The 1619 anniversary of Africans in the United States is significant but not the whole story

This painting by Sidney King depicts Virginia in 1619 as a Dutch frigate docks at Point Comfort bringing 20 African slaves to be traded to the settlers for food.
This painting by Sidney King depicts Virginia in 1619 as a Dutch frigate docks at Point Comfort bringing 20 African slaves to be traded to the settlers for food.
Image: AP Photo
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In 2017, the United States Congress passed the 400 years of African-American History Commission Act which is charged with developing activities throughout the country to commemorate the arrival of Africans in the English colonies in 1619, an event widely regarded as the commencement of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in North America.

For more than two years, the Hampton 2019 Commemoration Commission and Virginia’s “2019 Commemoration, American Evolution” have sponsored events highlighting the forced arrival of Africans while also touting significant points of pride in Virginia’s history.

Throughout the country there are scores of events planned all year, including symposiums, films, exhibits, historical reenactments, dance performances, festivals, lectures, poetry readings and panel discussions on a range of subjects such as reparations to mark the 400th anniversary. One travel agency in Philadelphia is offering a 10-day tour of Ghana that attempts to retrace the steps of the slaves before they set out for the Americas.

Ghana is joining in the commemorations, too. Late in 2018, the West African country launched a year-long marketing and reunification initiative aimed at boosting tourism and further strengthening ties with people of African ancestry abroad. President Nana Akufo-Addo declared 2019 “The Year of Return,” kicking of a series of programs aimed at encouraging blacks in the diaspora to visit or perhaps consider resettling in the motherland.

Cape Coast Castle on the Gulf of Guinea in Cape Coast, Ghana where slaves were traded
Cape Coast Castle on the Gulf of Guinea in Cape Coast, Ghana where slaves were traded
Image: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

“This 400-year mark is a time to celebrate joy, reunion, family and faith,” says Karsonya Wise Whitehead, an associate professor of communications and African and African-American studies at Loyola University Maryland. “It is a little bit of a commemoration but I also I think it is a reflection. We are looking at where we came from and how much farther we have to go. There’s something to be said for surviving being black in this country. We came from a legacy of indentured servitude, slavery, Jim Crow, lynching, the KKK and we’re still here.”

But the 1619 commemorations almost obscure one important fact: long before English pirates on two ships deposited these new arrivals from modern day Angola in Point Comfort, Virginia, Africans already had a presence in the Americas.

For instance, Estavanico, a Morrocan slave owned by the Spanish nobleman and explorer Andres Dorantes de Carranza, is credited with helping chart what we now know as the American west in the early 1500s— nearly 100 years before the first European settlement in Jamestown, Virginia. Africans were with Spanish and Portuguese explorers to North and South America throughout the 16th Century. It is believed some Africans were with legendary English explorer Sir Francis Drake on his expeditions to North America in the late 1500s.cAfricans “had been coming to territories seized by other European powers,” says Cassandra Newby-Alexander, a professor of history and dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Norfolk State University. “We do know that there were Africans in Florida and in the area later known as South Carolina.”

But those areas did not become a part of the United States until later, says Newby-Alexander, who co-chairs the African Arrival Subcommittee of Virginia’s 2019 Commemoration Commission. She adds that the English settlers didn’t have a formal slavery system in place in Virginia in 1619. In fact, Virginia’s slave law would not be enacted until the 1670s.

“Some people called them indentured servants but we know they weren’t indentured servants because indentured servants signed a contract,” she says. “There was a very uncertain period when we don’t know if they were bonded for life. By the 1640s it was clear they were being seen as an enslaved people.”

Darryl Scott, a professor of history at Howard University in Washington D.C., any question over the significance of the 1619 date, as with all things historical, comes down to perspective. “For some people who study history a certain way, the 1619 date is nothing,” says Scott, the former president of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. “For other people, that date is everything.”

The reason 1619 matters, he says, is because it marks the genesis of a black English-speaking community in the United States.

Newby-Alexander says the commemoration has been a boon for researchers, with more potential to unearth lots of details about 17th Century Africans in America. “In three of the graves they found one is either African or native,” she says. “We could learn about the time period in which they died, if it was a woman, whether she had any children, how old she was, the kind of food she ate, some of the work she probably had to do, the ethnicity and hopefully reclaim the humanity that was stripped away.

“It’s taken 400 years to get to this point,” says Newby-Alexander. “There’s a lot more information coming out. Volumes of research is being done. The more people find the more they tickle the records. The earlier historians were looking at what the English were doing and Africans were a minor factor.”

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