Navigating the “Truths” of History


Author
James Madison University

Published
June 27, 2019


This year, 2019, serves as the 400th commemoration of the emergence of the first representative legislative body, “planting the seed of democracy in America,” and equally significant, it marks the arrival of Africans—who did not have any legal protections or status—to the shores of what is now known as Virginia.1  The men who established representative government and made the first laws in 1619, also took the first steps toward creating a system of slavery. Republican democracy and the political economy of slavery were inextricably linked for more than 250 years.

As we encounter quadricentennial commemorations, we must reflect on how our framing of the past can perpetuate an otherness in our society and do more harm than good. As Michael Guasco illuminates:

“There are important historical correctives to the myth of 1619 that can help us ask better questions about the past. Most obviously, 1619 was not the first time Africans could be found in an English Atlantic colony, and it certainly wasn’t the first time people of African descent made their mark and imposed their will on the land that would someday be part of the United States.”2

As Guasco and many others remind us, there is a multitude of issues with reinforcing the rhetoric of the first enslaved Africans arriving to the English occupied territory—once populated by the “displaced” Kikotans—in 1619.3  Some argue that the fallacy lies within the term enslaved as slavery was illegal in the colonies until 1661.  Nevertheless, the individuals forcefully taken from present-day Angola labeled “indentured servants” were traded for provisions without any type of written contract so freedom was not granted lightly, if ever.4  Others note that by so poignantly underscoring the “first” arrival of enslaved Africans in 1619, we discount the hundreds of thousands of African adults and children forced to cross the Atlantic for the benefit of other European colonialists the decades prior to 1619.2 Building upon this, we as a society perpetuate a pernicious narrative that peoples from Africa were “not supposed to be here,” thereby propagating the myths that somehow African descendants have less claim than those of European descent to land, citizenship, and the benefits and wealth these rights produce. 

Although the common portrayal of 1619 pervasively fails to acknowledge the numerous contributions the “first” Africans—as well as those before and after them—made to establish what the United States is today, civic educators have the ability and responsibility to flip the script and in the process of doing so foster the knowledge, skills, dispositions, and values necessary for our students to learn from the abomination of slavery whilst simultaneously appreciating the lives, contributions, and influences of those who were enslaved. 

Positioned within an institution whose eponym was a known slave owner, several stakeholders across James Madison University are collaborating with community stakeholders on initiatives that broach the history and continued impact of slavery, racism, the civil rights movement, and systemic oppression through models of appreciative and civic inquiry.  One such effort is the Arc of Citizenship, which is a multifaceted series of events and opportunities that integrates historical and present events and perspectives through deliberative dialogue, reflection, and experiential learning activities.  The first Arc of Citizenship Tour held in April 2019 was one installment of this ongoing effort. 

Day one of the tour, which was open to JMU faculty/staff, students, and community members, began at James Madison’s home, Montpelier, to see the Mere Distinction of Colour exhibit and discuss the legacy of slavery with Dr. Patrice Grimes, a member of Montpelier's Descendant Community and a professor at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education. We proceeded to the Gilmore cabin, built by an emancipated African American and the Montpelier Train Station to learn about segregation and the impact of Jim Crow laws.  The second day of the tour was led by Steven Thomas, Restorative Justice Coordinator with the Northeast Neighborhood Association, who engaged us in a community walking tour to learn about slavery, lynching, racial mass terror, segregation, and urban renewal in Harrisonburg, as well as the stories of resilience and community remembrance.  The last stop on the tour returned us to campus where Dr. Meg Mulrooney discussed JMU’s history as a segregated school for white women, the symbolism of the named buildings on the academic quad, and what she and her public history students have learned so far about the Black men and women who worked, studied, and contributed to JMU’s development.  Arc of Citizenship culminated with guided reflection and dialogue about how we might learn from these histories and legacies to envision and create a more just and inclusive democracy.  As some may consider what such a program may look like on their campus, I cannot stress enough the importance of community collaboration on such an endeavor as this event could not have been possible without the partnership of the Northeast Neighborhood Association and the contributions of the Montpelier Descendants’ Community.   

Marking historical events can be an important way for colleges and universities to reexamine narratives and, through a deeper and more critical learning, embrace the complexities our Nation’s past and present, which are riddled with conflicting values, tragedy, hope, ambition, and resilience. As we remember and commemorate the actions and events that took place in 1619 in what is now known as Virginia, we must use the  opportunity to engage students, faculty, staff, and community members in significant conversations that will lead to meaningful individual and collective action that contribute to a just, inclusive and thriving democracy for ourselves and future generations.


References:

1American Evolution. (n.d.). 2019 Commemoration | 1619-2019. Retrieved from https://www.americanevolution2019.com/

2Guasco, M. (2017, September 4). The Fallacy of 1619: Rethinking the History of Africans in Early America. Black Perspectives. African American Intellectual History Society. Retrieved from https://www.aaihs.org/the-fallacy-of-1619-rethinking-the-history-of-africans-in-early-america/

3Library of Congress. (n.d.). Virginia Records Timeline: 1553 to 1743. Thomas Jefferson Papers, 1606-1827 Digital Collections. Retrieved from https://www.loc.gov/collections/thomas-jefferson-papers/articles-and-essays/virginia-records-timeline-1553-to-1743/1600-to-1609/

4Project 1619 Inc. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.project1619.org/


Authors:

  • Jamie Williams, Associate Director of Community Service-Learning, James Madison University
  • Carah Ong Whaley, Associate Director of the James Madison Center for Civic Engagement, James Madison University

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