HAMPTON, Va. – They faced the sunrise to the rhythm of drums and waves on a windswept beach, dozens wearing white, near the spot where the first enslaved Africans arrived at the English colony of Virginia in 1619. On Saturday morning, they would release those spirits.
The cleansing and naming ritual, presided over by visiting chiefs from Cameroon, kicked off a weekend of events marking the 400th anniversary of the Africans’ arrival and the dawn of American slavery.
“The water was warm and salty,” said Tiffini Mason Johnson, who lives in Cockeysville, Maryland, emerging after a ceremony with women from an African cultural group. “They told me to just release myself, that I am released of anger and fear, and my grandmothers through me.”
The question of release hung over a day that walked a fine line: commemorating the nation’s fundamental sin of slavery but also celebrating the African descendants who survived its brutality and helped build America.
“Our perseverance, making it through 400 years, is something that should be honored,” said Terry E. Brown, who is both African American and the National Park Service superintendent for Fort Monroe, the site of the first landing.
He started the day a few miles up the beach at Buckroe, watching the African ritual, standing out in his green uniform. He took off his hat, bobbed his head to the drums. “It’s honorable, it’s reflective and just connects me back to 400 years. I’m on a journey right now,” he said.
In 1619, an English pirate ship, the White Lion, arrived at Point Comfort, near Hampton. It was carrying what colonist John Rolfe described as “20 and odd Negroes.” The captain of the White Lion traded the enslaved people for food, bringing slavery to Jamestown and what would become Virginia.
Saturday’s speeches and songs were an emotional contrast to the celebration last month of 400 years of representative democracy in Jamestown. That event, designed as a pageant of pride in government, wound up revolving around the divisive presence of President Donald Trump. Yet the protests that accompanied Trump’s appearance set the stage for Saturday’s event, highlighting the unfinished business of racial reconciliation in America.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said he struggled to find the words to describe the conflicting themes of a day and a country embodying the roots of both freedom and slavery. The “dualism (of) high-minded principle and indescribable cruelty has defined us,” he said to hundreds of people gathered under a shelter on the shores of Hampton Roads at Fort Monroe.
“The trans-Atlantic slave trade was one of the most cruel atrocities,” Kaine said, growing emotional. “And yet how fortunate we are as a country that the descendants of that cruel institution are part of our country.”
It was a day when Hampton Mayor Donnie Tuck, who is African American, could draw hoots of pride by crowing that the first documented Africans arrived “in Hampton, not Jamestown!” But in the next breath, he noted the “indignities, dehumanization and atrocities” of the Middle Passage, which he said his own ancestors survived.
Perhaps no single person embodied those contradictions better than Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, who delivered the keynote speech despite being under the cloud of a racism scandal from earlier this year, when a photo surfaced from his 1984 medical school yearbook page showing one person in blackface and another in Klan robes.
“If we are going to begin to truly right the wrongs of our four centuries of history, if we are going to turn the light of truth upon them, we have to start with ourselves,” Northam said, as a hush fell over the audience, more than half of whom were black.
“I’ve had to confront some painful truths,” Northam said. “Among those truths was my own incomplete understanding involving race and equity.”
As he continued, the crowd began to respond. Northam has disavowed the racist photo but admitted to wearing blackface that same year, and he has pledged to devote the rest of his time in office to fighting for racial equity.
On Saturday, his voice rising as he recited a litany of societal sins - from slavery to the state’s “massive resistance” to desegration of schools - Northam drew huge applause when he thundered: “Black history is American history.”
He announced a new state commission to review black education in public schools and cited recent steps to address racial disparities in areas such as housing access and maternal mortality.
“The legacy of racism continues not just in isolated incidents, but as part of a system that touches every person and every aspect of our lives, whether we know it or not,” Northam said. “And if we’re serious about righting the wrong that began here at this place, we need to do more than talk. We need to take action.”
As the crowd erupted, one woman blurted: “I think he done had a conversion!”