Memorial in Virginia will honor the first Africans brought to America

FORT MONROE, Va. (AP) – There is a grassy spot on the southwest side of Fort Monroe National Monument that overlooks the vast waters of Chesapeake Bay. It’s a place where people gather in the shade of a tree for a picnic or linger along the sea wall to gaze at the huge cargo ships coming and going and reveling in the playful dolphins opening the sea. way.

But if you stand right on this grassy spot, facing the bay at an angle, with the Hampton Roads Bridge tunnel over your right shoulder, your line of sight makes an imaginary leap halfway across the world, a jump which symbolizes a very real journey which ends on the coasts of Angola on the southwest coast of Africa.


These two points, Fort Monroe and Angola, are thousands of miles apart, but forever linked to one of the darkest tales in American history.

This grassy spot in Fort Monroe will become the site of the African Landing Memorial, a space to honor the area where some “20. and strange” African individuals, as colonized John Rolfe documented in a 17th century letter. , first arrived in English-speaking North America in 1619.

The efforts are led by the Fort Monroe Authority, which oversees the fort and its day-to-day operations, and in partnership with the Hampton-based Project 1619.

The memorial, which aims to explore the significance of this moment in American history, is designed by Florida-based artist Brian Owens and is expected to be completed within the next few years. It is expected to cost over $ 6 million, and funding has been earmarked by the Virginia General Assembly.

But to help secure money for the memorial’s enduring endowment, as well as the educational programming that goes with it, Richmond-based Underground Kitchen is hosting Healing, Hope & Freedom, a multi-course public dinner in Fort Monroe on Friday 10. September. are $ 500 per person, of which $ 250 goes to the Fort Monroe Foundation to support the African Landing Memorial.

Already a national monument, Fort Monroe was named the site of the UNESCO Slave Route project in February.

“This is a real direction Virginia is heading in, to be honest and straightforward about our history,” said Glenn Oder, executive director of the Fort Monroe Authority, earlier this month. “It’s not a new story, it’s just a story that has never been told before (because) shamefully, the country was not ready for this story.”

The tide, however, is changing, he said.

“One day the earth tilted a little more than usual, the tide went down a lot further… and we see a story we’ve never seen before,” Oder said. Except that in reality, “it has always been there”.

Oder said he and his colleagues had a “generational responsibility” to tell the stories of these early Africans, stories that until now have apparently been eclipsed or outright ignored in historical accounts of Old Point Comfort – the site where Fort Monroe was completed in 1834. – and in general, the history of Virginia.

As a military installation, for decades much of the fort’s history – as shown in its bunker museum – has concerned its military operations, not necessarily the fort’s place in the history of slavery or the importance of the land on which it sits.

However, that is all about to change. Oder said intentional efforts have been made over the past decade not only to show the landing of the first Africans, but also to recognize the Native Americans who were already there.

The African Landing Memorial will describe a series of events from 1619, when 20 Africans uprooted from their homelands in Angola first set foot on North America, thus beginning hundreds of years of slavery in this country. country. It will cover everything from the rich African culture these captured men and women left behind to the landing itself on the shores of Old Point Comfort.

It will feature husband and wife Antony and Isabella, two of the first Africans, and their son, William, the first reported black child born in English-speaking North America in 1624, as well as artistic symbols of hope. The memorial will be positioned to face the direction of Angola.

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But there is more to the history of Fort Monroe. Now decommissioned and despite its location in Virginia, Fort Monroe served as a Union outpost during the Civil War and therefore its importance in the history of slavery in the United States is twofold.

While its location was the site of the first Africans who were traded for property, it is also the place where – over 240 years later – thousands of slaves found refuge and, ultimately, their freedom, when the Union forces did not return slaves to Confederate soldiers.

“On the exact site in our country where people were traded as property, (Fort Monroe) is the exact site in our country where people were not returned as property,” Oder said, adding that these freed slaves then established Hampton and its surrounding communities with descendants who still live there today.

Oder said he and his team and Underground Kitchen are linked by mutual friends. He said he was delighted to share the rich history of Fort Monroe and the African Landing Memorial through food because, too often, the contributions of these early Africans are overlooked.

He said that Africa’s first slaves were educated people who knew about agriculture and farming, irrigation and engineering practices, and that all of this knowledge came with them and was being exploited as the economy of the new nation flourished.

“We were taught that they were just workers – but let’s get it straight,” he said. In their African homeland, “they had commerce, they had agriculture, they had engineering” and with that knowledge, “they contributed to the greatest economic engine the world has ever seen”.

UGK enlisted Chef Michael Hall of Richmond, who now runs the kitchen at Independence Golf Course, as well as Chef Danielle Harris to lead the UGK September 10 event telling the story of three distinct food cultures – Native American, African and European – through local ingredients, recipes and foods. That means shrimp and oysters harvested from the bay, as well as local pork and fruits and vegetables native to Virginia.

Underground Kitchen CEO Micheal Sparks said his team strived to explore and reveal the importance of the food culture in Fort Monroe and the surrounding area, primarily that of enslaved Africans and, later, liberated black communities established.

Sparks said the UGK aims to show the connection between these historic eating practices and the culinary landscape of today by exploring recipes that slaves or freed blacks would have cooked, or the foods that Africans would have helped cultivate. here in the New World.

He said he sources from farmers and suppliers in Hampton to keep the menu as authentic as possible.

Sparks also said that with UGK’s mission to elevate under-represented leaders, especially people of color and women, partnering with Fort Monroe to support the African Landing Memorial was “a perfect match.”

“Our job is to tell the story and tell the truth,” he said. “It’s not just about eating – it’s about building community and educating our customers … to celebrate culture, diversity, and history (and) cultivate the African American experience. “


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