In about two weeks, it’ll be exactly 399 years ago to the day that slavery in the land that became America was birthed- actually spawned like a demonic creature- by European/British devilment in August 1619. And that racist devil lived throughout this country, including here in the so-called City of Brotherly Love.
In late August 1619, as documented by English settler John Rolfe, a rich tobacco planter, “… there came a Dutch man of warre that sold us twenty and odd Negars” in the Virginia Colony at Old Point Comfort (now Fort Comfort in Hampton), making them the first enslaved Blacks on this land.
Following raids in southern Africa by Luis Mendes de Vasconcellos and his Portuguese troops beginning in 1617, two years later he invaded the village of Ndongo in Luanda, Angola and loaded 60 of those Kimbundu-speaking human beings aboard the slave ship Sao Joao Bautista before ordering it sent to Vera Cruz, Mexico. After setting sail, that ship encountered an English privateer called the Treasurer, which was accompanied by its enforcer, the White Lion, a ferociously armed Dutch war vessel. Together, they later encountered the Sao Joao Bautista in the waters of the West Indies, attacked it, and robbed it of its entire cargo, including the Africans. Twenty of those 60 were loaded onto the White Lion, which arrived at Old Point Comfort in August 1619. The Treasurer arrived a few days later and its captain attempted to trade the remaining 40 but couldn’t get the value he wanted, so he transported them to Bermuda where they, too, were held in brutal bondage.
The 20 were traded, sold, and forced to labor at plantations along the nearby James River in what would become Charles City.
But such trading, selling, and forced labor were not unique to Charles City or James River plantations or Old Point Comfort or Virginia or even the South. They happened here in Philly, too. On the southwest corner of Front and High- now Market- Street stood the London Coffee House, which opened in 1754 with funds provided by 200 local merchants. It was where shippers, businessmen, and local officials, including the governor, socialized, drank coffee and alcohol, and ate in private booths while making deals. It was where, on the High Street side, auctions were held for carriages, foodstuffs, and horses- and, by the way, human beings, specifically African humans beings who had just been unloaded from ships that docked right across the street at the Delaware River.
In 1991, a historical marker was installed on the corner of Front and Market Street and it reads: “Scene of political and commercial activity in the colonial period, the London Coffee House… served as a place to inspect Black ‘slaves’ recently arrived from Africa and to bid for their purchase at public auctions.” The biddings happened like this: The captured Black men, women, and children, usually about five or six at a time, were placed on a thick wooden board that was approximately three feet wide and eight feet long and that was set atop two heavy barrels on each end. These whipped and shackled human beings were paraded onto the boards, displayed by being forced to slowly turn around and bend over, inspected by having their mouths forced open, their genitals grabbed, their limb muscles flexed, and then they were auctioned to the highest bidder. Immediately afterward, they were sold off- mother from daughter, father from son, brother from sister, husband from wife. Following these forced separations, they were scattered across the country. And they would never touch or even see one another again.
Slavery was a key component of daily life in Pennsylvania generally and Philadelphia particularly. In the 1760s, nearly 4,500 enslaved Blacks labored in the colony. About one of every six white households in the city held at least one Black person in bondage. This cruel institution began here in 1684 when the slave ship Isabella from Bristol, England anchored in Philadelphia with 150 captured Africans. A year later, William Penn himself held three Black persons in bondage at his Pennsbury manor, 20 miles north of Philly. Even George Washington enslaved Blacks, 316 to be exact. And he held nine of them right here in the so-called City of Brotherly Love at America’s first “White House,” which was known as the President’s House at Sixth and Market (then High) Streets.
As you noticed, this article indicates that American slavery was born in 1619 in late August but did not set forth a specific date. Here’s why. Up until recently and based on documentary evidence available at that time, many of this country’s top scholarly historians listed August 20 as the actual date.
In fact, until recently, even Project 1619 identified Aug. 20 as the correct date but now identifies it as Aug. 25 pursuant to newly uncovered documentation. Based in Hampton, Virginia, Project 1619 is an “organization whose mission is to promote the arrival of the first Africans in America to be be brought ashore on English occupied territory at Point Comfort, today’s Fort Monroe in Hampton.”
The organization was founded by the award-winning avid and meticulous researcher Calvin Pearson, an architectural engineer by training and public administrator by profession. In addition to composing the language for the proclamation approved by the Virginia General Assembly recognizing that the first Africans in Colonial America came ashore at Point Comfort, Pearson is also the co-author of “Dispelling the Myth of Jamestown,” the author of numerous articles in early American history-related journals nationwide, and a prominent lecturer at early American history-related symposiums throughout the country.
Based on newly disclosed evidence in the “Voyages: The Transatlantic Slave Trade Database,” compiled from 40 years of archival records by the National Endowment for Humanities as well as based on newly disclosed evidence in the preeminent Archivo General de Indias, we now know, as Pearson writes, “On Aug. 25, 1619, the White Lion entered from the Chesapeake Bay and arrived at Point Comfort, an English settlement... at the mouth of the harbor, 20 nautical miles downstream from Jamestown.”
Although I now accept Aug. 25 as the correct date, Avenging The Ancestors Coalition (ATAC) will hold its annual birth of slavery commiseration event this year on Aug. 20 as it’s done during the past several years because that date is the one most people are familiar with and the one they therefore are expecting this year. However, at this year’s Aug. 20 event, ATAC will enlighten the attendees about the correct Aug. 25 date and at the same time will announce the details of its major 400th anniversary event next year in 2019 when 400 Black children will participate to symbolize each year of slavery and its residue, which includes lynching, Black Codes, sharecropping, convict leasing, Jim Crow, de facto segregation, police brutality, mass incarceration, and other forms of racial injustice up to and including 2019.
But this year, 2018, following 399 years since the birth of American slavery, ATAC encourages everyone to attend its annual slavery commiseration event on Monday, Aug. 20. It will begin at 12 p.m. and take place at the Slavery Memorial/President’s House at Sixth and Market. For more info, contact ATAC at (215) 552-8751.