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A Journey To The Past For A St. Louis Youth Group Yields Renewed Black History Mission

Members of the national organization Remember the 400 gather around the historical marker in Hampton, Virginia, that recognizes the location where the first 20 or so Africans were brought on slave ships.
Naomi Blair
Members of the national organization Remember the 400 gather around the historical marker in Hampton, Virginia, that recognizes the location where the first 20 or so Africans were brought on slave ships.

After visiting Point Comfort — present-day Hampton, Virginia — a few weeks ago, Anthony Ross, director of the St. Louis chapter of Remember the 400, said he wants the group to bring more black history to the region. 

The group traveled for 20 hours by bus to Hampton in late August to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of African slaves in America in 1619.

Ahead of the trip, the youth-led organization held events around St. Louis and the region, hosting festivals and community events where black history was the focus. 

In 2015, the National Museum of African American History and Culture surveyed 525 K-12 teachers across the U.S. about the state of teaching black history in public schools. 

Although the survey found that the educators understood that black history was intertwined with American history, the teachers were only dedicating one or two lessons of the entire semester to black history in U.S. history classes.

Members of the St. Louis chapter of Remember the 400 have expressed that black history education was lacking in their own schools.

Now back from Hampton, members say the event renewed their desire to broaden others’ perspectives on black history and influence Missouri policymakers to include more facts about African American history in textbooks, rather than focus mostly on slavery.

Sometime next year, members of the group will travel to the state Capitol to address lawmakers about their mission. 

St. Louis Public Radio’s Andrea Henderson spoke with five members of the organization about the commemoration weekend, their thoughts on the Africans' arrival and the importance of black history.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Andrea Henderson: Tell me what was going through your mind when you approached Fort Monroe — the site where the first African slaves were brought.

Sarah Blair: It was actually surreal. Especially because you're standing right there looking over the shore seeing the water, and the thought that this spot could literally have been where my ancestors first set foot in America. And just to know that this is almost exactly 400 years since that day in 1619 was just surreal. I found myself thinking about those ancestors a lot, especially about their first time there and their mindset from being taken away so violently from their home. But also I thought of how brave their mindset would have had to be in order to continue walking on this street that they have no idea where it's going to end. I really saw myself reflecting upon my life and being very emotional about my family that was here before and how things have turned out. It was a very reflective and emotional day for me, and it really made me want to get the weekend right, so we could give our ancestors justice.

Natasha Porter: For me, I was thinking about the contrast between my emotions being there and what it was like for those first 20 slaves. I was very excited, because I was in a place that had history that I knew about and related to.

I remember walking down to the beach and somebody from the group said, “The boat could have pulled up right here,” and we were all silent because we thought, “Yeah, it could have.” It was also a very reflective weekend, just thinking about how they came from this (prosperous) land, and then there was no job or chance for anything. You don't know if this new land is fertile, or anything about this place. 

I also thought about what was going through their minds like were they even aware of them coming here in chains. Or their thoughts of, “Will they let us free when we hit the land, or does it get worse than this?” It was a huge mix of emotions that weekend for myself.

Anthony Ross: I was feeling anxious and motivated. For so long we want to know our history, but are we prepared to know? When you actually arrive at certain historical landmarks it is like, “Wow.” I felt like who am I not to fight through adversity?

Standing there, it was a whole bevy of emotions. This was the most awe-inspiring moment to be here at the waters and to know your ancestors’ lineage. This is the spot where it all began for me, so my emotions were all over the place. 

Henderson: After learning about the negatives and positives of African American history, do you still feel like you are oppressed?

Naomi Blair: When I am with my family and people that support me, I don't necessarily feel oppressed. I feel free to do whatever I'm able to do. However, while in college, seeing the opportunities that other people have just because of the color of their skin or because of where they stand in society, you do see yourself being in this oppressed state but not really knowing it. I'm trying as hard as I could to do what I want and what I can, but I know there are blockers trying to stop me from completing what I want to do. So in a sense I do feel oppressed, especially just by merely living in America. I see my people being oppressed every day, so how could I not when I identify with people that also feel oppressed?

Porter: At times, I think it's easy to be racially profiled, so I'm hyper-aware of everything that I do because I know that I'm black and that's kind of part of the oppression. I'm aware that a lot of my friends are minorities because I can relate to them more. I can relate to the racial profiling. I can relate to growing up with not a lot of money and without a lot of privileges. I couldn't relate to these things if I was friends with a white person. But to be fair, there are still white people that are our allies and are trying to advocate for us because they are in positions of power. Their efforts are not to go unacknowledged, but I still feel like they are in power. Creating relationships with those who are in power could help heal that racial divide. 

Henderson: How did this trip change your perspective on slavery and African American history in general?

Sarah Blair: For the longest time, me and my siblings were the only black people in our schools that had a passion for learning our history. And besides being a part of the St. Louis Remember the 400 chapter, I didn’t interact with other people that have the same passion to learn about our ancestors. And so at this event, a lot of the people there had this same passion. It was amazing to see that we actually do want to learn about our history, but it’s just not being exposed to us.

Porter: I think for me it was more of solidifying the idea of seeing that mirror in society. During the youth event, I got to see everyone’s faces and all the performances from prior to slavery up until today and what we want to see for the future. And everybody was in awe of all the performances. It is important it to see ourselves, whether that's in performing onstage or on television or in books and movies or just in our daily lives. Just to see other black people doing things that we may not even dream of doing was inspiring. Yeah. And another thing I wanted to add was even just to think about all the things that my ancestors, her ancestors, went through, it would be a shame for me to waste all that pain and struggle and not make something of myself, right?

Naomi Blair: For me, it was a huge impact mostly because it really put everything in perspective. I'm in college, and I'm not always thinking about my future. But I think going there and then immediately going into school really put it in perspective for me, like this is why I'm doing this because this is where I came from and this is where I'm going. So even seeing the impact that I can make as a singular person and the significance I have within this larger unit as well really secured my pride in my work and in the results that my work here yields. While thinking about the bus ride home and the night before starting school, I told myself, "I can do this now, and I know I can be this person who is an advocate for not only racial equity but for remembering our history and teaching that."

Micah Harris: I feel like the biggest impact for me that made me really reflect on my ancestors was the site (Point Comfort). But also the youth event was impactful because of the actual research for my speech and learning about black codes, because before I didn’t really know too much about black codes or Jim Crow. Knowledge is power, and in going back and actually doing the research and typing in what I need to know for that speech really gave me foresight for what I want to do in the future, which is a passion for history and to continue to dig deep into my history and empower myself.

Ross: My perspective changed in a way that now I have a better understanding of slavery and the different types of slaves. You had slaves in the field, and you had the slaves in the house, but at the end of the day they were all slaves. They did whatever it took to ensure that they could move their family forward. And I get it. It also changed my perspective about those negative connotations when it comes to slavery.

Henderson: The word redemption for African Americans was tossed around throughout the month of August; do you think the commemoration weekend in Hampton was redemptive in any way?

Naomi Blair: I think it was the start of one, and we can use this as a bouncing-off ground to start a more of an active redemption and a more active almost justice for them. But especially at the points that we were making with the importance of education and the topic of reparations, they were even discussing turning August into the new Black History Month and focusing on making it so that it's a collective redemption. Remember the 400 started with the idea of going out to Virginia in August, but I think it goes beyond that as well.

Ross: Absolutely. You're able to solve some of those great mysteries. It was a great redemption for people to come, because as a collective, people were there to learn our history. You could almost see a sigh of relief coming from people. It was like finally someone is doing this and is getting this ball rolling to talk about history. 

Henderson: As a young African American, what's the significance of this trip to you?

One of the six chapters of Remember the 400 gather as they get ready to provide the masses with black history facts during the African Landing Day commemoration weekend in Hampton, Virginia on August 24th.
Credit Naomi Blair
One of the six chapters of Remember the 400 gather as they get ready to provide the masses with black history facts during the African Landing Day commemoration weekend in Hampton, Virginia, on Aug. 24.

Naomi Blair: We are the future, so if we don’t remember history, who will? A lot of older people that came to our chapter meetings or met with us around the St. Louis area would tell us that they are trying to teach their kids or their grandchildren their history, but they are not soaking it in or really wanting to learn about. So, as a youth and as a person who likes history and wants to remember the 400 (years), it is a constant reminder that (learning black history) isn't normal to other youth, but it should be normal, and there is a significance in us going to Hampton. But also it shouldn't be that much of a significance, because it should be all youth doing this.

Harris: For me, being a young person, people don't really realize that a lot of African Americans don't really want to learn about our history or talk about their past because they are taught that it's all dark, it's all slavery. It's all whippings and lashings and slave ships. But Remember the 400 is really about all of black history. It's really about the inventors. All the positive stuff that we have done to contribute to the building of America. Really, we are America, and without us America wouldn't even really be here. So as young people, I feel like it's important for us to know that we're not just slavery, but we're everything that is America, and that we have really built this and we are the foundation of this place. Also, it is important for us to know where we came from and the importance of us as a community and the power that we have.

Henderson: What are the major takeaways from the commemoration weekend?

Harris: The major takeaway from me is that I am more. I was pretty confident in myself that I knew my history and that I can make a difference, but it was really performing and reaching out where I feel like I've really solidified the fact that I am more.

Sarah Blair: One of the things that I got from it was that we really do have a problem when it comes to representation and not knowing our history. Our children don't know who they are. Our adults don't even know who they are. How are you gonna move forward as a people if no one knows where we come from and that it wasn't just slavery? We have all these kings and queens and a culture behind us. Change needs to happen, and if it's going to happen it has to start now.

Porter: So for me, I think one of the major takeaways is that racism and racial biases is learned. Also, having representation is so important because without that representation you're allowing everyone else to feed you a narrative that isn't really yours. So you're allowing everyone to feed you the narrative of all black boys if they graduate high school, they either become drug dealers or end up in jail. Or, for young black girls, in order to be successful you sell hair and that's your ceiling. We just to have more of that representation, so that you know in the generations that's coming up that our generation is doing the work on healing that racial divide. 

Naomi Blair: Particularly for me was that I'm not alone. I think of the common stereotype that [black] people don't want to know about their history or know about math and science. And I believe if they knew about the history more then they would love [African Americans] and they would excel. I think coming from that standpoint I'm not alone, is that I want to succeed or I want to learn more about my history. It almost makes me want to go and talk to these young black girls and boys specifically and say you are beautiful and your history is beautiful.

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.