”We had very bad eatin’. Bread, meat, water.
And they fed it to us in a trough, jes’ like the hogs.
And I went in my shirt till I was 16, never had no clothes.
And the floor in our cabin was dirt, and at night we’d jes’ take a blanket and lay down on the floor.
The dog was superior to us; they would take him in the house.”
That was how Richard Tole, a slave in America, described his life on a Virginia plantation in the early 1800s.
More than 200 years later, his words were on display in Richmond on Sunday at The Gallery at Main Street Station, where scores of people gathered to commemorate the lives of enslaved Africans brought to America from 1619 through the end of the Civil War.
The program came less than a week after Virginia’s elected leaders and others celebrated the 400th anniversary of representative democracy in North America — along with a darker pivotal event that took place in 1619: the arrival of the first enslaved Africans on Virginia’s shores and the beginning of slavery here.
A large, colorful placard with Tole’s words was among several exhibits on display Sunday that included slave-era artifacts, such as fragments of ceramic dinner plates and whiteware, tobacco pipes, pharmaceutical bottles and even the sole and heel of a shoe that were among the few possessions of those held in bondage in Virginia and Richmond.
Attendees also came for the African-inspired music and the authentic readings of the African story in Virginia during a three-hour program, Unbound 2019: Truth and Reconciliation.
The event, sponsored by the Richmond Slave Trail Commission, Norfolk State University and the Library of Virginia, featured state Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, and historian Cassandra Newby-Alexander of Norfolk State.
Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney also made an appearance. During an impromptu speech, he offered his view of what the event signified for African Americans, who made up the vast majority of the crowd.
Unbound, Stoney said, means to remove the binding constraints that hold back a people.
“Unbound means to be free, to be who you are, where you are,” the mayor said. “But the word I like to talk about is evaluation. And I think we can look back now 400 years [to] the first enslaved Africans’ arrival on this space. We have to go back.”
“But brown and black people here to this day ... are not free to be who they are, what they are,” he said, drawing some vocal approval from the audience. “And this is an evaluation here. We have to evaluate how far we’ve come, but also how much more we need to go.”
“We are not free,” Stoney said, until African Americans are afforded better housing. “And we are not free when a young man or young woman walks down the street ... and they are profiled because of the color of their skin. And we are not free when we have leaders that seek to divide us.”
As performers played or sung gospel and revival music with ancestral roots, many in the crowd stood, swayed and clapped in rhythm.
“I came here because this is a historical event. You have to understand your past to understand your future,” said Charles Wingo, a former Richmond resident who now lives in Powhatan. “Being a black man, our ancestors fought, died and built this country, and we don’t always get the recognition we deserve.
“And this is just to enlighten people to some of the things we’ve done, and why it’s important to know some of the things we’ve done and teach our young people that,” he added. “If you know where you came from ... then you can progress and can build on that. That’s why I’m here.”
Thomas Jefferson II, who said he was born 73 years ago in Amelia County, said he came to learn what reconciliation and being unbound mean in contemporary times.
“We need to be free in thinking and words and action,” he said. “And we do that whether you’re black or brown or white. We have to know the facts, and ask God to give us the faith to work on the facts.”
Valerie Gilbert, also of Richmond, said she came to celebrate her heritage. “And it’s also a wonderful commemoration. It’s so timely. In order to know where we’re going, we have to know where we’ve been.”
Gilbert said she attended Tuesday’s event at the Lumpkin’s Jail site in Shockoe Bottom, which was the second-largest hub of the slave trade in America. And as she sat there for two hours, sweating in the heat, she thought about the suffering her ancestors must have gone through as slaves.
“I don’t know how they endured it,” Gilbert said. “I felt so bad, complaining about the two hours I spent there. I said, shame on me. The little inconveniences that we have — when we have a storm and lose our electricity — are very minute” in comparison.