400 Years: Remembrance, Reparations, and Reconciliation Op-Ed

As the Commonwealth of Virginia prepares to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first arrival of Africans as well as the first legislative assembly in the New World, the goals of the celebration focus on “Virginia’s leadership in education, tourism, and economic development” in the formation of the United States. [1] The major events dedicated to this anniversary bundle the evils of the forced and violent enslavement of Africans and the beginning of Virginia’s active participation in the transatlantic slave trade into a whitewashed remembrance of historical events in the first settlement. It trivializes the reality of the gruesome Middle Passage, during which mortality rates were abysmally high and many captive Africans opted to drown themselves rather than remain in bondage. It is estimated that nearly a quarter of all slaves bound for Virginia between 1680 and 1688 died before making it ashore. [2] For those that did make it in the midst of this genocide, historical records are severely lacking. Records of some of the first slaves in Virginia are scarce due to historical factors such as fire and flood damage as well as European ethnocentrism among the colonists, leading to poor documentation. [3]

The horrors of slavery were present from the very beginning and for the commemoration to flippantly gloss over Virginia’s role in building American slavery is a grave injustice. It is a reflection of a grander miseducation of young Virginians that denies the deliberate construction of anti-Black racism. Slavery was not an inevitability in what became the United States, nor a natural progression in the context of the global slave trade. It was built out of racist politics and systems that manifest in new forms in the modern day. If Virginia is to properly commemorate this tragedy, the state government must apologize for its role in the trading, torturing and killing of slaves and make an effort to bring truthful and reflective education in its public schools. As a nation, we must reckon with the legacy of slavery and the persistent inequality that results from it.

Four hundred years ago come August, a Dutch slave ship came ashore at Point Comfort in modern-day Hampton, Virginia, bringing what John Rolfe described as “20. and odd Negroes” to the New World. These enslaved individuals were the first Africans to arrive to what would become the United States of America. They went on to inhabit the Jamestown settlement and work alongside white indentured servants, serving the landed white elite on tobacco and hops plantations. In the beginning years of the colony of Virginia, in spite of being forcibly taken from their native lands in modern-day Angola, many enslaved Africans had a reasonable chance of becoming free. Some freed Africans even went on to own property and slaves themselves. However, in the decades following their initial arrival, hierarchical tensions between the lower classes and the white landed elite resulted in colonial policies that systematically separated workers along racial lines.

These repressive laws made it increasingly difficult for Africans to attain freedom. This racialization and the ensuing institutionalization of slavery transformed Virginia from a society with slaves to a slave society. [4] Centering slavery in the political, economic, and social order of the English colony would define the beginnings of the American nation born in the original sin of chattel slavery, the legacy of which persists to the present. This process of dehumanizing Black people to the benefit of the wealthy, white arbiters of power translates to some of the current politics surrounding race and class. The legacy of slavery and legal discrimination comes in the form of rent discrimination, de facto segregation of schools and neighborhoods, mass incarceration, police brutality, political disenfranchisement, and a myriad of other impediments to justice for Black Americans today. The resulting inequality must be rectified and reconciled in the form of overhauling education on the subjects of race and history, and providing reparations in some form to affected communities.

According to a muster, or census, administered in 1624-25, 23 African Americans resided in the colony. These records, coupled with archaeological findings on Jamestown Island, indicate that white indentured servants and African slaves lived and worked together, and even engaged in sexual relationships that sometimes produced children. [5] There existed a uniting force between indentured servants and slaves in the arduous work they shared under a repressive and privileged polity, leading to underlying discontent that came to a head in 1676. Until that time, however, many freed Africans enjoyed generally equal treatment under the judicial system as their white counterparts, finding success in civil cases documented throughout the mid-17th century. Black Virginians earned money, kept livestock, and raised crops. Freedom, as well as economic wellbeing, was not an impossibility for Africans in the colony. [6] This was the case for a Black indentured servant named Anthony Johnson who bought his freedom and some land in 1625, and even ended up owning a slave of his own. [7] This social environment would eventually change to the detriment of the descendants of the first Africans in Virginia.

In 1676, by proclaiming charges of avarice against Governor William Berkeley and by scapegoating American Indians that were aligned with the colonial government, Nathaniel Bacon led a biracial rebellion against the white landowners. The rebellion was a failure, but it left a lasting impact on the upper class’s interaction with workers and slaves. Just as Bacon weaponized racism against American Indians as a political tool to galvanize support among the colonists, so too did the English elites use racism against Africans to divide the lower class along racial lines. That particular brand of anti-Black racism created the framework for slavery in the southern United States and is perpetuated to this day. Through the end of the century, the colony’s General Assembly handed down laws that began segregating blacks and whites, including a 1691 law that outlawed interracial marriage and altogether expelled newly freed blacks from Virginia. Ultimately, a 1723 “better government” bill made it increasingly difficult for masters to free their slaves, and the following years saw the entrenchment of slavery as an institution in Virginia. [8]

As of 2013, the median net worth among white households stood at $134,000 while the median net worth among Black households was only $11,000. This gulf in net worth only continues to grow with median wealth increasing for whites and decreasing for Blacks and Latinos. [9] These severe inequalities are a direct outcome of centuries of slavery and another century of Jim Crow after Emancipation. The United States has a responsibility to alleviate this economic and political inequality through public policy. Heavy taxation on extreme concentrations of wealth and heavy investment in minority communities can begin the process of reconciling these institutional failures and bringing true justice to all of our citizens. This essay is not in the business of prescribing a specific set of policies, nor pursues a particular agenda. But our country requires a serious assessment of the idea of reparations, the concept of economic justice in terms of race, and how to properly commemorate, teach, and learn the history of slavery, 400 years after the twenty and odd Africans arrived on our shores.


[1] https://www.americanevolution2019.com/about/

[2] https://www.nps.gov/jame/learn/historyculture/upload/African%20Americans%20on%20Jamestown%20Island.pdf

[3] Presentation given by Charde Reid to the Lemon Project Branch Out team, January 12, 2018

[4] Wolfe, Brendan. “Free Blacks in Colonial Virginia.” Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 26 Oct. 2017. Web. 14 Jan. 2019.

[5] http://www.common-place-archives.org/vol-01/no-04/reviews/brown.shtml

[6] Wolfe, Brendan. “Free Blacks in Colonial Virginia.” Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 26 Oct. 2017. Web. 14 Jan. 2019.

[7] Presentation given by Charde Reid to the Lemon Project Branch Out team, January 12, 2018

[8] Wolfe, Brendan. “Free Blacks in Colonial Virginia.” Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 26 Oct. 2017. Web. 14 Jan. 2019.

[9] https://prosperitynow.org/sites/default/files/PDFs/road_to_zero_wealth.pdf

Remembrance, Reparations, and Reconciliation: 400th Anniversary of the First Arrival

Remembrance, Reparations, and Reconciliation:

400th Anniversary of the First Arrival



Brendan Boylan

Sharon Kim

Course Overview:

This course explores the history of the first Africans in America and the evolution of slavery throughout the 17th century. Students will investigate the daily lives of African Americans in the 17th century and investigate and identify the turning point in which slavery started to become institutionalized. Students will then examine the legacy of slavery in present times and discuss ways to reckon with that history in terms of remembrance, reparations, and reconciliation.  

Course Objectives

By the end of the course students should be able to understand:

  1. The basic history of African Americans from 1619 to 1723
  2. How the system of slavery evolved in Virginia between the first arrival of Africans in America in 1619 through the aftermath of Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676
  3. How race and blackness was institutionalized throughout the the 17th century
  4. The effects that the institution of slavery had on African Americans and which still persist to this day
  5. Analyzing the effects of the institution of slavery in contemporary issues of race, politics, and economics.

Skill Objectives

By the end of the course students should have improved upon their skills to:

  1. Read, annotate, and analyze primary and secondary sources
  2. Identify, examine, and critique the author’s purpose and point of view as well as the intended audience for sources
  3. Evaluate the relevance and significance of a primary source
  4. Conduct individual research on a specific topic
  5. Construct critical arguments with a clear thesis supported with evidence
  6. Compare different perspectives of an argument
  7. Evaluate the impact of historical events
  8. Think critically and creatively about ways to remedy the legacy of slavery on current day Black Americans


Readings. Throughout the course we will have multiple readings that relate to the topic we are covering. The readings are assigned to give historical context and background. They are also exercises for students to improve upon reading primary and secondary sources, and are expected to be annotated and analyzed. These readings are critical to succeeding in the class as most classes will be mostly discussion based.

Discussion/Content postings. Throughout the course we will create discussion forums with daily prompts relating to the assigned readings. Students are required to create and comment on posts.

Creative Project. At the end of the course, students will have two options to use their creativity and present the themes and arguments of the course materials.

  1. Create a documentary about a specific modern issue stemming from the institutionalization of slavery.
  2. Create three songs, poems, or short stories relating to one common theme related to slavery or modern systematic oppression of Blacks


Class Structure

Weekly Socratic Seminars. Throughout the course we will have Socratic Seminars which are discussions with open-ended questions based on the assigned readings. Students can ask and answer questions while also thinking critically and formulating individual responses. The purpose of these seminars are to gain a better understanding about the text in a collaborative setting. This allows for a safe space to talk about ideas and hear different perspectives from others. Come prepared with a list of questions to ask regarding the texts.

Course Schedule

Week Day Topic Required readings
1 1 Introduction. Overview of syllabus and goals and expectations of the course.
What is a Socratic Seminar?
Virginia’s First Africans by Martha McCartney

Letter to Sir Edwin Sandys by John Rolfe

2 1619: Arrival of the Africans. History of the first African Americans in Jamestown

Discussion Post Due

Free Blacks in Colonial Virginia by Brendan Wolfe

Ch. 6 of African Americans on Jamestown Island by Martha McCartney

3 African American Life in the 1600’s. Socratic Seminar  – How did the life of African Americans differ from that of your expectations?

Discussion Post Due

Ch. 7 of African Americans on Jamestown Island by Martha McCartney

“American Heartbreak” by Langston Hughes

4 Bacon’s Rebellion: The Turning Point. Socratic Seminar – Why was this the major turning point?
Discussion Post Due
“An American Tragedy” by Glenn C. Loury

UN 72nd Session

5 Modern Day Issues. Socratic Seminar: What are modern day problems rooted in the institution of slavery?
Introduction to Debate
“Road to Zero Wealth”
Prepare for the debate

End of Week 1

2 6 Debate: Slavery by Another Name. Students construct arguments for and against the statement that mass incarceration is a form of modern-day slavery.
Introduction to Final Project
Come up with project idea!
7 Why Behind the What Why did people continue to rely on the systematic oppression and forced labor of African Americans? Work on your project!
8 Roundtable Talk: Reparations. How can we make amends for Virginia’s crimes on African Americans? What would provide justice for former slaves? Work on your project!
9 Now What. 400 Years: How should we remember it? How did VA schools teach the 17th century? How should it be taught? Keep working on your project!
10 Presentations

Final Projects DUE!