A series of events the past two weekends, Episcopalians have commemorated and remembered the beginning of the slave trade in what would become the United States of America, in August 1619 when the first ship landed near Jamestown, in the British colonies in the New World.
Friday and Saturday, August 16 and 17, the Episcopal Diocese of Southwestern Virginia partnered with Virginia Theological Seminary for a remembrance and silent march in Alexandria (the location of the VTS campus). It began at the Contrabands’ and Freedmen Cemetery, where 1,800 enslaved people who had escaped the south during the Civil War were buried; in the years since, records were lost and the cemetery was built over with a gas station and an office building. Today, the cemetery is restored with interpretive markers and a sculpture by architect C.J. Howard.
The march ended about a mile away at the site of a “small yellow rowhouse that was once the largest slave-trading depot in the nation,” according to a story in the Washington Post published on August 18. That mile was just the beginning of the Slavery Trail of Tears, along which slaves were forced through Virginia (along route 50 and route 11) and all the way to the deep south, where they became a lucrative business for southerners.
From the Washington Post:
The Slave Trail of Tears was so seminal that it leeched through to the nation’s language. The phrase “sold down the river” stems from that march, as does the notion of a “chain gang.” As they marched, enslaved men and boys walked with their wrists handcuffed together. Women and girls followed, tied with ropes.
Yet Americans forgot, or chose to forget, said Jacqueline Copeland, the executive director of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture.
From the Episcopal News Service:
The pilgrimage was organized by the Rev. Melissa Hays-Smith, canon for justice and reconciliation ministries of the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia, who wanted to commemorate the arrival of the first slaves in Virginia in late August 1619. But the landing site near Jamestown is far outside her diocese.
“Being in the mountains of Virginia, we don’t have Jamestown, we don’t have a lot of places from the early history” of slavery, Hays-Smith said. “But then we soon realized that the land where we are played a very significant role in this forced migration of African Americans.”
…Hays-Smith and the clergy of her diocese reached out to African American communities and churches along the route to put together the Pilgrimage for Racial Justice, and the response was enthusiastic. Though the stops on the pilgrimage were geographically linked by the Slavery Trail of Tears, the events they commemorated spanned centuries of racial injustice, from slave trading to lynchings to “urban renewal” projects that destroyed black neighborhoods, highlighting the fact that systemic racism in America did not end with emancipation or the civil rights movement.
Marchers sang and prayed, with police escorts stopping traffic at intersections: “I want Jesus to walk with me” and “Lift every voice and sing.” The Post:
Earlier that Friday evening, the Rev. Joseph Thompson, director of multicultural ministries at the Virginia Theological Seminary, had reminded the crowd — which included faith leaders, politicians, historians, students, couples and families — why they were gathered.
“It’s all so we can get an idea, some insight into what it must have been like to march for days and weeks on end,” Thompson said. “We must raise awareness.”
It was even hotter the next morning, Aug. 17, in the picturesque town of Staunton in the Shenandoah Valley, but that didn’t stop a large crowd from showing up, excited to march through the downtown streets. They gathered in front of the old Allen Chapel A.M.E. Church, the first church established by African Americans west of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
“I’ve often wondered about those black folks who remained here in Dixie when the war was done,” said the Rev. Edward Scott, pastor of Allen Chapel. “But they stayed just the same, and in an act of faith, which is the substance of things hoped for in the evidence of things certainly not seen, they established a church. … They built this fortress to secure their prosperity, and to honor the God who troubled the waters to dissolve bondage.”
Then the crowd marched into downtown Stanton, a district full of well-preserved 19th-century architecture. But not all of the city was considered worth preserving. The march became a tour of what was once a black neighborhood north of downtown, razed in the mid-20th century to make room for a mall that was never even built. Historians and senior citizens pointed out the sites of former black businesses and homes, where there is now a row of banks, parking lots and a Domino’s Pizza.
While spirits were high in Staunton, the next event, in Roanoke, was somber and sobering: a service of remembrance for the victims of two lynchings in 1892 and 1893. The service took place in the garden of a Lutheran church near the sites of the lynchings of William Lavender and Thomas Smith.
Lavender and Smith were both accused of assaulting white women, but they were hanged and riddled with bullets before they could ever stand trial.
“We come in remembrance of those whose lives were sacrificed on the altar of racism, hatred, bigotry, but ultimately because of fear,” the Rev. David Jones, a Baptist pastor, said in the invocation. “We come because we serve and celebrate a God who still transforms victims into victors.”
The featured speaker in Radford was Wornie Reed, director of the Race and Social Policy Research Center and professor of sociology and Africana Studies at Virginia Tech. Reed, a distinguished scholar who in his youth worked with Martin Luther King Jr., is renowned for his lectures, which showcase his encyclopedic knowledge of African American history.
But his remarks in Radford were different. As he began to speak, his voice trembled.
“I’m still a little emotional,” he said, from hearing “Wade in the Water.”
Among the founders of the church that baptized him was his great-grandfather, a former slave.
The day’s events concluded with a Eucharist at St. Thomas Episcopal in Abingdon, celebrated by the bishop of the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia, the Rt. Reverend Mark Bourlakas.
The New York Times has published lengthy coverage of the historical significance of the 1619 boat landing, in its 1619 Project. Teaching tools connected with that coverage can be found at the Pulitzer Center.
The 1619 Project is a major initiative from The New York Times observing the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.
Finally, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry invited Episcopal parishes to join in a ringing of bells to mark the 1619 landing, on Sunday, August 25, in conjunction with a National Park Service initiative timed to coincide with Healing Day events at Fort Monroe National Monument.
From the Episcopal Church release:
“With bells tolling across America, we pause to lament the centuries of suffering and wrenching grief of slavery and racism in our land,” said Mariann Edgar Budde, bishop diocesan of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington. “The first slave trade ship to land 400 years ago planted the seed of sin that spread through the active participation and complicit passivity of nearly every American institution. As we grieve, may we dedicate ourselves to addressing systemic racism and the multi-generational impact of enslavement and discrimination faced by all of the African diaspora.”