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.