By Gloria J. Browne-Marshall
John Jay College of Criminal Justice
This week in August marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Africans in the Virginia Colony. It is a global event. The African American existence is a remarkable testament to perseverance, resistance and the power of the human spirit. This 400-year journey of Africana people in America has been a constant challenge faced by miraculous people. The 1619 anniversary is not simply about remembering slavery. It is a time to reflect of the bitter path of slavery and racism as well as the beauty of life gained by people who paid a price higher than we will ever know. Either way, it is worth commemorating.
In 1607, England sent colonists to North America. Their intent was expansion of the English monarchy through the commercialization of the “New World.’ The land would be taken in the name of King James. The same King James whose name is branded on a version of the Bible. The Virginia Colony was struggling with crime and hunger.
Virginia is the cornerstone of America. The Africans in Virginia allowed that cornerstone to prosper into a nation. In 1619, a government was formed there. A few months later Africans arrived. These “20 and odd Negroes” were noted in the diary of John Rolf. He was the Secretary of the Virginia Colony and would later marry Pocahontas. These Africans arrived with skills for farming, raising animals, metalworks and artistry. They had been brutally kidnapped from their homes in the Ndongo region of Africa, later named Angola.
Civil war had been fomented by the Portuguese enslavers who came in peace as explorers, initially. They returned in search of gold and labor to expand the Portuguese empire into what is now Brazil and Mexico. On a collision course for servants, the English, Spanish and Portuguese clashed at sea. The Africans kidnapped by the Portuguese were stolen by the English. These African men, women and children from Angola were traded on the shores of the James River to the Virginia colonists.
This all happened one year before the landing of The Mayflower. Africans were in North America even earlier than 1619. But American begins her history in Virginia, in 1607. Therefore, the importance of the African arrival means they provided to the survival of the colony. At the same time, Africans such as Mary and Anthony Johnson would climb the ladder of success. They owned land and had servants, European and African servants – in the 1600s.
The Africans in Virginia were not slaves. They were gradually enslaved. The role of law and the law enforcers was as treacherous to Black freedom then as it is now. Mary and Anthony Johnson were deemed to be aliens under a new law. Their land was confiscated, and the Johnson family was forced from the colony. Their achievement was omitted from history like so many achievements of Africana people. But law kept a record of their request for a tax abatement. This record shows their progress under such hard circumstances. Within fifty years of 1619, laws would reduce Africans to perpetual laborers at birth. Chattel slavery would allow the south to grow rich on tobacco and the slave-trade. Mary and Anthony Johnson were nearly forgotten.
The story of Mary and Anthony Johnson fits the pattern of life in America for too many African Americans over most of these 400 years. Take two steps forward and then get pushed back, usually by law and terrorism. No protection under law and disparities written within law has been America’s rule of law for most people of color. A debt of appreciation must be acknowledged for the generations for people who sustained themselves through the pain of this hypocrisy. The 400th commemoration is a needed time to admire the power of people who believed there would be freedom in the future.
The 400th commemoration means accepting the countless missed opportunities for fairness that litter this nation’s history. There has been great progress since enslavement and Jim Crow segregation. However, African American progress is precarious. It has been made this way for 400 years. White nationalism is reminder that freedom was a hard-fought battle. Maintaining freedom into future generations means learning lessons from this 400-year journey. This is also the 100th anniversary of the Red Summer. In 1919, the streets ran red with the blood of innocents African Americans attacked by white mobs.
This 400th commemoration will raise emotions, questions and concerns. Most importantly, it should be a time to thank the ancestors for their resilience.