In 1997 I learned of an upcoming milestone in the African-American experience from the book America Is Me by Stanford University Professor Kennell Jackson.
He was the first academic with whom I shared my work on my ancestor William Grimes who wrote the first fugitive slave narrative in American history. I needed guidance so I reached out to him and he graciously replied. After many phone discussions, he invited me to his campus and even paid me to share my story of historical recovery with his students. It was my first paid speaking engagement. I still have the $250 pay stub twenty-two years later.
I never forgot Professor Jackson’s generosity nor his words about the impending “watershed” he wrote about in 1997:
“In the year 2019, Blacks will have been in America for four hundred years. In less than twenty-five years, we—as a nation—will reach this landmark. Being so focused on the end of the millennium, hardly anyone has mentioned that we are fast approaching this watershed in American history.”
Sadly, Professor Jackson did not live to see the milestone he wrote about or may have envisioned. However, we still have his words of enlightenment:
“Four hundred years confers a permanence, an aura of true and lasting quality, on the Black American past. Many nations in today’s world are younger than four hundred years. Empires have been swept away during this time. Revolutionary movements have come and gone. Whole systems of thought have risen and disintegrated during these years. Through all of this, Black Americans have continued, winding their way toward the future. They are an enduring part of American and world history. The year 2019 will simply highlight this fact.”
Several years later, an Internet search led me to the work of Mr. Calvin Pearson President and Founder of Project 1619 where he and his team have carefully studied the history of the arrival of the first African ship landing in Colonial America at Point Comfort (present-day Fort Monroe) in Hampton, Virginia. The date of this historic landing has now been firmly established as August 25, 1619.
He wrote about a Portuguese ship carrying Africans bound for Mexico that was hijacked by Pirates on two ships—the White Lion from England and the Treasurer of Jamestown, Virginia. Hoping to seize gold and silver, the crew of the two ships instead found human cargo. Nonetheless, they divvied the Africans between the vessels and sailed off. A raging storm caused the ships to separate. The White Lion set sail for Jamestown, but ended up dropping anchor in Point Comfort, Virginia where some of the Africans were traded for victuals; the remainders were spread throughout the Jamestown Colony. This, historians say, is how slavery began in what would become the United States.
The lives of these first Africans in British America can, perhaps, be likened to indentured servitude, which was just as provisional as it was for white indentures’. Records of these black bondsmen who worked side by side their owners on the edge of the wilderness were able to work off their servitude after a number of years. In some cases, they acquired land and even slaves.
Forty years later, due to a booming tobacco economy, laws and customs began to change. In stark contrast, the heirs of these first Africans in Colonial America—along with the vast majority of the Africans in America to follow—became part of a more ominous and absolute system called chattel slavery that was based on race and lifelong. As cruel and unjust as the system was, we, as a people, challenged and defied it at every turn until 1865 when slavery was finally abolished, but of course, there would be more to endure and overcome for a century to follow.
Still, Professor Jackson made it clear that there is much to celebrate and I agree. That is why IBC was formed. To draw national attention to a milestone that otherwise would just be another day in America. As a former Professor of African Studies, Jackson also wrote about the presence of free and enslaved Africans in America by the Spanish in the early 1500s. That is a notable history unto itself, but it is not the history of what became the “United States” or the “watershed” that Jackson eloquently wrote about. We are that history and on August 25, 2019, all eyes should be on us—descendants of an epic African American story in the larger American narrative, continuously winding our way forward.
By remembering the first ship landing of Africans in English America gives the nation, an opportunity to reflect on the contributions of a people—400 years in the making— whose history is inspired by courage, hope, innovation, and overcoming unspeakable odds.