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St. Louis Youth Group Hits The Road To Commemorate First African Slaves

During Anthony Ross’ formative years, his family moved around St. Louis and St. Louis County several times. The one constant in his life was education. His mother encouraged him to do well in school, relying on public schools to teach him about African American history. 

Ross said that didn’t happen. His extensive knowledge about St. Louis’ black history and his African ancestors grew out of his own curiosity and his passion for black history. 

In 2018, Ross heard about Remember the 400, a youth movement that honors the first 20 or so African slaves who were forcibly shipped to America, arriving in August 1619. The organization also encourages its members to inform communities about the importance of black history. 

Now, as the director of the St. Louis chapter of Remember the 400, Ross, 31, said the group gives back to the youth of St. Louis in a way that not only promotes African American history across the region, but brings hope and a perspective to all youth. Though it is a youth group, members range in age.

“This is an opportunity to take the history and raise it up and say, ‘Here's what happened in the past. Let's take this and magnify it, and let's go in the future with a positive mindset,’” Ross said.

Members of the St. Louis Chapter of Remember the 400 attended the African Artifacts Festival on Saturday. Anthony Ross (right) said promoting African American history here brings hope to youth in the region. Aug 17, 2019
Credit Andrea Henderson | St. Louis Public Radio
Members of the St. Louis Chapter of Remember the 400 attended the African Artifacts Festival on Saturday. Anthony Ross (right) said promoting African American history here brings hope to youth in the region.

Road to Landing Day

Ross is taking that attitude of progress with him this weekend to Point Comfort, present-day Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia. He and about 25 other chapter members and St. Louis residents will participate in Hampton’s African Landing Day celebration and commemorate the 400th year since the first slave ship arrived in America.

Many history textbooks identify the shores of Jamestown, Virginia, as the first stop for African slaves. However, historians now say the first enslaved African people arrived at Point Comfort, after being taken from their families in Angola and chained and forced onto slave ships.

Ross believes the trip to Hampton will give the youth members access to lesser-known facts about their heritage and inspire them to retell those narratives of the first African slaves to their peers and the St. Louis region.

“There's an opportunity for us to really grab hold of something and revolutionize this area, especially when you consider the recent events that's happened in St. Louis with police shootings and the increase in gun violence,” Ross said. “There's a lot of ignorance out there, so we want to give children some history and culture that really teaches them about their assets.” 

Listen: "St. Louis on the Air" host Sarah Fenske talks to reporter Andrea Henderson on Aug. 26, about how the local chapter of "Remember the 400" commemorated the arrival of the first African slaves brought to English-occupied North America.

Surviving and thriving

In May 2017, the House passed the 400 Years of African American History Commission Act. The bill allows organizations to educate on the effects of slavery. It also encourages extensive research on African Landing Day, and it provides funding to help cities commemorate the arrival of the first African slaves. 

To assist Hampton with its celebration, the St. Louis chapter of Remember the 400 will be hosting a portion of the city’s I AM More Youth Festival on Saturday. 

The festival is one of many activities the youth group organized over the past year. 

Within the region, members have created safe spaces to talk about racial issues in the community, led webinars to discuss little-known black inventors and entrepreneurs from St. Louis and other areas, and gathered youth at schools and in other settings to discuss the first African slaves.

Chapter member Naomi Blair, 19, said she has dreamed of being a lawyer and if she didn’t know her past, she would not have known her future or its possibilities.

“In terms of people learning about the first 20 slaves and even slavery in general, a lot of people — especially black people — don't want to learn about it because they see it as something that's depressing and hurtful, but we see it really as empowering,” Naomi said. “We came from that in America, and we have survived and thrived.”

'What I can be'

The organization’s mission is to heal the racial divide and inform St. Louis’ youth about the significance of the first slaves and their descendents influence on today’s society. 

As the group’s marketing chair, Ezra Blair, 18, engages with regional members and national audiences through social media platforms. He said as a black male he could not rely on Eurocentric systems to shape his knowledge of his ancestors. 

“Four hundred years is a long time, and given the things that us as a people have gone through since then, I think there will be lots of emotions and tears (at the event),” Ezra said. “But now with having an understanding of self, which I feel my past provides me with, and Remember the 400, I want to dive further and understand myself and knowing what I can be.”

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.

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