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St. Louis Youth Group Marks 400 Years Since The First Slaves Arrived In America

A slave ship at the Alexandria, Virginia, waterfront. From a broadside published by the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1836, 200 years after the first slaves arrived in Virginia.
Wikimedia Commons

In August 1619, 20 Africans were chained and unwillingly brought from West Africa to Point Comfort, Virginia, and sold into slavery. Historians point to this date as the beginning of slavery in America.

In 2018, President Donald Trump signed the 400 years of African-American History Commission Act into law. The bill allows for the commission to plan and support organizations with nationwide commemorative activities that acknowledge slavery. 

The national youth-led organization Remember the 400 is an awareness campaign that also honors the first Virginia slaves and their descendants. For the past two years, the St. Louis chapter has connected with the region through community events, black history webinars and informational sessions.

“We only talk about black history when something negative happens or in February,” said Anthony Ross, the St. Louis chapter director. “And Remember the 400 is a constant reminder of our history and that we are building it in a positive manner.”

On the bus

Point Comfort, the site of the initial slave landing and now part of Hampton, Virginia, is the focal point for the commission’s 400th-year commemorative events on Aug. 23 and 24.

The St. Louis chapter of Remember the 400 is one of just three chapters taking part in a bus trip to Hampton for the August events.

Along with the city of Hampton’s commemorative activities, the Remember the 400 national organization will host the musical “Journey,” which portrays the lives of the first Africans who traveled from north Africa to the continent's west coast and on to their final destination, America. The musical also weaves in African contributions to society.

Ross said the youth are the driving force behind the national campaign.

Youth in action

The six-person St. Louis chapter has traveled around the region educating other youth and adults about the dark past of American history through school presentations and festival discussions. The campaign hopes to heal the community through conversations surrounding the effects of slavery and racial inequality.

The commission’s work goes beyond focusing on the first slaves and the adversities they encountered while living in bondage. It also teaches about the nearly 250-year slave trade in order to lead to understanding and healing among all racial groups.

When it comes to racial healing, Doreen Simpson, the head of marketing for Remember the 400 national campaign, said, “First, people need to be aware of the history of America from the inception and then understand together to work for progression on social issues that African Americans face today.”

“And not just constant talk but to really put action behind whatever we discuss, whether it's police brutality, signing petitions for reparations or getting reparations done, but just communities coming together, blending and integrating to work together for the overall good of America,” she said. 

Also, during the citywide commemorative events, the St. Louis chapter will participate with other campaign members in the production of theI AM More! Youth Festival, which will include speeches, and spoken word and theatrical performances to drive reconciliation and hope. 

Simpson hopes the commemoration of the arrival of America’s first enslaved group of Africans will be passed down to the next generation.

“We want to impact the globe and say, ‘Hey, it's been 400 years — let's recognize the contributions of these people, and now, how do we really move forward?'” Simpson said.

Andrea Y. Henderson is part of the public-radio collaborative Sharing America, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Hartford, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Portland, Oregon. Follow Andrea at @drebjournalist.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org

Andrea covers race, identity & culture at St. Louis Public Radio.