400 years ago, a ship carrying enslaved Africans arrived in Point Comfort on the shores of Virginia. The landing marked the beginning of slavery in British North America, forever transforming the modern world.
Thousands of people gathered at that same port this weekend in what is now Hampton, Virginia, to honor those Africans, who were instrumental to the founding of the United States.
“It marks the beginning of the foundation of this nation, of which slavery is deeply embedded,” said Asia Leeds, co-director of African diaspora studies at Spelman College. “So we have the beginnings of not just US governing systems, right? They emerge out of this colonial history. But also the foundation of American wealth.”
Over the course of three days, people came together at Fort Monroe to remember and reflect on the 400th anniversary of one of the darkest moments in US history, in a program organized by the Hampton 2019 Commemorative Commission.
They experienced what shackles would have felt like. They took pictures at the historic marker where the English ship White Lion arrived. They whispered prayers for the enslaved Africans on that ship and for those who did not survive the voyage, and sent flower petals floating out into the Chesapeake Bay.
“The ghost of the past is still alive with us today,” said Qahit Abdur-Rahman, who attended the commemoration. “You can feel it as you walk around and look at the backdrop here.”
Sunday, the last day of the program, was designated as “Healing Day.”
A 70-pound, free-standing bell rang continuously on Sunday for four minutes — one minute for each century of African American history and culture. Organizers invited communities across the country to join them and ring bells in solidarity, in a moment meant to “capture the spirit of healing and reconciliation.”
Tanya Woolfolk, who attended the events this weekend, said that the commemoration was a reminder of how far her people have come. She said one of her ancestors was enslaved at a plantation in South Carolina and could be traced back to Cameroon in the 1700s.
“400 years ago my ancestors started a passage to America. This is how we started coming out here,” she said. “Although bonds and chains, this is how we started out. Now we’re engineers, lawyers, doctors, presidents, maybe a future female president. But we’ve come a long way in 400 years.”
Woolfolk brought her four-year-old son with her to the commemoration because she said it was important for him to recognize the people who came before him.
“I want him to know about his full history and all his ancestors,” she said. “The Middle Passage, how we came over in slave ships and how far we’ve risen above.”