Bells will toll for four minutes Sunday at Fort Monroe in Hampton and throughout the state to mark the four centuries that have passed since the arrival of the first Africans to English North America.
More than half of those 400 years saw millions of African Americans suffer in the bondage of slavery. After the 13th Amendment was adopted and ratified in 1865, officially barring slavery, another century passed before key measures of social justice and equal rights were codified into federal law. Today, inequity for people of color in the U.S. remains.
That fraught history and the contributions of African Americans to the establishment of the United States will be at the center of a series of events in Hampton this weekend.
“We asked churches throughout the U.S. to ring bells at 3 p.m. on Sunday for four minutes, which will represent 400 years here in this country,” said Calvin Pearson, the founder of Project 1619, a nonprofit participating in the events this weekend.
“We want to bring recognition to 400 years of struggle by one ethnic group here in America.”
Pearson lives 5 miles from Fort Monroe in Hampton, formerly known as Point Comfort, where the first Africans to any English colony arrived in late August 1619.
More than 20 Africans arrived aboard the English ship White Lion and “were sold in exchange for food and some were transported to Jamestown, where they were sold again, likely into slavery,” according to Encyclopedia Virginia, citing a letter written by John Rolfe, secretary of the Virginia colony.
Their arrival came weeks after the first gathering of representative government in what would later become the U.S. — an event marked with much fanfare in Jamestown last month.
Events this weekend will likely take a more somber tone, as unhealed wounds from the state’s history with slavery and racism come into focus amid tense national discourse over immigration and a rise in public activity among white supremacists.
Speeches and artistic performances throughout the weekend will pay homage to the first arrivals’ African roots while speaking to the pain of their bondage. On Sunday, the commemoration will center specifically on unity and reconciliation, which Pearson said are the keys to healing the country’s “stain” of slavery.
“It was important to me that the story of our ancestors was told correctly. That the legacy of our ancestors is not one of shame, but one of perseverance,” Pearson said.
Saturday’s events will feature state and federal lawmakers including Gov. Ralph Northam, Rep. Bobby Scott, D-3rd, Hampton Mayor Donnie Tuck, and U.S. Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, both Democrats.
“I hope it’s conveyed that the ideals of America are an unfinished product,” said Warner, referring to inequity in education, wages, voting rights and more that still face African Americans in Virginia and the U.S.
Warner, who worked as a venture capitalist before he was elected governor and to the Senate, said economic opportunity also evades many African American entrepreneurs.
If they get an enterprise off the ground, Warner said, they may still struggle to compete for business. The Northam administration earlier this year called for a study of government contracts awarded to minority-owned and women-owned businesses to assess disparity. A similar study conducted in 2011 found that fewer than 3% of state contracts were awarded to these businesses.
“There is no illusion of a fair shake in this country when you talk about the lack of economic participation,” Warner said.