First African slaves in Hampton Roads commemorated with first-time virtual ceremony

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Posted at 1:22 PM, Aug 22, 2020

FORT MONROE, Va. - It was along the James River in 1619 that an English ship called the "White Lion" came to Fort Monroe in Hampton. On board that ship were the first African slaves to arrive in Hampton Roads.

"Nobody died here, there wasn't a battle here. But things did die here - people's freedoms died here, people's hopes and their dreams all perished here when those Africans were delivered here and traded here,” Glenn Oder, the executive director for the Fort Monroe Authority, explained.

"We call this land the 'Land of Our First Ancestors,’” Calvin Pearson, the founder of Project 1691 and commemoration participant, said. “This is very sacred land."

Commemoration gatherings in prior years were held in person at Fort Monroe. This year, the commemoration went virtual, streamed on Facebook because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The organizers said the program was prerecorded. There were speakers such as Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and Congresswoman Elaine Luria.

There were also performances from groups like Voices of Service, a singing group seen on America's Got Talent.

"This is a generational responsibility. Quite frankly, it's probably our generational obligation,” Oder said. “We have the opportunity to tell stories now at Fort Monroe that have never been told before."

It's a meaningful ceremony for Calvin Pearson, because he said he is a descendant of those slaves. Now, he tries to log the history here as accurately as possible through his organization project 1691.

"We want them to come here and feel the spirit of those first ancestors, and just realize what they went through," he said.