1. Opinion

Why Aug. 20, 1619, is a date we should all add to the history books | Editorial

A new date should enter our history to push us toward realizing the American ideal.
Harriet Tubman, far left, the woman who led some 300 slaves to freedom before and during the Civil War, poses with former slaves in this undated photo that is part of the 'Our Mothers Before Us, Women And Democracy 1789-1920,' a traveling exhibit currently on display at the Museum of Florida History in Tallahassee.
Published Aug. 19
Updated Aug. 19

July 4, 1776. Dec. 7, 1941. Aug. 20, 1619. The date of the Declaration of Independence. The date of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The date of … ? We all learn the first two. Too few of us know the third, which was the day the first enslaved blacks arrived in America. Dates matter. And how we interpret them and teach them to ourselves and our children influences who we are as Americans and who we will become.

Four hundred years ago this week, black slavery began in what would become the United States. A ship called the White Lion arrived off what is now Fort Monroe in Virginia, carrying 20 people kidnapped in west central Africa and traded for food in the New World. The trans-Atlantic slave trade had begun.

The event was recorded by Jamestown’s John Rolfe in a 1619 letter to the Royal Virginia Company: “..not any thing but 20. and odd Negroes, which the Governor and Cape Marchant bought for victualls…” That same Rolfe had married Pocahontas five years earlier. We all know her name but not those of Antony, Isabela, William, Angela, Anthony, Frances, Margaret, Anthony, John, Edward, Anthony – which were among the new names given to the slaves who were forced to leave behind their identities, even their birth names. This all happened more than a year before the Mayflower sailed for Cape Cod.

Slavery would be more than 150 years old before America declared its independence from Britain, and the infamous Middle Passage crossed both those old and new worlds. A civil war would be fought over slavery, and it wasn’t abolished until the passage of the 13th Amendment. Jim Crow laws and overt discrimination meant that black Americans didn’t gain full legal rights until the passage of the Voting Rights and Civil Rights acts of the mid-1960s.

Many Americans will point out that neither they nor their ancestors owned slaves. America is, after all, a nation of immigrants, and so many millions of us arrived long after slavery was abolished. So while slavery is a stain on the country, it is past, and they played no part in it. But the history of America is the history of all of us, not just the history of our particular families. And the legacy of slavery lingers. Modern scholarship shows that slavery was not an aberration of the South, but an economic engine for the entire country, North as well as South. In fact, by 1860 “the domestic slave trade had made human property one of the most prominent forms of investment in the country, second only to land,” according to the historian Steven Deyle. Slavery enriched northern banks and textile mills as well as southern plantations. In other words, slavery influenced who we are even now; its legacy gave some of us opportunities and denied them to others.

Its effects run down to the current day in cities and schools that can still be largely segregated in practice if no longer by law, and in making race such a key element of our times, both in culture and politics. In these pages, columnist Leonard Pitts recently wrote about a white man who was tired of constantly reading about race. Pitts responded that he should imagine living it, that “to be an African American is to be perpetually exhausted by race. It is to be worn, wasted, spent and drained from the daily need to prove and defend your own humanity.”

Right now in this fraught time in America, it can be tempting to label someone a “racist,” but doing so requires getting inside a person’s head to know his inner thoughts, and who can do that? It’s better for us to reflect on our shared history and how it reverberates through America to this day, to learn what we don’t know, to see other people’s perspectives and to add a new chastening date to our calendar: Aug. 20, 1619.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.


  1. Here’s what readers had to say in Sunday’s letters to the editor.
  2. Editorial cartoon for Saturday/Sunday Andy Marlette/Creators Syndicate
  3. Stock photo. MORGAN DAVID DE LOSSY  |  Getty Images/iStockphoto
    I’m a new mom -- again -- and please remember that many mothers would welcome government policies that make it easier for them to stay home with their kids than returning to work. | Column
  4. Josh Hensley, 43, was found in the waters of Kings Bay in Crystal River. He was known for dressing as Jack Sparrow. Facebook
    Here’s what readers had to say in Saturday’s letters to the editor.
  5. David Colburn was the former provost and senior vice president of the University of Florida. JAMIE FRANCIS  |  Tampa Bay Times
    He believed that diversity is our strength, and that the way to overcome division is to shine light in dark corners, writes Cynthia Barnett.
  6. Adam Goodman, national Republican media consultant
    With Washington once again failing to embrace reforms following mass shootings, it’s up to Americans to create a movement to demand change. | Adam Goodman
  7. Couple, Lewis Bryan, 36, (back left) and Amber Eckloff, 33, pose for a portrait with their children, (From left) D'Angelo Eckloff, 14, Rasmus Bryan, 4, Ramiro Bryan, 10, Lothario Bryan, 6, and Alonzo Bailey, 17. The family has been living at the Bayway Inn on 34th St S. Friday, Aug. 30, 2019 in St. Petersburg.  MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE   |   TIMES  |  Tampa Bay Times
    When about 40 percent of city households are spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing, something has to change.
  8. A judge ruled in June that it is up to Hillsborough County Commissioners to decide how much money the bus agency and other transportation projects get from the one-cent transportation sales tax voters approved in November. The board did just that this week.[SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
    Hillsborough commissioners follow through on transportation funding.
  9. From left to right: Florida Department of Transportation workers inspect damage to the Interstate 175 overpass at Sixth Street S caused by a roll-off dumpster truck that left its hydraulic arm upright, according to St. Petersburg police [JAMES BORCHUCK | Tampa Bay Times]; Former Pinellas school guardian Erick Russell, 37, is accused of pawning the Glock 17 9mm semiautomatic pistol, body armor and two magazines he was issued to protect students [Pinellas County Sheriff's Office]; Johnna Lynn Flores [AUSTIN ANTHONY | Tampa Bay Times] Tampa Bay Times
    Here are three examples of routine information Tampa Bay governments kept from the public this week.
  10. Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos; Florida state Sen. Tom Lee presides over the Senate's committee on infrastructure and security in Tallahassee, Fla., Monday, Sept. 16, 2019. The committee is considering new legislation to help address mass violence. (AP Photo/Bobby Caina Calvan) Times files/Associated Press
    Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos and state Sen. Tom Lee speak up. When will others?