LAST month, the Commonwealth of Virginia and the nation rightly celebrated the 400th anniversary of the first meeting of the Virginia House of Burgesses, the first representative legislative body in the Western Hemisphere, at the Jamestown Settlement on July 30, 1619. The notion of self-governance fostered there would lead America’s Founding Fathers to declare their independence from Great Britain 157 years later and change the course of human history.
This month brings a darker, but equally historic, commemoration. On Saturday, Hampton’s Fort Monroe will mark the 400th anniversary of the First African Landing in Virginia. And at 3 p.m. Sunday, church bells across the nation—including here in Fredericksburg—will ring for four minutes: one minute for every 100 years since African slaves arrived at Point Comfort in August 1619.
The event was documented by John Rolfe, one of the first English settlers and the husband of Pocahontas, who noted the arrival of “20 and odd” Africans aboard what Rolfe described as a Dutch warship, but was in fact the White Lion, an English warship that had stolen the captives from a Portuguese slave ship headed for Mexico, according to the National Park Service.
A 1620 census of the colony noted 32 blacks “in ye service of several planters.” A five-year study commissioned by the NPS and completed in 2003 using archeological surveys and newly discovered documents revealed that at least some were indentured servants, a common practice at the time.
But that began to change as the labor-intensive cultivation of tobacco, the crop Rolfe had successfully introduced in Virginia, began to take off. “Indication by surviving wills, inventories, deeds and other documents [showed] that in some instances it was considered ‘customary practice to hold some Negroes in a form of life service,’ ” according to the NPS.
In 1640, black indentured servant John Punch ran away with two others, both white. They were all caught and whipped, and a judge added four years to the white men’s period of indenture. But Punch became the first documented person to be sentenced to life as a slave. By that time, slavery had already been officially recognized by Virginia statute. Even being baptized as a Christian—which was formerly considered grounds for a slave to obtain his or her freedom—was not enough to be released from bondage.
According to the 2003 study, there were only about 300 African slaves in the colony in 1649 out of a population of about 15,000 European colonists. But their numbers increased in the 1670s, when the Royal African Co. began shipping slaves directly to Jamestown.
As the number of slaves grew, so did the number of oppressive laws meant to prevent uprisings. Blacks were not allowed to congregate, even for funerals. They could not intermarry with whites or own livestock. They were not entitled to a trial by jury if they were accused of a capital crime.
By 1705, slavery had been codified in Virginia law. It would be more than 150 years before slaves were officially freed in 1863 during the Civil War by Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation—but only in states like Virginia that had seceded from the Union. More than 750,000 Americans died in that bloody conflict to end slavery, including thousands here in Fredericksburg.
The passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865 legally abolished chattel slavery everywhere in the U.S. and its territories. But it would be another 99 years before Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, banning discriminatory Jim Crow laws in the South.
In 1913, on the 50th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and long before the civil rights movement, African American poet James Weldon Johnson published a poem in the New York Times claiming full participation in American life for former slaves and their descendants:
“…This land is ours by right of birth,
This land is ours by right of toil
We helped to turn its virgin earth,
Our sweat is in its fruitful soil…
“Stand erect and without fear,
And for our foes let this suffice—
We’ve bought a rightful sonship here,
And we have more than paid the price. ...”
And so they have, for 400 years.
Democracy and slavery: these two contradictory ideas are forever intertwined in the history of Virginia and the nation, reminding us once again, if we needed reminding, that mankind is both capable of the highest aspirations as well as the deepest depravities.