By Gloria J. Browne-Marshall
Professor of Constitutional Law at John Jay College
It was a commemoration worthy of the ancestors. This past weekend was filled nourishment for the spirit and the mind. “Welcome to these shores,” Chief G. Anne Richardson, leader of the Rappahannock Tribe, told the audience of over five thousand. “No one had welcomed you upon your arrival,” Richardson said. African Americans cheered. Some cried. This was one of many emotional moments during a week of events commemorating the African arrival in 1619.
Activities included an acknowledgment of centuries of race-based harm against African Americans and ended with speeches about the possible ways to heal centuries of wounds. The Hampton-based commemoration gave breath to the essays written in the New York Times Magazine titled the “1619 Project.” This year marked the 400th anniversary of the African arrival in the Colony of Virginia.
In 1619, “20 and odd Negroes” arrived at Old Point Comfort located on the shores of Virginia. The Colony was young, founded in 1607. John Rolf, secretary of the colony, noted the African arrival in his journal. It was from here that the nexus of African fortitude and European greed gave rise to present-day America. Africans were here before The Mayflower landed in 1620. They came with knowledge about farming, livestock and metalworks essential to the survival of this first permanent English colony in North America. Yet, relatively few Americans know of their existence in Virginia, the cornerstone of America. Few knew until this 400th commemoration held in Hampton, VA.
Old Point Comfort is now named Fort Monroe. It is a National Park Service historic site and the largest fort in America. In Fort Monroe’s Continental Park, white tents and a stage held dozens of speakers, like Chief Richardson, who were caught up in the somber experience on these historic grounds. Project 1619 founder Calvin Pearson and Dr. Bill Wiggins had been teaching the history of the African arrival in Virginia for forty years. They persuaded scholars that the landing site was Hampton, Virginia, not Jamestown. Thus, the location at Fort Monroe, in Hampton.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam was moved by the commemoration to pledge to create new pathways of opportunities for African Americans. He apologized for past racial transgressions. Northam had been publicly embarrassed when photos of him surfaced wearing black-face at a ku klux klan-themed party attended during medical school. Sunday was a day of healing from past transgressions. Speakers provided their unique perspectives on healing. Rev. Dr. Michael Dyson spoke roughly of about how African Americans were denied credit for the building of America and an acknowledgement of their contributions would go far in their healing process.
Rev. Dr. Michael Battle, director of the Desmond Tutu Center, analyzed the word healing. Battle said that they “had taken the African identity and replaced it with their own.” However, healing from this violent act could not be violent, he said. Bible verses and calls for forgiveness were intertwined with personal stories. Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin E. Fairfax spoke of a friendship between his family and the descendants of the slaveholding Lord Fairfax of England.
Libations were poured to heal the land. Drummers played. Young people impressed adults, providing oratory, song and dance. Hip hop performers Donovan Pollack and Imagine, Teens with a Purpose, gave a spoken word performance about the uprising of Nat Turner. These teens spoke of the prejudice against Black young people, ending their poem with the line ‘we are not strong enough to carry the weight of racial stereotypes.”
This commemoration was possible through the work of grassroots organization, nonprofit groups and politicians, including Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott, of Virginia. In 2018, Scott proposed the Federal legislation creating a 400th Commission to commemorate the African arrival. But Scott spoke of legislation still needed to advance African Americans economically and educationally in the face of past and ongoing discrimination. There is still much to do, he said.
Forgiveness was offered and requested. A delegation from Nigeria and Ghana poured a libation to heal the earth and ask forgiveness for their role in the slave-trade. Former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell asked the attendees to forgive the acts of the first governor of Virginia who purchased the first Africans instead of protecting them. Terry E. Brown was the visionary behind this commemorative weekend.
“Forgiveness is meant to heal yourself.” Brown is a leader with the National Park Service and the superintendent of Fort Monroe. He led a recitation of forgiveness. Fort Monroe played a crucial role in the Civil War as a place of security for escaped enslaved Africans who were considered contraband of war.
Officer Brown spoke of being visibly moved by the commemoration as were many in attendance. The brutality of enslavement was ever present. “After 246 years of slavery and over a century of discrimination, “I am not going to resolve racism with one event,” Brown said. He believes America is taking steps to acknowledge the contribution of African Americans and the harm of enslavement. The 1619 commemoration was one ray of hope. Healing will be an ongoing process.
Gloria J. Browne-Marshall is the author of “Race, Law, and American Society: 1607 to Present” and “The Voting Rights War.” She is Professor of Constitutional Law at John Jay College (CUNY), Chair of the 400th Commemoration of ASALH and a legal correspondent covering the U.S. Supreme Court.