What if we could put names and faces to the Africans who were brought over to America as slaves in 1619? Would it humanize slavery instead of making it a category in American history that people love to conveniently forget or urge black folks to “just get over it”?
The first Africans arrived at Point Comfort, a port on the James River in Virginia, during the latter part of the summer in 1619. Among those slaves, there was a woman historians have named “Angela.” Say her name. Even though Angela’s story is intriguing, it’s still frustrating, if just for her name alone. Angela is certainly a whitewashed name, considering that she came from Africa. It reminds me of Kunta Kente from Roots being forced to take the name Toby. He fought for his identity until he lost limbs. I wonder if Angela resented being called Angela or if she even answered to it?
Angela wasn’t just another faceless African sold into slavery; she was a human being with an entire life to live. And she survived the rough, unpredictable and violent trip to America.
I was given the opportunity to visit Colonial National Historical Park in Yorktown, Va., and the historical settlement of Jamestown grabbed my attention when I was told about Angela. The park’s superintendent, Kym Hall, took my fellow journalists and me down to an excavation site where researchers have dug up remains of a building they think belonged to Capt. William Pierce. He was a planter, and it’s on record that planters were given slaves.
Negroes in the service of several planters.
—Gen. Muster of Virginia (1620)
One of those “Negroes” was said to be Angela. There’s not much that we know about Angela, but according to historian James Horn, the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation president, we know that Angela survived sea battle—being taken on the Treasurer, which was an English ship that stole Africans who were first aboard the São João Bautista (St. John the Baptist) bound for Mexico.
This slave ship left Portuguese Angola (now known just as Angola) carrying 350 Africans—or, as the Portuguese called them: pieces. The ship was overcrowded and the conditions were shockingly awful, which led to the death of over a third of the slaves. Horn said that piracy was the only means by which the English could acquire or trade African slaves. So basically, the English stole so they could steal.
“This is hair-raising stuff!” Horn said as he explained how Angela came to live in Jamestown.
We know that our history, especially what happened before, during and after the 1619 arrival, has been erased or untold. There are said to have been 32 Africans dispersed throughout Virginia by 1620. We know that Angela and countless other slaves like her existed because of a census that was taken in the colony early in 1625.
Said Horn, “The English settlers saw the Africans as valuable pieces of property because only the well-connected and wealthy managed to obtain the first Africans.”
Along with the Treasurer, there was another English ship, White Lion (English privateers often joined forces to cruise the waters of the Caribbean in search of prizes), which had “20 and odd Negroes,” some of whom were sold for food and others who were transported to Jamestown, where they were sold into slavery.
Angela was one of these slaves.
It’s obvious that Angela and many others like her have stories that are important to uncover. Angela stuck to my rib, and according to Horn, that’s the entire point.
“The majority of people, the public, visitors here, the way people learn or absorb or come to terms with this issue, is emotional,” he said. “Rather than just giving people facts, there’s an emotional response. If you have an emotional response, it stays with you.”
So what have they been able to uncover in historic Jamestown that they can connect to Angela?
“What we’re looking for, really—what was the physical environment that Angela lived in?” Horn explained.
From there, they’re hoping the process takes no longer than three years, but they hope to uncover where she lived and worked. What kind of tasks was she put to doing? What did she cook?
“We’re trying to reconstruct her life as best we can from the archaeology in Jamestown,” Horn said.
Full disclosure: Horn is a white man, from England, but he loves being able to share history that’s seemingly forgotten. I wasn’t prepared for Virginia’s distinguished historians to be woke, but Horn gave it to me all the way real. When he sarcastically told me, “Jamestown was about how great whites are,” I knew I was dealing with someone who would reveal America’s racism with unapologetic abandon. We need more historians like him. We need more stories like Angela’s.
Despite American education’s blatant ignoring of slavery or how black people even got here, many of us are aware of the beginnings our painful history in this country. However, it’s seemingly impossible to know the individual people who fought for their lives, just to be enslaved in a place they didn’t want to be in the first place.
The history many of us were taught in grade school left us out. But the individuals we did manage to learn about were the Europeans (read: white people) who “discovered” America and made it into the “greatness” that it is today. (I hope you can feel my eyes rolling to the white meat.)
But we know it ain’t go down like that. Those aforementioned white people raped and pillaged villages, claimed them as their own, snatched land from Natives, dragged my ancestors here and forced them to build America as they reaped all the benefits. Those are the people who have monuments all over America.
Monuments around the United States are often referred to as racist because, guess what? America, the great country that often prides itself on being a welcoming melting pot—but in reality doesn’t subscribe to that rhetoric—is a racist country.
Our shaky foundation is filled with historical proof that we’re not treated equal. And we can very well count the monuments around this country as tangible relics of our awful past that has weaved its way into the thread of who we are today. Education is a major key.
“Racism is bred of ignorance,” Horn said. He wants to use Jamestown as an educational tool, rather than a monument to English expansion or the spread of white civilization.
Look at society today. There’s a ridiculous amount of racism and discrimination that has been with us since the beginning of European society in America. Said Horn, “It means that today, both African Americans and many Natives have a quality of life, they have education opportunities, they have property, anything you can name, [but it is] specifically below that of people of white European ancestry or whites.”
How’s that for systemic racism?
As I stood there, in what was known as (what was left of) Capt. Pierce’s home, I shook the weird mix of dread and hope in the pit of my stomach. I thought abut Angela cooking a meal for a man and his family to whom she had no real connection. I thought about Angela yearning to go back home, and before I knew it, tears welled up.
I looked around the excavation site and noticed nothing but white people working in archaeology in Jamestown. Maybe this is another story for another time, but it’s a really tough pill to swallow. I decided to share the visit to the site via a Facebook Live video, and several of The Root’s readers inquired why there were no black people on site other than myself and the fellow black journalists on the trip.
Maybe our history is too painful to choose to immerse ourselves in it as a profession. Uncovering what should never have been covered up in the first place does sound like a job for a superhero, but maybe this isn’t a job for black people. We need advocates who don’t look like us.
I looked at those white people digging up what was thought to be where Angela lived as a slave and it irritated me that they were there, but after speaking with them, I realized that they were vessels to amplify America’s forgotten history and people.
They want the world to know about how this country was built on the backs of slaves. That’s a beautiful thing. It is Kym Hall’s mission as superintendent to help people feel even a moment of empathy because that’s where connections are formed.
She says she wants people to “value what her [Angela’s] story means in how we got from where we were to where we are today and where we could keep going into the future in removing racial divides. It might be uncomfortable for some people, but that’s OK.”
Said Horn, “When you’re excavating a particular site, you are working at a level of individuals and families. That gives us that personal approach to history.” And it’s that personal approach that humanizes the brutality of slavery and hopefully grabs your attention and feelings so that we can do our part in sharing stories like Angela’s to keep her legacy alive.
Check out this Facebook Live video of my visit to the excavation site in Jamestown:
Editor’s note: James Horn shared a lot of information from his upcoming book, 1619: Jamestown and the Forging of American Democracy (New York, 2018).