Take a moment to ask yourself what you can recall about the arrival of the first Africans to early America. Do you know when, where, and how? Do you know their names?
These questions, and their implicit tragedy, hardship and heartbreak, were explored on Nov. 19 at “Our American Story." Opening the program was student Arthur Stevens, who organized the event.
On what inspired him to organize the event, Arthur said “…I felt like this is something that I could do and make it big, while also enjoying it.”
Also in attendance was the President of the Farmville chapter of the NAACP, local Lawyer Mr. Ghee, who was a source of inspiration for putting the event together.
Arthur’s opening statements framed the tone of the evening, calling on the audience to reflect on the story of African American history in America with the hashtag “#rememberingtheloss."
After Arthur’s brief remarks, the Longwood gospel choir group BASIC took the stage for their first performance of the night, a gospel rendition of the classic Spiritual “Wade In The Water," echoing the trials and tribulation of slavery and paying tribute to African American heritage.
The Keynote Address was delivered by Dr. Phillip Cantrell. Dr. Cantrell, an associate professor at Longwood, specializes in Eastern Central African studies and delivered his address with great respect for the history, people and continent he spoke on.
Starting from the origins of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, he gave powerful words about the devastating effects of the “constant, endemic warfare” induced by the ruthless European slave economy and the estimated 12 million slaves affected.
Alongside dispelling some common myths about slavery and the African American community, he also covered one of the greatest tragedies of American slavery – the 200 years of lost potential among African Americans due to their enslavement and systematic oppression.
Ending with a warning, he cautioned the audience that it is important to continue to recognize and fight oppression, as “we are still losing talent” through continued discrimination.
Following Dr. Cantrell’s speech was a second spiritual performance by BASIC with “My Soul Is A Ringin'." The Longwood dance group FIERCE trailed them with an interpretive dance set to cultural music, continuing the theme of African American heritage.
The next presentation of the evening was the showing of the short documentary “20 and Odd: Africans’ Arrival in 1619” produced by ABC NewsNow.
The documentary carried a profound message to the room by chronicling the fateful events that first brought Africans to the shores of America, explaining how the first American slaves were captured from a Portuguese slave ship and sailed to Virginia on the English privateer “White Lion”.
These arrivals were referred to in the ship’s logs as simply “20 and Odd Negroes” – and now, 400 years later, we know nothing about them but their given Anglican names.
These early captives, who toiled in the New World as slaves, are the cornerstone for black heritage in modern America, and though their names and freedom were stripped from them, they ended up leaving a legacy that transcends generations.
Also discussed in the video was the speculated first black (and therefore, African American) man born in North America: William Tucker, whose history is mostly shrouded in mystery.
Adding his talents to the night was student Anthony Jackson, who’s fiery recitation of “For My People” by Margaret Walker captivated the audience.
Margaret Walker, a famous black poet, wrote often on the legacy of slavery and its effect on Black America, and this 400-year anniversary, the words of “For My People” ring true as much in 2019 as they did when they were written.
Wrapping up the night was BASIC again, singing their final hymn with “Melodies From Heaven” and inviting the crowd to join in.
When asked what she thought what message the audience should leave with, BASIC President Maya Young commented “…to never forget… where it all happened, where we came from, what other people went through to get us to where we are today.”
In his closing remarks, Arthur once again thanked the audience before performing his own choice of song: the legendary “A Change Is Gonna Come” by prominent civil rights activist and civil rights legend Sam Cooke.
During a post-program interview, he had this to say, “I hope that people take away the truth, the truth that our America has an ugly past but it is still just that. Our America."
He continued to say, "As we move forward to better our communities, let’s not forget what we have already came through over time… we should be able to look back to this time and have our predecessors see that we made a difference… for the better.”
The names, faces and lives of the first African Americans may not be known – but after this event, it’s obvious their history and legacy lives on.