Local and national news media have given broad coverage of the events last week commemorating the first African enslaved people being brought to the Virginia colony in 1619. Certainly the historic research that has been done in recent years has given a truer picture of the struggling colony at Jamestown that had been founded in 1607 and that saw significant changes 400 years ago this month with the meeting of the first elected representative assembly and with the arrival of the first women and enslaved Africans. As a history buff I read every version of the 1619 story I could find and found the speeches at the commemorative event at Old Point Comfort at Hampton last week to be enthralling.
The real story did not take place in 1619 however but in the 400 years since when slavery lasted for nearly 250 more years and racism, inequality, and injustice continue to today. Slavery was a horrid institution that reminds us just how cruel some can be to others. Following onto slavery was Reconstruction, Jim Crow, segregation, and white supremacy that continued the cruelty in other forms.
I am pleased that speakers at the Commemoration were honest and forthright in pointing out the evils of slavery and its aftermath. I could not have been more proud of our two Senators Kaine and Warner, two Congresspersons Bobby Scott and Elaine Luria, and Congressional Black Caucus Chair Karen Bass for their honesty and directness about our past and for our need to make amends and stand against any form of evils in the future.
Our Gov. Ralph Northam was no less critical of our past. He said about the enslaved Africans, “government did not represent them during the 246 years of slavery. It did not represent them through nearly 100 years of Reconstruction and Jim Crow and discrimination. And in many ways, it struggles to represent them today.”
The Governor said, “if we are going to begin to truly right the wrongs of our four centuries of history, if we are going to turn the light of truth upon them, we have to start with ourselves.” And the Governor is showing that with his personal experiences he is willing to provide the leadership to move forward.
As the Governor explained, “Virginia is a place of contradictions and complexity. … We are a state that for too long has told a false story of ourselves. … The story we tell is insufficient and inadequate, especially when it comes to black history that is American history.”
By Executive Order the Governor established a Commission on African American History Education in the Commonwealth with the purpose of ensuring that the history we teach is true and complete. Earlier he had established a Commission to examine the racial inequities in Virginia laws, and there are many that the General Assembly needs to amend out of the Code.
He has directed his staff to ensure that programs and services in the state do not discriminate against anyone because of race or the color of their skin among other areas where discrimination has occurred.
The events of 1619 can remind us that there is much work to be done, and we have a Governor who is willing to provide the leadership to accomplish it.