In 1957 I was in the fourth grade at a Virginia elementary school named Jamestown and we spent a lot of time talking about the founding, three hundred and fifty years earlier, of the English colony for which we were named. We learned about Susan Constant, Godspeed and tiny Discovery, the ships that brought eager settlers from England and deposited them on the shores of the “New World.” My class made puppets and wrote a short play about Captain John Smith and Pocahontas. We did not talk about fear, conflict or starvation. And we certainly didn’t talk about what happened when the Jamestown colony was just twelve years old and another ship, one whose name we don’t know, arrived and brought more people to the settlement.
It was August, 1619 and the new arrivals were Africans who had been captured by pirates from a Portuguese slave ship. They were quickly traded to the colonists for much-needed supplies. We don’t know exactly what happened at that time but we can assume the settlers there used these men and women, as many generations after them would, to till their land, tend their crops, build their houses, and care for their children. We can assume that the enslaved persons slowly recovered from the horrors of the voyage, gained strength, learned English and, somehow, made a way out of no way. They endured.
Last week, in events commemorating this moment, bells rang, drummers drummed and speakers spoke, emphasizing that history is a long story with parts we like — that make us feel good — and others, like the arrival of those twenty enslaved persons, that are painful, difficult, challenging to heart and head. The longer we leave out parts of our national story the harder it becomes to tell it.
I have thought about this a lot because of my own experience, realizing how ignorant I was as i set out to write about Rosenwald schools and the situation that created the need for them. I was appalled to realize how little I knew, not just about slavery itself but, more importantly, about the period that came after emancipation when that hopeful moment gave way to vanishing voting rights, lynching and relentless Jim Crow segregation.
So I view it as a hopeful thing that, speaking at events in Hampton last week, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam emphasized the need to fully incorporate black history into school curriculum at all levels. We can’t tell our American story, he said, without talking about who we are — all of us — and how different our experiences have been. “We often fail to draw the connecting lines from those past events to our present day, but to move forward, that is what we must do,” he said, acknowledging his own “incomplete understanding regarding race and equality.”
And it’s my hope that Virginia’s 126 still standing Rosenwald schools and the many, many alumni and preservationists who have worked so hard to ensure their survival, can be part of that process not just for Virginia but for all of us. They have such an inspiring story to tell.