A 400-year anniversary

Note a couple of items on this marker produced in 1994. The text questions the status of these First Africans as being enslaved or indentured and one should note that until 1661 the Virginia Colony had no laws pertaining to the institution of race based slavery or any other form of slavery. The second item is the last sentence which is incorrect in its statement that "The U.S. abolished slavery in 1863." That is a reference to the Emancipation Proclamation which was a Presidential order and only applied to the slave-holding states that were in rebellion against the United States. The U.S. actually abolished slavery by the 13th Amendment passed by Congress in 1865 and ratified by the states in December of that year.

Note a couple of items on this marker produced in 1994. The text questions the status of these First Africans as being enslaved or indentured and one should note that until 1661 the Virginia Colony had no laws pertaining to the institution of race based slavery or any other form of slavery. The second item is the last sentence which is incorrect in its statement that “The U.S. abolished slavery in 1863.” That is a reference to the Emancipation Proclamation which was a Presidential order and only applied to the slave-holding states that were in rebellion against the United States. The U.S. actually abolished slavery by the 13th Amendment passed by Congress in 1865 and ratified by the states in December of that year.

A 400-year anniversary…

Of what you ask? No doubt there will be many 400-year anniversaries around the world in 2019, but my focus and hopefully yours will be on a few things that took place here in the Commonwealth of Virginia, then but a colony in the British Empire.

Let me satisfy your curiosity.

Think Jamestown and 1619. According to historians there were four firsts. A 2019 Commemoration Committee has been hard at work to develop the celebration of the following: the first representative assembly in the New World; the recruitment of English women in significant numbers; the observance of the first official English Thanksgiving in North America; and the arrival of the first-recorded Africans to English North America.

Now, tell me which of these might be of greatest interest both historically and to modern-day minds?

The first is something that may have influenced the founding fathers 168 years later as they sought to craft the Constitution of the United States. That 1619 representative assembly was under the auspices of England, and it likely represented a select group and not all those it served. We have moved far beyond that initial endeavor. Nonetheless, it would be instructive to examine how it was developed and subsequently conducted itself; we can add that to our trove of knowledge.

I personally would find the recruitment of English women, presumably to come to the colony, to be of note. What kind of women would come to such a place and for what purpose? Was the effort successful and do we know who they were? Could they be called the founding mothers?

Ah, Thanksgiving! We are in constant competition with the Pilgrims over that one. I am not sure it matters anymore, if we get to enjoy a delicious turkey-day feast.

That leaves us with the fourth event: the arrival of the first-recorded Africans to English North America. Well, you might imagine that would be my choice of most significant and for very good reasons.

Growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s, there was nothing in the Virginia textbooks about the arrival of these first Africans at Jamestown. In fact, what I learned was limited to John Smith and John Rolfe, and maybe a scant line or two about the local Native Americans who occupied the land. That history has been proven inaccurate on many levels due to excellent research and archaeology conducted during the last 50 years.

Some of that very research has identified and fleshed out the truths regarding those first Africans and yet, that information continues not to be widely shared.

Think about these questions. Who were these people of color? Where did they come from? Were they a religious people and if so, what was their religion?

My understanding is that they were not sold as slaves but as indentured servants, the same as those indentured servants of European heritage. Subsequently, it is my understanding that upon completing their indenture they were given the commensurate cash or land and their freedom from any kind of bondage. The institution of race-based slavery would not be established in the colonies for several more decades nor many of the laws governing people of color.

Could these twenty-odd individuals have been significant and contributing factors to the settlement of the Virginia Colony? Who did they marry? Could they, too, have been among the first families of Virginia?

I believe through examination, commemoration and dissemination of the wealth of documented research on this topic, we will finally know the informed answers to these questions and more.

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