The hidden history of the African-American experience

IMAN ESSIET | 9/13/2018, 3:03 p.m.
When it comes to the story that needs to be told about the experience of Africans in America (African-Americans if ...

With Brown’s guidance, we were actually able to drive through the small fortress doors that many of our ancestors walked through in their search of freedom. Brown also walked us through the camp grounds, where our ancestors lived as “contraband” in Ft. Monroe. One landmark that stood out was a great oak tree that Brown said many of our ancestors would have sat under to be educated. Although we had to move quickly through Ft. Monroe, we were still able to feel the importance of this moment as we walked through the history of our African ancestors. 

After leaving Ft. Monroe, we headed to one of Virginia’s most famous historically Black colleges, Hampton University, to visit the Emancipation Oak, as well as browse through the university’s museum. At the Emancipation Oak, we were able to walk, stand and feel the tree where our southern enslaved African ancestors stood as they heard the Emancipation Proclamation. The tree declared its majesty as its arms stretched out in several directions, as if to say, “Come and hear the great news ... the first stage of your liberty has finally arrived.” This great oak created a large shadow that welcomed all of its visitors, while also giving off the presence of strength and resiliency similar to that of the enslaved Africans. This tree was now a symbol of freedom.

Browsing through the Hampton Museum, I stayed with one exhibit, the Africa portion. Although unable to take pictures, I will never forget the first cultural piece I saw when I walked into the museum. It was the Bwoom Masquerade Figure, a helmet mask created by the Kuba people, who inhabited a precolonial kingdom in Central Africa that flourished between the 17th and 19th centuries, in the southeast of what is known today as the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Bwoom Masquerade Figure illustrates the Kuba peoples’ knowledge of delicate craftsmanship and creativity. This figure, adorned with banana leaves, cowrie shells, leopard skin, painted textiles and many more objects, stood proudly as the exhibit’s centerpiece, highlighting the culture, power, status and leadership of the Kuba people. I was absolutely intrigued by Hampton University’s strong ties to the cultures of the continent. This exhibit ties into the overall history of the institution being in the same city where the first Africans arrived in colonized European America.

The next stop up was the Hampton History Museum, where we traveled through the history of Hampton, Va., starting with the arrival of the first European colonizers and their encounters with the Native-Americans of this land.

From the arrival of the first enslaved Africans, we fast forward all the way up to the time when “the computers wore skirts,” better known as the Hidden Figures.

Our last stop for the day was the Tucker Family Cemetery, which was located in the historic Aberdeen Gardens. This planned community was designed for the resettlement of Black workers in Hampton, Va., developed by Hampton University under the New Deal Legislation, and was the only resettlement community of its type in Virginia. Here is where we were able to meet and chat with the descendants of the first “African-American,” William Tucker—William Foley Jones, Walter F. Jones and Verrandall S. Tucker—whose bloodlines reach all the way back to the first Africans of the 1619 arrival. Birth records show that their ancestor, William Tucker, was the first African child born in European colonized America.

We were able to walk through the family’s cemetery as they worked on the grounds in preparation for the next-day arrival of Virginia’s governor. While on this sacred land of the Tucker Family Cemetery, I posed a question to Walter F. Jones, 62, a descendant of William Tucker, asking him if he felt it was his duty to preserve African-American culture, being that he is a descendant of the first African-American. He replied, “I believe that is all of our duty to preserve our culture, because it is who we are.”

I strongly suggest that you take this trip to Hampton, Va., next August to acknowledge the 400-year anniversary of our ancestors’ arrival in America, because, as Walter Jones stated, “It is all of our duty to preserve our culture.”

And I believe for us to preserve this culture of ours, we must first know its history.