This year and next the United States observes two quad-centennial anniversaries of significant historical events, with two quite different outcomes. This year, 2019, marks 400 years since the first Africans arrived in Hampton, Virginia. In late August 1619 two English ships, the White Lion and the Treasurer, attacked the Spanish San Juan Bautista. The crews hoped to find a hold filled with gold. Instead they found hundreds of enslaved Africans. The White Lion crew took about sixty of them and sold a couple dozen of them to some of the wealthier colonists in the decade-old Virginia Colony .
The following year, in November 1620, English Mayflower anchored near modern Provincetown for a month before sailing across the Cape Cod Bay. There about a hundred English settlers got to work establishing Plymouth Plantation. Twenty of them were religious refugees who came as indentured servants, indebted to the financial backers in England who paid for their voyages. Another twenty were servants to other passengers who came, not as religious refugees, but as speculators hoping to make their fortune in resource-rich North America. Those indentured to English financiers agreed to work for seven years and then be free to benefit from their labor in the new settlement. All of them were White and those who lived through the horrific first year generally went on to prosper and do well for themselves and future generations. I descend from two of them.
Different Starts; Different Results
The obvious differences were that one group was Black. The other was White. One group came from Europe. The other from Africa. One group arrived at an already-established, albeit floundering, English colony. The other came to a place left empty by a plague that swept through the area few years ahead of their arrival. The English indentured servants chose to sell their labor in exchange for passage to a new opportunity. The Africans were captured and brought against their will to a place they didn’t choose. The combination of these differences set up an unjust system from the earliest days of what has evolved into the United States.
It would take two centuries, a Civil War, and many more decades of struggle before the Black descendants of those first Africans began to make much economic progress. One theory regarding that chapter of history suggests the Africans sold in the Virginia Colony were initially considered indentured servants, even if they did come as captives against their will. If that was the case, they too could eventually earn their freedom. Whether this was the case or not, any chance to eventually secure their freedom vanished quickly.
The Future Is Sealed
A 1640 verdict against three servant escapees clearly documents the discrimination played out by the White settlers against the Black new arrivals. The two White escapees were subjected to lashes with their terms of indentured servant-hood extended several years. The Black escape was severely whipped and told, “You will serve for the rest of your life,” according to historian William Wiggins. Wiggins considers that difference in punishment a milepost in transitioning toward institutional slavery of Black people. Time after time we witness such inequality in the modern court systems.
Norfolk State University history professor Cassandra Newby-Alexander suggests racial discrimination can be traced back to the arrival of these first Africans. A few years later the Virginia Colony’s census simply listed the Africans as “other.” In an article in the National Parks Conservation Magazine, she is quoted saying, “America became a black and white society at that point.”
Uneven Genealogical Data
The amount of genealogical data available from that period varies greatly between White early North Americans and Black ones. The documentation about the passengers on the Mayflower and their descendants fills shelves in public and private libraries and is readily available via internet searches. Additionally, several of the Mayflower descendant families formed their own societies dedicated to adding to what is already known and introducing long lost cousins to one another. I’ll be attending such a family reunion next year as part of the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Mayflower.
However, historians and genealogists aren’t confident that even the presence of the Black earliest arrivals, was accurately documented for future curious descendants. It is likely the first African arrivals had more children than the two listed in the early census. Most historians consider tracing one’s lineage to the original Africans a mission impossible. However, modern DNA testing may turn that situation into a mission possible scenario over time. Professional Kathryn Knight discovered her husband is a descendant of Margaret Cornish, who Knight thinks arrived on the White Lion. She’s started a data base for DNA profiles from others who suspect they may also be related to these first Africans.
White Privilege and Racism Are Real
I’ve spent may pleasant hours delving into my late reference librarian mother’s detailed notes about our family’s connection to the Mayflower. As I become more aware of the great information gap for those who descend from the White Lion, I am reminded – again – that White privilege permeates every aspect of society. Being White isn’t anything I earned or requested, but it makes my experience in the 21st Century very different from non-White people. Professor Ibram Kendi, director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University, points out, “It’s not enough not to be racist. One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist.” Read more about his views in this Washington Post article or his book, “How to Be an Antiracist,”
As we observe our country’s two major 400-year-old historical events, now is a good time to reflect on our country’s separate, but definitely not equal, past. We need to learn about and from the past so that we can do better for all people from this day forward.
If you’d like to learn more, I suggest two sources. One is the article in the National Park Conservation Magazine which talks about the work going on at Fort Monroe in Hampton, VA. Some of the information for this blog came from that article. https://www.npca.org/articles/2280-a-momentous-arrival.
Another good source is Folayan’s Promise, a new novel by a writing colleague of mine, Phyllis Brown. Her book is available at https://phyllisjbrown.com. It traces the fate of Folayan, a daughter of over sixty generations of traveling African merchants as she comes of age in Ghana.
Thank you for stopping by to read about these two important anniversaries. If you got this blog from a friend, you can get your own FREE subscription at HowWiseThen. Given that hurricanes and others sorts of disasters appear to be the new normal, I’ve put together a list Disaster Response Tips. It’s yours for the downloading.
Mayflower Chronicles: The Tale of Two Cultures. It’ll be available September 2020, in honor of the 400th anniversary of the famous voyage and the continent-changing events that followed. I’ve started a list of people to notify when it’s available. You can sign up to get on the list at HowWiseThen.