Black History Month has added solemnity this year as we mark the 400th anniversary of the journey of Angela, the first known slave to arrive in America from Africa.
Angela’s name was recorded in a Jamestown, Virginia, colony-wide census dated 1625. It noted nine “Negro women.” Angela was the only one identified by name. “Angela” likely springs from “Angola,” where her ship set out in 1619.
Angela was a slave in the household of Captain William Pierce, an influential politician who served as Virginia’s lieutenant governor. While nothing else is known about her life, we can imagine the sense of separation and loss, the fear and indignity she must have felt having been ripped from her homeland, sold to human traffickers and made to obey a master.
Overall, descendants of slaves struggled to make the same progress as immigrants who arrived in our country seeking freedom and opportunity. They arrived as enslaved persons without opportunity, never sharing the American dream. For them, America was a nightmare.
How wonderful the news of liberation must have felt to these African slaves upon hearing the Emancipation Proclamation of President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. It read in part that “all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be, free.” Of course, those words required the final defeat of the Confederacy before they could become reality.
Instead, a new reality set in. The promises of Reconstruction were thwarted as Southern states were appeased after the war. Segregation, featuring Jim Crow laws, kept black Americans from sharing in the prosperity of the nation. America has engaged in one long saga of denial of the unjust laws and suffocating attitudes that have denied black Americans equal justice and opportunity.
The civil rights movement of the 1960s brought hopes that have been dashed repeatedly by tactics such as neighborhood redlining, which kept banks from giving mortgage loans to black Americans and prevented them from building home equity. Suburban white flight left neighborhood schools devoid of strength from generationally educated families, and the war on drugs’ mandatory sentencing policies led to mass incarceration disproportionately affecting black Americans and further tearing apart their families.
When white Americans invoke moral responsibility, family values and hard work as hallmarks of success, we aren’t wrong; but we, too, must be morally responsible by repenting of our complicity in elevating these values and undermining them at the same time for so many neighbors who trace their lineage to Angela.
Kym Hall is a 28-year veteran of the National Park Service. She tells Angela’s story to visitors of the “hallowed land” that is the half-acre archaeological site where remains of Jamestown slaves have been uncovered.
“If people can take the time to stand where Angela stood, to understand who she is, maybe the idea of what she experienced will be a message of hope, even though some people want to pretend (slavery) wasn’t a big deal.”
Let’s stop pretending.
GEORGE MASON is pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church, president of Faith Commons and host of the “Good God” podcast. The Worship section is underwritten by Advocate Publishing and the neighborhood businesses and churches listed here. For information about helping support the Worship section, call 214.560.4202.
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