When it comes to the story that needs to be told about the experience of Africans in America (African-Americans if you will), the term “Hidden Figures” is an understatement. It is in this term that we can find ourselves, and this term we can identify with. We can remember this term from the recent movie about the NASA mathematicians Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, who played a crucial role in launching astronaut John Glenn into outer space.
Ironically, this historical event took place in Hampton, Va. The same place where I recently visited to participate in the American Evolution Virginia to America 1619-2019 tour. I was able to visit many historical markers of the African experience in Virginia. Around this time next year, the tour will be hosting the 400-year anniversary of the first Africans’ arrival in America. As you read my recap of this experience, my hope is that you not only are inspired to attend this tour in 2019 but also are moved to research our rich history in this nation—a history that runs deeper than the valleys of the Grand Canyon. We the Africans in America were bought here by force to give white colonizers centuries of free labor from which they still profit to this very day. We are indeed the cornerstones of this nation, the builders who have been rejected.
Let’s begin at Ft. Monroe, where the tour began. On our first stop, we were able to visit the marker of the first Africans’ arrival in America. This portion of our tour was led by Terry Brown, superintendent of the Fort Monroe National Monument, with assistance from his colleagues, Phyllis Terrell, director of Communications of Fort Monroe, and Glenn Oder, executive director of the Fort Monroe Authority. The marker is a symbol of the time in August 1619, when on board an English ship, the White Lion, sailing with Dutch letter of marque, 21 Africans who were captured from land that would become the country of Angola arrived as cargo to what is known today as Ft. Monroe. These Africans, who were traded for food, were the first of our ancestors to arrive in what was known as colonized English America. “These Africans became crucial to the survival of the Europeans, eventually becoming the foundation of Virginias agricultural system and essential to its economic viability,” stated American Evolution.
As Brown continued on through our tour, we were bought to the actual war fort, which in the year 1819, 200 after the arrival of the first Africans in colonized America, the enslaved Africans were contracted to build. We learned here that there is an account and record of every enslaved African’s work log, as well as how much profit their European “masters” made from their free labor. As we were taken down the timeline of Ft. Monroe, we also learned that 42 years after enslaved Africans built the fort, May 24, 1861, three enslaved Africans by the name of Frank Baker, Sheppard Mallory and James Townsend, on a quest for freedom set out by boat and arrived at Ft. Monroe where they asked for sanctuary. This incident occurred during the Civil War, and the Confiscation Act required all escaped slaves whose owners were not in rebellion against the Union to be returned to the individuals who claimed to own them. At this time, post commander General Benjamin Butler decided that these Africans, who were considered property by law, would be declared as contraband of rather than handed over to the emissary who came the next morning to claim them. This declaration marked the beginning of what would be known as Freedoms Fortress. As word spread through the African-American community, Ft. Monroe became the new home for many enslaved Africans searching for freedom.
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.