Republished with permission from Virginia Mercury, iby Bob Lewis
Tomorrow is Thanksgiving.
It’s a day that popular culture is quick to ascribe to early settlers who landed in Massachusetts sometime in the autumn or early winter of 1621. We see it in perennial promotions for the Black Friday shopping orgy manifest in cliché, cartoonish representations of pilgrim hats, square-toed shoes with big buckles and gobblers that resemble Virginia Tech’s sports mascot.
Virginians respond with patient bemusement, knowing that a service of thanksgiving to God was observed by British settlers two years earlier, in December 1619, along the James River in what was then known as Berkeley Hundred. The occasion was the successful completion of a harrowing trans-Atlantic passage to Virginia.
According to the Virginia Museum of History and Culture, a ship named the Margaret, helmed by Capt. John Woodlief, had sailed from Bristol, England, with a crew of 37 men. They were so delighted to land in Virginia after three distressing months at sea that they conducted the first known organized expression of gratitude for the blessings of divine providence.
What a happy story!
There were other crossings. Most have enjoyed far less acclaim and ritualistic celebration over the centuries in the United States. Let’s focus on one that found Virginia’s shores the same year as the Berkeley Hundred celebration.
It landed in late August of 1619 in what is now Hampton, on the present day site of Fort Monroe. At the time, it went by the name Point Comfort. And the story of that voyage is the stuff of Hollywood adventure films.
According to a Time magazine summary, the White Lion and a sister privateer, the Treasurer, had commandeered the captives in an act of high seas piracy from the San Juan Batista, a Portuguese slave ship carrying an estimated 350 Angolans bound for the Spanish colony of Vera Cruz. Running low on food and supplies, the White Lion reached Point Comfort first and bartered its enslaved cargo for “victuals” from George Yeardley, the governor of the 12-year-old colony that had gotten a foothold at Jamestown, and Abraham Piercey, the colony’s head of trade. The Treasurer followed two days later.
The landing at Point Comfort was significant as the first sale of human beings as slaves in what is now America. For nearly 250 more years, the slave trade was an evil that flourished in the United States. It made many whites wealthy and led the nation to disunion that culminated in what remains its bloodiest war.
The 1619 landing, however, was not the first time enslaved Africans had been brought to America against their will as forced laborers.
According to Smithsonian Magazine, Africans were part of a Spanish expedition that landed in present-day South Carolina to establish a colony in 1526, an odyssey that was abandoned after the Africans rebelled.
Conditions for African captives—ripped away from their homes and families in several sub-Saharan nations in Africa, shackled and packed like firewood within the filthy, cramped, airless wooden ship’s hulls for months at sea—still horrify and haunt us. Their lives of backbreaking compulsory servitude in the New World, supporting the agrarian economies of antebellum southern states, were equally brutal.
The Union victory in the Civil War brought legal emancipation to enslaved Black people, but not an end to systemic victimization. Advances such as access to the ballot, desegregation of public facilities and the right to marry people of their choice, would take another full century, gains that would be slow and paid for with blood.
The contributions and innovations of those enslaved people and their progeny—from building much of this nation’s infrastructure to music and the arts, to cuisine, to science and an indispensable role in creating the world’s most productive font of food and fiber—struggle for mere acknowledgement, much less an expression of thanks and suitable compensation. And the past two years, it’s gotten even harder.
We’ve even gone so far as to proscribe unhappy facts like these from history and social sciences curricula in our public schools. The 1619 Point Comfort landing and the history of all the pain and conflict that has flowed from it risks being labeled an “inherently divisive concept” that might discomfit white pupils. Virginia’s governor, Glenn Youngkin, was so intent on reining in such history that an executive order to banish it from the commonwealth’s classrooms was literally his first official action as governor, done the afternoon he was inaugurated and announced with fanfare.
Well, this isn’t a classroom. And last time I checked, the First Amendment still hadn’t been repealed, so I can and will note these culturally discomfiting truths.
Perhaps the most illuminating conversation I’ve had on the topic was with the grandson of enslaved people who made history of his own by becoming the nation’s first elected Black governor, L. Douglas Wilder.
“The problem we have is that American history has never been taught to Americans,” Wilder told me in June 2020 at the start of a summer of protests that followed the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white Minneapolis cop. “I am not talking about adding a Black history course. I am talking about telling the damn truth in all our history about what has happened for the 400 years Black people have been here!”
Without that shared understanding of historical truth, Wilder said, Black America and white America will remain estranged. We get no closer when we designate a day in November to celebrate one historical event 404 years ago and try to hide or diminish another one just as old.
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