It’s a span of 10 kilometres and four centuries between the spot where the first enslaved Africans in what would later become the United States came ashore, and the burial ground where one of their possible descendants, Walter Jones, labours to keep alive their memories.
Mr. Jones, a 63-year-old retired software engineer, is determined to shorten that gap by tending the Tucker Family Cemetery − land where the local black community has buried its dead for hundreds of years, and which Mr. Jones’s family has owned since the late 1800s.
While cutting away undergrowth and preserving weathered tombstones, Mr. Jones and his relatives have made a slew of historic discoveries: Using ground-penetrating radar around large depressions in the earth, they uncovered more than a hundred unmarked graves. The spots are now dotted with stones and white crosses.
The value of this work was in particular focus this week, as Virginia commemorated the 400th anniversary of that day in August, 1619. An English privateer ship named the White Lion had attacked Portuguese slave traders in the Gulf of Mexico and made off with twenty-some enslaved Africans. When it landed at Point Comfort in England’s fledgling Virginia colony, the crew traded their human cargo to the governor and landowners for food.
“It’s understanding how strong our people, our ancestors were to be able to survive. We truly had a lot to do with building the country,” Mr. Jones said on the sidelines of a commemoration ceremony at the cemetery Friday, clad in a gold dashiki and standing in the shade of 20-metre trees filled with singing cicadas. “It makes me proud to be a part of it.”
The anniversary has taken on added political weight amid increasing racial tensions in the United States. President Donald Trump, who has portrayed Hispanic immigrants as violent criminals and once said that there were “very fine people” amid white supremacists in Charlottesville, last month told four congresswomen of colour to “go back” to the countries they came from. All four women are U.S. citizens and all but one were born in the U.S.
“We want to set the record straight when they say ‘go back to where you come from:’ We have family and descendants on two continents. We have made our mark on two continents,” said Wanda Tucker, 61, an Arizona college professor and relative of Mr. Jones’s who came to Virginia for the commemoration. “We have as much a right to be here as anybody else − we have been here since the foundation of America. We are here, the African-Americans, and we are taking our rightful place in history.”
By comparison, she joked, the President’s own family provenance in the United States is recent: His grandfather emigrated from Germany in 1885. “It’s only been three generations with him, right?”
The anniversary is particularly freighted in Virginia, which is in the midst of a battle over its many monuments to Confederate generals and politicians. What’s more, the state’s white governor and attorney-general both admitted earlier this year to having worn blackface to parties in university, a scandal that bitterly divided their Democratic Party at a time when it is increasingly positioning itself as the voice for inclusion against Mr. Trump’s nationalistic agenda.
Even the site of the main commemoration ceremony Saturday morning was emblematic of the state’s twisting history. Fort Monroe was built in 1834 near the site where the White Lion landed. At one time, it was the haunt of Robert E. Lee, who was posted there as a U.S. army officer before the Civil War. During that conflict, it remained under Northern control and its commander, Benjamin Butler, decided not to return escaped enslaved people back to the South, effectively encouraging them to self-emancipate by fleeing to Union lines. After the war, it served as jail for Confederate president Jefferson Davis. The base was decommissioned in 2011 and designated a national monument by Barack Obama, the country’s first black president.
Speaking to a thousands-strong crowd outside the Fort’s walls, overlooking an inlet of the Atlantic Ocean, Governor Ralph Northam indirectly referenced his blackface scandal as he vowed to do better.
“If we are going to begin to truly right the wrongs of our four centuries of history, if we are going to turn the light of truth upon them, we have to start with ourselves,” he said. “I had to confront some painful truths, among those truths was my own incomplete understanding regarding race and equity.”
The crowd repeatedly applauded, cheered and jumped to its feet as he rhymed off a series of actions his government is taking to combat systemic racism: A commission to put more black history in the public-school curriculum, a plan to end disproportionately high maternal and infant mortality rates among black mothers and children, and the removal of Mr. Davis’s name from a memorial arch in Hampton.
Barbara Malone, a 73-year-old retired schoolteacher who gave the governor a standing ovation, recalled growing up in the state under Jim Crow. When she went to get ice cream, she wasn’t allowed to sit at the counter with the white children. It was the same story at the F.W. Woolworth, where black patrons were obliged to order food standing at a counter while white diners were served at their tables.
“It made us feel we were less than the other people. We were not treated fairly,” she said.
Ms. Malone described the end of segregation as “a triumph,” and said she was dispirited to see the old racist rhetoric surface again under Mr. Trump.
“He has divided our country. He has really divided us,” added her friend Phyllis Banks, 69, a librarian.
The pair drew a distinction between the President’s behaviour and Mr. Northam’s. While the governor has acknowledged his actions were wrong, and rolled out a series of policies meant to fight racial inequality, Mr. Trump has only doubled down, insisting his portrayal of congresswomen of colour as foreigners is not racist.
“We all grow from our experiences. We may have one mindset at one time, but then we learn. I think he has learned,” Ms. Malone said of Mr. Northam. As for Mr. Trump: “There are some people that aren’t going to change, and I think he is one of those people.”
The anniversary was possessed of something of a duality: On one hand, the start of American slavery, segregation and persistent inequality; on the other, the beginning of America’s black culture.
LaQuita Marie Staten, who runs an African dance troupe, said the second part of that equation is too often forgotten.
“We talk about slavery, but not the enslaved people, not the culture or the contributions or the way they participated in the development of this country,” she said.
At the event in the Tucker Family Cemetery, Ms. Staten and her husband Corey, wearing clothing in the style of the west African cultures from which many of the enslaved people came, performed a libation ceremony, pouring water on the ground to symbolize the life force of African people meeting with fertile earth.
“Those twenty-some odd Africans … didn’t know their fate. They didn’t know that they were the seeds of culture that would be planted permanently here in Virginia and spread its roots throughout the rest of America to give rise to the great people called African-Americans,” Mr. Staten said.
He then led the crowd in a call-and-response chant of “oshe baba,” a Yoruba term for “thank you father,” giving thanks for the ancestors who landed in 1619 and the generations after that, before the troupe performed an African Sorsonet dance.
For Mr. Jones, two of those first Africans in America were top of mind: Anthony and Isabella, whose names appear in a 1624 census as servants of Captain William Tucker, an English officer in the Virginia colony. A year later, the records list their child, William, the first named African born in what would later become the United States. Mr. Jones’s family, through a combination of genealogical research and oral history, believes they are William’s descendants.
Mr. Jones himself grew up helping his mother and uncles maintain the cemetery. A few years ago, after the land had become overgrown, he led restoration efforts and the work to identify unmarked graves. He’s passing on the tradition to his grandchildren, who now work alongside him on the land.
To Mr. Jones, Mr. Trump’s comments read as a dismissal of the history he works to preserve, his family’s role in shaping America − starting on an August day more than a century and a half before the U.S. was born.
“It gets kind of emotional,” he said. “The disrespect to my ancestors, and what we contributed, is unacceptable.”
ADRIAN MORROW, U.S. CORRESPONDENT
The Globe and Mail, August 25, 2019