There have been many bitter ironies regarding slavery and racial divisions in the United States, starting with the first documented arrival of Africans in British North America in late August 1619.
This was just a few weeks after the Virginia colony introduced some semblance of democracy for white settlers in the form of an election for the first House of Burgesses, the forerunner of today’s General Assembly.
The “20 and odd negroes,” as Virginia colony secretary John Rolfe described them, came ashore at Point Comfort in what is now the Fort Monroe National Monument in Hampton. The English settlers had found “comfort” from arduous weeks at sea when they landed here just several years before, in 1607. But for the Africans, they would soon be inhumanely traded as chattel by the captain of the ship White Lion to colonial Gov. George Yeardley and merchant Abraham Peirsey and then sent to other locations.
The city of Hampton and several organizations, including Project 1619, have observed an annual African Landing Commemoration Day on Aug. 19-21 since 2010. This year’s schedule can be found here.
According to various histories, the first Africans to arrive in Virginia were part of a contingent of about 350 slaves from the Portuguese colony of Angola, captured from the kingdom of Ndongo in west central Africa. The Portuguese took the Africans aboard the São João Bautista, which began to sail to Vera Cruz, Mexico, but was attacked by the White Lion and another English vessel, the Treasurer.
Historians still debate whether these first Africans in Virginia were slaves or indentured servants, but as historian Howard Zinn points out in “A People’s History of the United States,” “it would have been strange if those twenty blacks, forcibly transported … and sold as objects to settlers anxious for a steadfast source of labor, were considered as anything but slaves.” The next few decades, however, would see the continual codification of laws governing enslavement and the rapid growth of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
More accounts of the early years and a timeline can be found in this account in Encyclopedia Virginia. And as noted in “Family Tree: A Guide to African American Heritage Sites in Hampton, Virginia,” the Africans taken to Virginia were valued for more than raw labor; they “brought to America their skills as farmers” and their numbers included “skilled … blacksmiths, textile weavers, and metal workers.”
Nevertheless, the cruelties of enslavement mounted and included the use of slave labor – another great irony – to help the U.S. Army protect America’s liberty against foreign invaders by building the massive Fort Monroe between 1819 and 1834 as a strategic bastion, at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.
In yet another twist of history, Fort Monroe became known as “Freedom’s Fortress” during the Civil War because Union Major Gen. Benjamin F. Butler welcomed thousands of runaway slaves, declared them “contraband of war” and refused to return them to the Confederate plantations. Fort Monroe became part of the National Park Service in 2011.