years of African-American History Commission)
In August 1619, 12 - 20 Angolans, who were kidnapped by the Portuguese, arrived in the British colony of Virginia and were then bought by English colonists. The arrival of the enslaved Africans in the New World marks the beginning of two and a half centuries of slavery in the United States of America. They were originally kidnapped by Portuguese colonial forces, who sent captured members of the native Kongo and Ndongo kingdoms on a forced march to the port of Luanda, the capital of modern-day Angola. From there, they were ordered on the slave ship, San Juan Bautista, which set sail for Veracruz in the colony of New Spain. As was quite common, about 150 of the 350 captives aboard the ship died during the crossing. Then, as it approached its destination, the ship was attacked by two privateer ships: the White Lion and the Treasurer. Crews from the two ships stole up to 60 of the Bautista's slaves. It was the White Lion which docked at Virginia Colony's Point Comfort who traded some of the prisoners for food on August 20, 1619.
With fewer white indentured servants arriving from England, a racial caste system developed, and African servants were increasingly held for life. In 1662, a Virginia court ruled that children born to enslaved mothers were the property of the mother’s owner. As cash crops like tobacco, cotton, and sugar became pillars of the colonial economy, slavery became its engine. Though the slave trade was outlawed in 1807, chattel slavery and the plantation economy was made possible and flourished in the South. The 1860 census found that there were 3,953,760 enslaved people in the United States, making up roughly 13% of the population.
Juan Garrido became the first documented black person to arrive in what would become the U.S. when he accompanied Juan Ponce de León in 1513, and they ended up in present-day Florida, around St. Augustin. Nor is it the case that those who arrived in 1619 were the first enslaved people in what would become the United States. In 1565, for example, the Spanish brought enslaved Africans to present-day St. Augustine in Florida, the first European settlement that is now the continental United States. In 1526, a Spanish expedition to present-day South Carolina was stopped by enslaved Africans who were aboard.
That said, something did change in 1619. Because of the central role of the English colonies in American history, the introduction of the transatlantic slave trade to Virginia is likewise central to this ugly and inescapable part of that story. In addition, the type of race-based chattel slavery system that solidified in the centuries that followed was its own unique American tragedy.
Many of the founding members of the United States Government were slave owners. Major educational institutions such as Harvard, Georgetown, Yale, Princeton and the University of Virginia whose history extends back to or before 1865 had the labor, products, and profit of slavery woven into its very fabric. A few educational institutions have issued apologies for their involvement and some will attempt to make restitution in some way.
What must it have been like to be beaten, abused, and torn from your family and homeland? Taken to an island where you were placed in stone caves with no light not knowing what would happen next. Travel through the rough waters shackles on hands and feet, little to no food to eat, lined up to squeeze as many as possible into the cramped bottom of a ship traveling to an unknown place. We know many chose to jump overboard the ships that carried them away from their homeland rather than face the horrors of the unknown.
As Colita Nichols Fairfax, co-chair of the Hampton 2019 Commemorative Commission and professor at Norfolk State University, states, “Our children are not learning the human tragedy of enslavement. They’re only learning that they were brought here to work for other people. They’re not taught the human tragedy of being split up from the people you survived a harrowing journey with when you’re sold for food because you’re not seen as people. A woman named Angelo, who was purchased and worked in Pierce’s house, alone, no family. What was her experience like?”
So at the heart of the 400th anniversary being marked this week (August 2019) is a story of endurance, and of how people brought from Africa against their wills played an integral role in the American story. They brought their God-given talents, knowledge and drive to live in a land that enslaved not only their bodies, but their souls and spirits. We have to rethink the place of those Africans in history. They are not just victims. They survived and contributed.
We can and we must do better.