NORFOLK, Va. - Sunday marks Juneteenth, a day celebrating the end of slavery in the United States in 1865, but for many American slaves, freedom began decades earlier... in a new country.
It's a story with a connection to Norfolk State University — home to the Joseph Jenkins Roberts Center for African Diaspora Studies.
"It's very personal for me because I am a Foundational Black American. I am a direct descendant [of slaves]," said Melissa Williams, a senior History major that's spent the last year involved with the Roberts Center, which studies the complicated, often tragic journey of African peoples around the world.
Williams' project studying the domestic slave trade from Norfolk to New Orleans is one of several taken on by the center since its founding over ten years ago.
"What we wanted to do was create a center that would look at these complications," said Dr. Cassandra Newby-Alexander, History professor, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Founder of the Roberts Center.
Initiatives at the center have included studying the Underground Railroad in Hampton Roads to following the 4,700-mile journey back to the continent of Africa.
Liberia is a West African country founded in the first half of the 19th century by a group called the American Colonization Society as a place to send free Black Americans.
The Roberts Center gets its name from that country's first president, Joseph Jenkins Roberts, who was born in Norfolk, VA.
"He was a free black, but they migrated to Liberia in the hope of having true freedom," said Newby-Alexander.
According to the U.S. Department of State, 16,000 Black Americans traveled to Liberia in the 1800s. Newby-Alexander says, for many, the journey was the only way to escape harsh treatment freed blacks still received in the United States at the time.
"Virginia would pass a law in this early period, indicating that, if you recently became free, that you have one year to get out of the state. And if you did not, you will be sold into slavery," she said, adding that many in the American Colonization Society were looking for a way to remove free blacks from American society. "(They were) seen as troublemakers, because they were groups of people who would inspire enslaved people to escape."
But for those like Roberts and his family, moving to a new country was still an opportunity to start fresh.
Newby-Alexander says he became governor of the then-colony, eventually becoming the first president after Liberia established its independence. Roberts was also the seventh president; over time, creating a government in the image of the United States.
"But without the hindrances, the racial hindrances that the American government put forward," she tells News 3.
200 years later, despite numerous challenges, including unrest between Americo-Liberians and African indigenous peoples and more recently the Ebola outbreak, Liberia has survived.
It is now the oldest republic in Africa with the Roberts Center ensuring a legacy is left in Roberts' city of birth, where a Norfolk State University was founded as an institution for the education of Black Americans.
"The center operates all across the campus," said Dr. Patrick Mbajekwe, who co-directs the center with Dr. Stephanie Richmond. "Many events, the center has done, starting with the 150th anniversary of the Civil War...to the 1619 commemoration."
1619: the year slaves first arrived in the United States. Then, there's Juneteenth and the celebration of freedom in 1865. The connection with the Roberts Center?
"That very complicated story that you see Juneteenth represent...African Americans and their quest for freedom," said Newby-Alexander. "In the same way you have these free blacks represented by Joseph Jenkins Roberts and the slow movement that they endured in their quest to achieve freedom."
It's a reminder that the story of freedom has many characters and spans multiple continents.