Honoring 400 years of African-American history
I had the honor of addressing our commonwealth as we marked 400 years of African-American history since the arrival of the first enslaved Africans into English Colonial America at Point Comfort in 1619.
What does this anniversary mean?
In searching for a way to describe its significance, I was drawn to the words of Oliver White Hill, the pioneering Virginia civil rights lawyer who I came to know when I was a young civil rights lawyer beginning my career in Richmond 35 years ago.
Hill was born in 1907, as Virginia commemorated the 300th anniversary of the arrival of English settlers at Jamestown. He entered an ironclad segregated Virginia that had just passed a Constitution to guarantee discrimination against all people of color. From this start, he set his sights on the emancipation of African-Americans, indeed all Americans, from the bonds of prejudice. In the military, in the courts, as an elected official, as a civil rabble-rouser. He helped win the historic Brown v. Board of Education case and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1999.
Hill grappled with the significance of 1619. In fact, he organized a panel symposium in Jamestown 50 years ago-September 1969-to discuss what we are grappling with today-the monstrous tragedy of slavery and its deep and lasting consequences.
Hill wrote an autobiography in 2000 and chose an unusual title. “The Big Bang.” The book’s theme was the evolution of mankind and the need for a continuing American Evolution. And I can think of no better way to describe the significance of the arrival of the “20 and odd” African slaves at Point Comfort in August 1619. It was the Big Bang.
In physics, the Big Bang is the violent event that began the universe. Its consequences linger. It was a starting point, and the process that commenced with the Big Bang is not yet complete.
The birth of slavery in our nation was equally violent, both at its start and then for another 246 years. Its debilitating consequences still linger in our nation’s soul.
It occurred precisely at the same time as the birth of legislative democracy in our nation. And beginning in 1619, Virginia legislators and courts helped build the legal architecture enshrining slavery on this shore, just as a Virginian proudly proclaimed a society based on the truth that all were created equal. This dualism of high minded principle and indescribable cruelty has defined us.
The Trans-Atlantic slave trade was one of the most cruel atrocities ever perpetrated by mankind. And yet, how fortunate we are as a country that the descendants of those African slaves and all who followed are still here and part of this nation. It is impossible to imagine an America without the courage, spirit, and accomplishment of the African diaspora. America would be so much the poorer without our African roots.
It’s on each of us to understand our nation’s history and direct the change toward a better future. And we can’t do this silently from the sidelines. Let’s honor our African roots by finally living up to the American ideal that we are all created equal and deserve to live free.
Tim Kaine is a U.S. Senator from Virginia. He can be reached by visiting https://www.kaine.senate.gov/contact.