Shackles in the shadows of history

In 1619, 12 years after Jamestown's settlement, two British privateers sailed into the James River with African captives for sale. The Africans had Portuguese names; they apparently knew Christianity, according to John Thornton and Linda Heywood, a husband-and-wife team of Boston University historians. Those first Africans came from the kingdom of Ndongo, now Angola, which had been penetrated by Portuguese missionaries and traders who soon stopped praying with the Africans and started selling them.

The settlement of Jamestown would ultimately wither and die, but the American form of slavery born with those first Africans would endure for nearly 250 years. Slavery and America grew up hand in hand, and the African imprint on the new nation is evident to this day &

a fact being highlighted in Jamestown events this weekend in the ongoing commemoration of the Virginia settlement's 400th anniversary.

Though 142 years have passed since the constitution's 13th Amendment ended slavery, the vestiges of that "peculiar institution" are deeply embedded in our society, as are the cultural memories of slavery that lurk like shadows between the lines of our racial discourse.

But sometimes the memories are explicit and raw, painful to encounter, for who in 2007 can conjure what life was like for the enslaved? Only the slaves themselves can say, in words whispered through time.

"The conch shell blowed afore daylight and all hands better git out for roll call or Solomon bust the door down and get them out."

This is Mary Reynolds, a former Louisiana slave.

"The times I hated most was pickin' cotton when the frost was on the bolls. My hands git sore and crack open and bleed. ... We prays for the end of trib'lation and end of beatins and for shoes that fit our feet. ... Some of the old ones say we have to bear all, cause that all we can do. Some say they was glad to the time they's dead, cause they'd rather rot in the ground than have the beatins. What I hated most was when they'd beat me and I didn't know what they beat me for, and I hated they strippin' me naked as the day I was born."

As part of an oral history project in the 1930s, former slaves like 100-year-old Reynolds told of the beatings, the brutality, the rapes, the families forced apart and, at last, emancipation. All of it shapes our consciousness of those slavery days, which became a stain on a new nation that told the world it stood for freedom. It was slavery that perpetuated the misguided divisions of race, based on presumed biological distinctions that scientists these days say are a fiction.

But there it is. Slavery's memory. Blacks here. Whites there. Us. Them.

It is the abiding contradiction of our Americanness, something we bump into at random, even in the aisles of a supermarket. Like Aunt Jemima: Why does that iconic slave-era mammy still sell?

Or reminders of the past arise in the speed with which comedian Michael Richards managed to evoke a lynching with his angry rant about hanging people from pitchforks.

And do we need to mention that a former Ku Klux Klansman sits in the Senate? (Robert rd of West Virginia.)

Uncanny connections crop up when you least expect them, as when black activist Al Sharpton discovered that one of his ancestors had been owned by an ancestor of a former segregationist, the late South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond.

And consider the case of Tim Hashaw, a white Houston writer who discovered that his ancestry dates back to those first Africans sold at Jamestown.

"The reason I am white with a small part of African is because of that first generation," says Hashaw, author of "The Birth of Black America: The First African Americans and the Pursuit of Freedom at Jamestown." His research revealed that his black ancestors slipped into freedom in those early decades after Jamestown's settlement, before the iron fist of slavery clamped shut on the possibility of liberty. They bought land and intermarried with whites, as did their descendants.

Sometimes, the slaves themselves reach across the centuries to remind us. In lower Manhattan, an 18th-century African burial ground with the remains of nearly 20,000 people was discovered during a construction project. It is now a national monument. There's a similar, though smaller, burial ground over in Alexandria, Va., sitting under a gas station.

Remembering is not static. It changes with time and discovery, creating new historic theories.

Take, for instance, Denmark Vesey, the former slave who was executed and is remembered as a hero for planning a huge slave insurrection in 1822 to kill whites and set Charleston, S.C., afire. Johns Hopkins University historian Michael Johnson says his research indicates that Vesey led no such plot; rather, the Charleston conspiracy was fabricated by a politician hoping to gain advantage in the fears of his fellow whites.

It's a disturbing twist for Henry Darby, a Charleston County Council member who's been pushing for the erection of a Vesey memorial. Along with some scholars, Darby rejects the new Vesey theory and is holding fast to his belief in Vesey's heroism.

"The thing I love about Vesey is he was a free black man and he did not have to do what he did," says Darby. "But he was saying there was a larger calling. All African-Americans needed to be free."

It seems so long ago. And yet, U.S. shores knew slavery far longer than they've known freedom.

American slavery dates at least to 1565 in Florida, when Spanish settlers held African slaves at St. Augustine, the nation's oldest city. But it was the English, beginning at Jamestown, who spread slavery so intensely, as the British colonies' crops of tobacco, rice and cotton demanded more and more laborers. And in the Caribbean and South America, demand for slaves was far greater. A torrent of slaves were shipped from Africa, roughly 15 million, destined for points from Brazil to New York. Historians estimate that millions died in the crossing.

President Thomas Jefferson signed legislation effective in 1808 to outlaw the import of slaves. But the domestic trade in slaves raged on, with slaves sold from one region to another, their broken families scattered hither and yon.

the time of the Civil War, there were some 4 million slaves in the United States, and their impact on the nation's economy was deep, says David Brion Davis, a Yale historian and author of "Inhuman Bondage."

"The organization of large plantations anticipated in many ways the assembly line and modern factory production," Davis says. "Only in recent years have we learned that the richest pre-Civil War Americans lived in the Deep South, which also had the country's highest per capita wealth. In 1860, the market value of slaves exceeded that of the nation's railroads and factories combined."

Freedom at war's end left the former slaves adrift, with no homes, no food, no jobs, no means of support, in search of lost mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, children.

And the nation then debated what to do with them. The African-American historian W.E.B. Du Bois described it bitterly:

After the Civil War, in which "Negroes fought like the damned," Du Bois wrote in 1960, "then we turned from the abolition of slavery to our muttons: to making money. Some Americans stepped forward with alms and teachers for the black freedmen. Some rushed South to make money with cheap labor and high cotton. But most of the nation tried to forget the Negro. He was free. What more did he want?"

A Freedmen's Bureau was launched in 1865 to help the displaced slaves with food, clothing, the search for work, the search for relatives. Men and women clamored to get their slave marriages legalized, another service the bureau offered.

But there were those who felt the former slaves were getting too much help. Accounts of the debate over the Freedmen's Bureau echo racial debates of today.

Sen. Eli Saulsbury, a Delaware Democrat, complained in 1866 that aid for the freed slaves amounted to white people being asked "to support in idleness a class who are too lazy or too worthless to support themselves," according to congressional records quoted in a 2005 article in the Law and History Review titled "The Sympathetic State," by Michele Landis Dauber.

And yet a 1930s account from former slave Matilda Hatchett tells us firsthand what the suddenness of liberty held in store:

"We was freed and went to a place that was full of people. We had to stay in a church with about about twenty other people and two of the babies died there on account of the exposure. Two of my aunts died too on account of exposure then."

Who would want to remember those bad old days of misery and dying? That's how some people see it. Let it be. Don't look back. Or, in the now famous words earlier this year of Virginia Del. Frank D. Hargrove Sr., R-Hanover, people "should get over" slavery.

"Some of them want to perpetuate this business of victimism," Hargrove, a descendant of slave owners, said in an interview, about some slave descendants.

But remembering slavery is no different from remembering any other aspect of American history, say others.

"Why do we have statues? Why do we have monuments? In Richmond, why do we have a street that is a monument to Confederate generals? Why do we have Civil War reenactments? Why do we have a Jamestown commemoration?"

That is Del. A. Donald McEachin, D-Richmond, one of the sponsors of the Virginia slavery apology that has sparked a national trend in state legislatures. Maryland also has offered its "profound regret."

The conversation is especially poignant for McEachin, the great-grandson of a slave.

Of slavery, he says, "There's no shame, because I take great pride in the fact that my ancestors were able to overcome slavery," though he adds the obvious: "There's pain because you wouldn't want anyone to have to endure the things that they had to endure."

While it took 100 more years for blacks to win full rights, the moment of freedom's arrival is celebrated even today. African-Americans gather all over the country to mark Juneteenth, short for June 19, 1865, the day when the news finally reached the slaves of Texas &

months after the 13th Amendment's passage and the surrender of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Rev. Ronald V. Myers of Belzoni, Miss., founder of the National Juneteenth Christian Leadership Council, says 25 states now have official Juneteenth observances. Surprisingly, Myers has gotten Hargrove on the bandwagon. The state delegate sponsored a Virginia resolution for Juneteenth, to be commemorated on the third Saturday of June. Hargrove says he is not contradicting his earlier views, just acknowledging that commemorating freedom for the slaves is "a positive and productive thing."

It's all about healing, says Myers, and finding common ground for people who might not otherwise agree on racial issues.

And who needs this healing?

"The country," says Myers. "America needs it. All of us need it. Black. White. We all need to be able to deal with the history and legacy of slavery and move forward in a constructive way. ... We have never really had a real time of healing in America from the legacy of slavery."

Instead, the slaves had to sort it out for themselves. They moved on. They made new American lives. They worked hard so life would be better for their children and their children's children. They passed on the memory of slavery or, as often happened in African-American families, they kept quiet.

But not Mary Reynolds:

"I sets and I 'members the times in the world. I 'members now clear as yesterday things I forgot for a long time. I 'members 'bout the days of slavery and I don't 'lieve they ever gwins have slaves no more on this earth. I think Gawd done took that burden offen his black chillun and I'm aimin' to praise him for it to his face in the days of Glory what ain't so far off."

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