In August 1619, a month or so shy of 157 years before Thomas Jefferson finished the Declaration of Independence, the first enslaved Africans were purchased by English colonists whose descendants would establish the United States. The 20 or more men and women were brought to Point Comfort, near Hampton, Va., by English privateers from a Spanish slave ship and traded like property for supplies. They would be followed by many more Africans likewise kidnapped from their homes and brought to the New World for lifetimes of drudgery without reward.
The end of the Civil War freed 4 million people who were considered subhuman because of their skin color for more than two centuries.
If marking the 400th anniversary of the start of centuries of oppression seems little more than an occasion for grievance and division, consider the signs that racism is still with us today, more than 240 years after our nation was founded on a creedthat declared “all men are created equal.”
Two black men arrested last year for trespassing at a Starbucks in Philadelphia, the cradle of liberty, while they waited for someone to discuss a real estate deal.
The 2015 shooting deaths of nine black members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church at the hands of Dylann Roof. Despite being welcomed and treated kindly, Roof wrote that he told his youngest victim, 26-year-old Tywanza Sanders, “You blacks are killing white people on the streets every day and raping white women every day.”
Of 5,060 victims of hate crimes based on race or ethnicity in 2017 (the latest year for which the FBI has released statistics), nearly half were black Americans.
In a late 2017 NPR/Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health/Robert Wood Johnson Foundation poll, 57% of black men said they experienced people acting afraid of them because they are black; and 45% of black Americans overall said they’d faced discrimination when trying to rent a room or apartment or buy a house.
Black Americans have been demeaned throughout our nation’s history.
Frederick Douglass, who escaped slavery in Maryland at age 20 or so, noted the insult he felt amid Independence Day celebrations in a July 5, 1852, speech to the Ladies of the Rochester (N.Y.) Anti-Slavery Sewing Society, saying: “The blessings in which you this day rejoice are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence bequeathed by your fathers is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”
Despite being here for centuries, longer than than most white Americans, President Abraham Lincoln, their Great Emancipator, seriously considered a plan to free the slaves and ship them to Africa.
As late as 1955, nearly a full century after the 14th Amendment was to have ensured no American being denied “life, liberty or property, without due process of law,” Rosa Parks was arrested for trying to sit in a seat in the front of a bus in Montgomery, Ala.
As W.E.B. Dubois noted in a book of essays in 1903, “Few men ever worshiped Freedom with half such unquestioning faith as did the American Negro for two centuries.”
That truth is evidenced in black Americans’ significant participation in every war since even before the founding of our republic. Crispus Attucks, widely regarded as the first American killed in the Revolution when he was shot by a British soldier in what became known as the Boston Massacre, was a black man born into slavery.
To acknowledge the stain of slavery on our history is not to deny its achievements. The still evolving experiment in representative government begun by our nation’s founders remains a marvel of human achievement.
At the same time, the stain of having kept a race in bondage must be remembered, and its continuing effects on modern attitudes, too, must be not only acknowledged but overcome.
Ignoring this aspect of our nation’s past and the shadow it continues to cast in the present would be to confirm a particular rebuke made by Douglass in his 1852 speech in Rochester: “America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.”
The 400th anniversary of the start of slavery in America is a chance to recognize a grave wrong done to a race of fellow Americans, and to more fully embrace and commit ourselves to fulfill our nation’s founding commitment to equality.