Four hundred years ago this month, a ship carrying some 20 enslaved immigrants from western Africa, arrived at Point Comfort in Hampton, Va., beginning centuries of brutal abuse of a people forcibly separated from their own land, language and customs.
In commemoration of the enslaved Africans’ landing in 1619 on Virginia soil, a three-day commemoration was held over the weekend at Point Comfort, which is now the decommissioned Fort Monroe military installation, attracting thousands of people from across the country and abroad.
“We [worked] with other partners that include the city of Hampton to bring this commemoration for people to experience and honor our ancestors,” said Yuri Milligan, a coordinator of the 2019 Commemoration Evolution team. “We’ve been working a long time to share the history of the first landing of the enslaved Africans, the history of Fort Monroe, and why this history is being commemorated.”
Milligan, who has worked with the commemoration efforts since 2016, said the state of Virginia has also been working on the event for the past five years, having presented various projects during that time.
“However, the city of Hampton and local civic organizations have been commemorating this history for over 20 years,” Milligan said. “In our outreach efforts, we’ve had exhibits across the state, many digital campaigns and developed history apps to get the word out about this weekend — especially to organizations like local branch of the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), Hampton Roads NAACP, and African American churches and school communities all over the commonwealth [of Virginia] to educate them about the landing in 1619.”
Glenn Oder, Fort Monroe Authority’s executive director, said the commemoration recognizes, for the first time in the country’s history, the landing which most likely took place circa Aug. 25, 1619.
“I expect people to come here [this weekend] because they’re curious and because we’re talking about race and other tough subjects that weren’t talked about when they were in grammar school,” Oder said. “And afterward, I hope they walk away intrigued and say they want more.”
Oder explained that after the War of 1812, Congress decided to build a stone fortress in Virginia that used slave labor from the community.
“The first and last names of the slaves who worked on the fortress were documented.” Oder said. “We also have names of their owners. What’s fascinating is that here is a fortress built by slaves, that when the Civil War broke out, it also became a refuge for enslaved people.”
Oder said a “generational opportunity” was created by the slaves’ involvement with both the landing and construction of the fortress.
“Or if not, a generational responsibility was created to tell the story for the first time,” Oder said. “We need to recognize that this is the pebble in the pond and the ripples are going to go out from this.”
Phyllis Terrell, an officer with the Fort Monroe Authority, said the weather this weekend was a good indication of a huge crowd all three days.
“We’re excited about all that’s been done to attract not just local and national observers but international audiences as well,” Terrell said.
In addition to the ceremony Saturday that marked the 400th anniversary of the first Africans’ landing, the Hampton Roads branch of ASALH on Friday presented a panel discussion at Hampton University, “1619-2019: 400 Years of Perseverance,” that honored African American perseverance from 1619 to the present.
Other activities and events of the weekend included speeches Saturday by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and author Michael Eric Dyson giving homage to African American ancestors, as well as cultural demonstrations, Black cultural tours, living history demonstrations, vendors, children’s activities, musical performances and more at Continental Park.
On Sunday, a highly anticipated “healing ceremony” sponsored by the National Park Service included a nationwide four-minute ringing of church bells in reconciliation and remembrance of the African Americans who first set foot on Virginia soil and their ancestors.