Four hundred years ago, the first group of enslaved Africans arrived in English North America at Point Comfort in 1619. From August 23 to 29 of 2019, Fort Monroe will host the 400th year commemoration of the first African Landing. The weekend-long event will recognize the first chapter of African American history and how these initial events continue to influence modern African American history and American history as a whole.
Throughout the weekend, Fort Monroe will feature a wide variety of events within the Hampton community for all to attend. These events include living history demonstrations, musical performances, and a preview of the new Fort Monroe Visitor and Education Center. The weekend’s events will end with a Day of Healing and a Gospel Music Festival, featuring a tribute to the ancestors with a release of 400 butterflies. Each event plays a significant part in retelling the deep, complicated history of African Americans to visitors from across the world.
Many different prominent figures and celebrities will be featured at panels and performances throughout the weekend including U.S. Senator Tim Kaine, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, CNN political contributor Van Jones, and rapper Common.
The Significance of Fort Monroe
From being the birthplace of eight presidents to its moniker as the “birthplace of a nation”, Virginia plays a large role in American history. One of the many reasons for that strong significance is the prominence of Hampton, VA. Hampton, VA plays a large role in signifying the beginning and the end of slavery.
Back in 1619, the first enslaved Africans arrived as captives on a Spanish slave ship that was stolen by English privateers. The Africans were sold into captivity even though there were no clear laws about slavery in Virginia until 1661. Nearby, on what is now known as the campus of Hampton University, lies Emancipation Oak. In 1863, the Virginia Peninsula’s black community gathered under this tree to hear the first Southern reading of the Emancipation Proclamation. The Emancipation Proclamation was ordered by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 and proclaimed that the over 3.5 million enslaved Africans in the Confederate States of America were now made free.
Fort Monroe has always been a very important place in American history. Although, only recently has its significance been recognized by the national government. In November 2011, President Barack Obama utilized the Antiquities Act to make Fort Monroe a national monument. Additionally, the first African landing, and the importance of Fort Monroe is not a moment in history that is taught often throughout the American public school system. This commemoration reiterates the importance of the first African landing and teaches a new generation about it. The year 1619 is a date that is just as important in American history as 1492 and 1776.
The Story of Frank Baker, Shepard Mallory, and James Townsend
This event is also about the never-ending journey of African Americans towards racial equality and freedom. The history of the black experience is expansive and involves many ground-breaking individuals and events throughout the past 400 years.
One particular moment in history involves African slaves Frank Baker, Shepard Mallory, and James Townsend. They all took their destiny into their own hands and inspired African slaves across the nation to follow the path that they paved, before the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. In 1861, all three belonged to a politician in nearby Elizabeth City County, Charles King Mallory. Virginia was in the process of seceding, leading Mallory to send the trio further south to help build Confederate fortifications in North Carolina. Many slaves across the Confederacy were being sent over to build this wall and reinforce the Confederacy’s barriers against the Union.
After learning that Mallory was planning to send them farther south, they ended up taking the matter into their own hands. One late night, they rowed across the James River to Fort Monroe, which was under Union control at the time. They were soon met by Major General Benjamin Butler. The law of the United States, under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, was that slaves were meant to be returned to their masters. Although, Virginia and the rest of the Confederacy were planning on seceding. This made the Confederacy a foreign country, no longer bound by American law. Butler, a former attorney, knew that he had the right to seize the property of the enemy if it was going to be used against the American colonies.
All three individuals were sanctioned as “contrabands of war” and were put to work at Fort Monroe. Soon, word spread throughout the Confederacy about the work of Baker, Mallory, and Townsend. Slaves then ended up arriving at Fort Monroe daily looking for work and refuge from their lives in the South.
Why It’s Relevant Today
This commemoration is all about telling the often lost stories of African American history, just like the stories of Frank Baker, Shepard Mallory, and James Townsend. From the initial arrival of the first slaves to the civil rights movement to the recent “Black Lives Matter” movement, each chapter of African American history made, and continues to make, a large impact on American history as a whole.Terry Brown, Fort Monroe National Monument’s first African American superintendent, calls the event a “pilgrimage” for African Americans and all Americans interested in learning more about the culture. “African American history is complicated, but it is important for us as Americans to examine the events of the past and understand the stories of slavery, resistance and emancipation and the impact on our nation.”
At the center of this 400-year journey is the pursuit of freedom. Even though the definition of freedom for African Americans has changed throughout history, the relentless pursuit has remained the same.Hampton Mayor Donnie Tuck says that the commemoration is about the journey of African Americans, not just the initial event.
“While we do not celebrate the reason the first Africans arrived on our shores, we marvel at how far we have come during this 400-year journey and maintain hope for a future of unity and equality.”
To learn more about the commemoration, more information can be found on the event’s website.