FORT MONROE — Feet from the shores that saw the arrival of the first Africans to English North America, Lynise Perry said the history and culture of her ancestors is one often overlooked or discounted.
The search for more led her to Fort Monroe in Hampton on Saturday with her two teenage boys, whom she said have also grown thirsty for knowledge of their background — something they said is lacking at school.
Here, they found flags from throughout Africa, traditional dances and music, retellings of the painful voyages that brought Africans to North America and commemorations for the centuries that saw them enslaved.
The programming drew hundreds to Hampton on Saturday and sought to mark the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first Africans, who arrived on the shores of Virginia aboard the English ship White Lion in 1619. The group of 20 to 30 Africans had been captured by a Portuguese group in Angola. The Portuguese ship, with 350 enslaved Africans aboard, had been headed to Mexico when it was attacked by two English privateer ships, who took about 60 of the Africans and sailed to Virginia.
The event featured speeches from elected officials, including African American leaders from across the state, who sought to commemorate the fraught history of black people in the U.S. and celebrate their contributions to the fabric of America.
“I wanted to come to a ceremony that would mark the 400 years, and in some way, find ancestral healing for myself and my family,” said Perry, 38, of Chesapeake. “I wanted my kids to be able to experience this.”
Like many African Americans, Perry said she hasn’t been able to trace her lineage beyond a few generations, as far back as great-grandparents who were sharecroppers in South Carolina. But she believes they were likely enslaved.
That history spurs lot of questions from her 13-year-old twin boys. One, who showed early interest in history, has begun to disengage. The other vocally complains about the gaps in African American history he already perceives.
“I’d like to learn about my history and my culture, not just this George Washington guy,” said one of the boys, Addae.
Candice Richards, 34, who traveled to Hampton from Glen Burnie, Md., echoed similar feelings.
“Being African American, I feel that there’s a part of my story that’s not told in school or history textbooks,” she said.
Richards said her nuclear family paid for ancestry tests that showed them to have roots in West Africa. She said she traveled from Maryland to reconnect with what she feels is part of her cultural history.
“I’m from Maryland, and I don’t know where my ancestors landed. Most of our history is not written,” she said, adding, “If you don’t know your past, you can’t understand your present.”
Jeffrey Blair also traveled from out of state, trekking from St. Louis to Hampton. Blair is the owner of a children’s bookstore focused on works that depict African American history and culture.
He now works with the group “Remember the 400,” which has sought to educate young black people about their heritage. The group had eight booths dedicated to African American history and achievements at the event Saturday.
“Our children often don’t learn about our people unless we’re talking about slavery or the history of civil rights,” he said, adding that his work began as he tried to raise his four children. “We want to empower young people with the knowledge, so that they feel this country belongs to them also.”
Virginia’s own K-12 educational curriculum may soon be revamped to include a clearer view of African American history and the contributions of that community toward building American society.
Gov. Ralph Northam announced Saturday in Hampton that he would call for a review of Virginia’s history standards to ensure “all students develop a full and comprehensive understanding of the African American voices that contribute to our story.”
The review will be conducted by a 34-member commission appointed by Northam, and will also include instructional practices and resources used to teach African American history in Virginia.
By July, the commission is expected to offer edits and suggestions to improve learning standards related to African American history. The broader review will also include plans for teacher training “to ensure culturally competent instruction.”
Northam on Saturday also said he “learned a great deal” from a monthslong racial reconciliation tour throughout Virginia following the blackface scandal that rattled his administration.
The tour consisted mainly of private conversations with African American leaders throughout the state after his 1984 medical school yearbook page was found to include a photo of a man in blackface standing next to another in a KKK hood.
“Over the past several months, as I have met with people around the state and listened to their views on the disparities and inequities that still exist today, I have had to confront some painful truths,” Northam said. “Among those truths was my own incomplete understanding regarding race and equity.”
Perry, the mother of the two teenage boys, said Northam’s remarks showed “evolution.”
“It gave me hope for change,” she said, “for a society that has respect for other people’s culture.”