Celebrating Black History Month: A Brief Word on 1619

Today is the first day of Black History Month, or more so for me writing this Black History Month Eve. This blog is the first in what I hope to share with you this month as we celebrate the history, triumphs and tragedies that encompass the history of Black Americans in these United States of America. I want to first offer this disclaimer, I cannot speak for all of Black history, Black people or even say with 100% certainty that everything that I share is the primary viewpoint on how Black history should be interpreted. Black people are not monolithic, and the history is equally as rich and complicated as its people. What I have always been critical of in any history class I ever took growing up is how often we get history in silos or the scope has been so narrowly focused it seems detached from the present. I again will say I am no expert in this area but just a lover of history. So, what I hope to share with you are things that I have observed, areas of Black history that I have always fixated on and dovetail it back to things I personally always found interesting. It is my hope that whatever I share sparks a desire to learn more and to discuss history’s impact on the present.

A lot of Stuff Happens in August…

I was born in August, as are all my living siblings, many of my cousins and my best friend since kindergarten. August had always been a busy time for me in my short personal history, except last year it was rather quiet. As we all know the summer of 2020 was a little rough. By the time August rolled around it had been one filled with protests, pain and fear for multiple reasons. It was also the first time since I was very young that I had no where to go and nothing to do, even on my birthday. I remember I spent a large part of my birthday thinking back to Augusts past. I spent most of that day in quiet reflection unlike in the past where I would only take an hour or two to look back. It was deeply personal, and it made me come to some conclusions on what things mattered to me and who I am. I found that exercise useful. So now I am going to ask that you do the same but to not reflect on your personal history but that of our nation. I know it is early but let’s take some time to go to back to some Augusts before the United States existed.

Sometime in late August of 1619 is the year that is considered to be when slavery was first introduced to the United States. This was just 12 years after the founding of the Jamestown colony in Virginia in 1607. They were “20 and odd” Africans believed to be from what is now Angola, which is a nation on the south west coast of the continent of Africa sharing a border with the DRC. These people it is believed by scholarship to be from the Kingdom of Ndongo and spoke Kimbundu, a Bantu language.  The Ndongo Kingdom is believed to have been established around 1400, so a little under a century before Columbus would set sail on August 3rd, 1492 under the blessing of the Spanish crown from Palos, Spain for China only to run into the Americas.  The Kingdom of Ndongo during the time of the kidnapping of these enslaved individuals was under attack by the Portuguese. It is believed around 1671 that the Ndongo Kingdom fell under Portuguese rule after withstanding almost a century of attack and enslavement of their subjects.

The enslaved Africans from the Kingdom of Ndongo that would eventually end up in Point Comfort which is today know as Fort Monroe; a 7 minute drive from Hampton University a historical Black College and University that prior to its founding in 1861 during the Civil War grounds would be used to house and provide education to “contraband” escaped slaves that had run to Fort Monroe under Union control to escape chattel slavery bring the history of that arrival to a full circle.  Those originally bondmen and women had been kidnapped by the Portuguese to be taken to their southern colonies.

Around Mexico the San Juan Bautista was overtaken by the White Lion an English pirate ship commanded by John Jope and an additional ship named the Treasurer. The San Juan Bautista according to records had originally embarked on its journey with 350 African souls onboard; en route ~150 of those individuals died. During the pirate raid 50-60 African captives were taken by English pirates to eventually be divided up by the two ships prior to their arrival in Virginia. John Rolfe, whose name may be familiar for other reasons, documented their arrival in Virginia. This arrival predates the Pilgrims who would arrive in 1620. However, Black people had previously journeyed to the Americas as early as 1400s as part of expeditions by Spain and Portugal as there had been frequent travel from northern Africa as Spain and Portugal previously had been under Moorish (Moor being defined as anyone Muslim or with dark skin) rule for 800 years before they were expelled by Ferdinand and Isabella who would eventually give Columbus his charter to voyage to find a new path to China that same year.

These 20 or so Africans were sold by the captain of the White Lion for provisions.

I have been to the Alhambra in Granada, Spain - it has some of the most beautiful architecture I have ever seen. I was there as a teenager with several classmates, 2 whom were Black like myself. While we walked through the tour, I remember wondering how much the Moor’s ambitions might have led to how things played out centuries later on the other side of the globe. Later that night we would talk about how it felt to walk through the palace and to be walking in something that was built before slavery would later enslave those who may have looked like the individuals who built that palace. It is something to think about.

When you see the date 1619 it's ok to take that date with a grain of salt. That is also one of the criticisms of the 1619 project, while a wonderful source of information which I implore you to review. However, it begins with its focus on enslavement but not what happened prior to it, in the early years of Spanish and Portuguese explorations.  There is a lot more to Black history that took place prior to the landing of the White Lion both in the Americas and on the other side of the globe and that history is interwoven and influenced by many things.

If you have not I encourage you to sign up for our tour of the Jim Crow museum Feb 19th and considering attending the first of our Black History Month speaker programs, as it is our aim to connect the past with the present.