Hidden History: 400th anniversary of the first African landing in English North America

HAMPTON, Va. (WAVY) – In 2019, Virginia commemorated the 400th anniversary of the first enslaved Africans brought to English North America.

In 1619, about 20 Africans were brought against their will to Point Comfort, where Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia is located today. A historical marker now stands there.

Calvin Pearson says he started Project 1619 to tell the true story about their arrival.

“What was going through their minds arriving at a place they didn’t know where they were? Arriving at a destination where they didn’t know where their future would be?” Pearson asked.

This commemoration was not just about the arrival, but 400 years of black history, inventions, and achievement.

“The commemoration is about education, understanding, healing, and reconciliation. We need everyone to understand that 400 years ago, our ancestors were brought here in chains and against their will. But, their sacrifice over the past 245 years of free bondage created a country that’s one of the greatest in the world,” he said.

Fort Monroe honored the commemoration through a number of programs, activities and ceremonies throughout the year.

Park Superintendent Terry Brown hoped that everyone would come out and learn from it.

“What I’m really aiming for is for someone to come into this space and be proud of where they came from. Yes, it’s been a tough journey but I want them to walk away from this saying 'Wow, look at how far we’ve come,'” he said.

Brown says it’s not just an African American story but an American story for everyone.

Pearson says it’s one that should be told.

“It’s a story we should not be ashamed of. It’s a story of our ancestors, our descendants. One everyone should recognize the transgressions of one people. One that should not be repeated,” he said.

And on a hot August day in 2019, relatives of the first enslaved Africans came together to remember all that transpired.

A  ceremony was led by the descendants of William Tucker, the first documented African child born in the Virginia Colony.

“It’s not just about us. It’s American history,” said Verrandall Tucker, a descendant and member of the William Tucker 1624 Society.

More than a hundred people attended the event held at the Tucker family cemetery in Hampton.

Tucker says he was at a loss for words seeing so many people turn out to honor not only their family’s lineage but all those who went unrecognized for centuries.

“We know our ancestors are proud of us because we’re standing on their shoulders. For years, we worked to put this together. It was worth every bit of it,” he said.

Virginia Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, who gave remarks, says it’s a day he’ll never really forget.

He spoke to the crowd about being able to represent so many who worked and died throughout American history at the Jamestown 1619 General Assembly commemoration.

Fairfax, who carried a copy of his own ancestor’s freedom papers at his inauguration, believes the events, along with the General Assembly commemoration, can be a catalyst of change for our country with Virginia spearheading it.

“At the crossroads of history, we get to chose what the future looks like and the people are speaking. I think they’re rising up and saying we want something better. We want hope and more opportunity for all. That really is an inspiring message,” he said.

The Tuckers also wanted guests to leave with a message, an understanding of the “true” American story that had its roots with the first Africans arrival.

“They feel the story has to continue. The fight has to continue. We have to continue to love and embrace each other and the world. This has to go out to the world so they’ll see what took place today,” Tucker said.