Almost 400 years ago, the first Africans to arrive in North America were kidnapped and sent across the ocean aboard slave ships, then sold into bondage in Virginia. It’s a shameful part of American history—enslaving other people made in God’s image. Now the descendants of those early arrivals, along with historians and genealogists, are seeking recognition for a group of about 20 Africans they describe as critical to the survival of Jamestown, the first successful settlement in North America.
“We need to reclaim our history. We need to tell our story,” says Calvin Pearson, head of Project 1619, which is named after the year those first Africans landed in the New World.
A few historical markers and records mention these early slaves, but there’s been little research on their lives. Pearson and others are working to learn more.
Before the slaves arrived, Jamestown was starving. “Basically, all of those people were right off of the streets in England,” says author Kathryn Knight. The colonists “didn’t know how to grow anything. They didn’t know how to manage livestock,” she says. The Africans “saved them by being able to produce crops, by being able to manage the livestock. They kept them alive.”
For African-Americans, Jamestown “is the same thing as going to Plymouth Rock,” says historian Mark Summers, who works at the Historic Jamestowne (early spelling) park. “Here’s a place where you can stand and say, ‘We set foot here, and we can still walk this ground.’”
The first Africans were among more than 300 taken out of Angola, a Portuguese colony of mostly Catholic Africans. The ship was originally bound for Mexico but was captured and re-directed to Virginia. A 1620 census shows 17 African women and 15 African men in Jamestown.
Pearson, says, “From here, we see the beginnings of the Africa imprint on what would become the United States of America. It’s worth remembering.”
(Historic Jamestowne staff archaeologist Lee McBee displays artifacts as he talks with visitors at the dig site of a slave house in Jamestown. AP Photo/Steve Helber)