NEWTOWN BOROUGH >> A bell rang out in front of St. Mark AME Church on North Congress Street Sunday afternoon echoing through the quiet borough neighborhood.
It was a poignant moment for members of the church and community members who came out to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first landing of enslaved Africans in North America at what is now part of the Fort Monroe National Monument in Virginia.
Standing on the steps of the church, Pastor Sandra Reed joined Mayor Charles Swartz, former Mayor Dennis O’Brien and five members of the church who were given the honor of ringing a bell as part of a nationwide bell ringing organized by the National Park Service to mark the occasion.
For four minutes - one minute for each century - longtime church members Dennise Veasley, Marcia Wright and Rose Knox along with the Baldwin Twins rang a bell to honor the first Africans who landed here in 1619.
While Spanish explorers had previously brought enslaved people to what became the southern and southwestern United States, it was the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in English-occupied North America that led to African American bondage in the United States. The 13th Amendment ended slavery in the U.S., but the pursuit of equality and civil rights for all endures today.
The bell ringing followed a remembrance and reflection service that included scripture readings by Donald Baldwin, a poem read by Tracy Teagle, words of history and introspection by the Rev. Angela Vann, reflections by the Rev. Ethel Moore from Bethlehem AME in Langhorne and Lena Glickman with POWER, a prayer by Sasha Montes-Whitely and the singing of the song, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
Pastor Vann set the stage for the afternoon observance, presenting an historic overview of the arrival of Africans in Virginia in 1619.
“Africans who came to Virginia in 1619 had been taken from Angola in West Central Africa. They were captured in a series of wars that was part of much broader Portuguese hostilities against the Congo,” she said. “It’s important to know that the Africans who arrived in Virginia were not the first African slaves to arrive in America. Slavery had already come to the Americas before 1619.
“What we are commemorating today is not to remember slavery as it began in America. We are looking back to think about how slavery began. We’re looking back as a point of education, but also to give a narrative of what America is and what has America become as a result of bringing people over on slave ships,” said Vann. “We look back at the education so we can move forward and learn.”
In her prayer, Sasha Montes-Whitely said “sadly there are things our country has forgotten. They have forgotten, but today we stand in agreement with churches all over our nation remembering what happened 400 years ago. That there were Africans who touched this soil as slaves. But today we know you have brought us this far by faith. Today, God, we remember that freedom is not free and that you will help us to fight against the things that try to tear down our freedom and help us rise to fight against oppression, injustice and complacency.”
The Rev. Moore spoke about the plight of the first slaves who were brought to Virginia and North America against their will and how far African Americans have come from that moment. She sounded a ram’s horn in remembrance and in honor of them.
Newtown Borough Mayor Charles “Corky” Swartz and Mayor Emeritus Dennis O’Brien also brought greetings from the community with Mayor Swartz reading a proclamation issued by the borough council recognizing the anniversary and Mayor Emeritus O’Brien reading remarks from State Sen. Steve Santarsiero.
“Today is a day to contemplate the struggles, pain and degradation of those enslaved Africans and the generations that follow,” said Mayor Swartz. “Today is also a day to acknowledge and celebrate the contributions of those Africans and their descendants to our country without which our country would not be what it is today.
“In commemorating the nation’s fundamental sin of slavery, we must also celebrate those who survived the institution of slavery and continue to accomplish great things,” the mayor continued. “In remembering the unfortunate way Africans came to America we are able to grow and move forward a more unified and united country in which equality and diversity are enjoyed by all.”
Sharing remarks from State Senator Santarsiero, Mayor Emeritus O’Brien said, “This commemoration is an opportunity to come together in sober and somber reflection on the long history of America’s insidious reliance on slavery for economic gain ... The official designation by the National Park Service and the important work of the Board of Bishops of St. Mark AME Zion Church will ensure this occasion is observed with the respect and attention it deserves. I am proud to represent a community that chooses to honor the past and move forward into the future together.”
The ceremony concluded on the steps of the church with the bell ringing, a prayer and the singing of the Freedom March song, “We Shall Overcome.”
The day of remembrance, healing, and reconciliation was observed throughout the country on Sunday at 3 p.m. as National Parks, including Fort Monroe National Monument, hosted programs and participated in a nationwide bell ringing.