400 Years of Inequality

By Gracie Lewis                                              

August 2019 marked the 400th Commemoration of Black Enslavement in America.

In August 1619, more than 20 Africans landed at Point Comfort, the present-day Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia.  According to the early documents, they had been acquired from a Portuguese slave ship, put aboard the “White Lion,” an English ship, and then traded for food and other provisions at Virginia’s Point Comfort.

These enslaved Africans were reported to have been forcibly taken from Angola.  This essentially was the beginning of the slave trade in English North America and inequality in America. No other group has been forced to endure what slaves did. Beginning in 1619, Africans were auctioned off like cattle, kept in bondage, and forced to perform hard labor under the most wicked of institutions.  This is an important lesson, because it forms the basis for reparations to redress the past wrongs of slavery.

The institution of slavery was constitutionally and statutorily sanctioned by the Government of the United States from 1789 through 1865.  During this time, approximately 4,000,000 Africans and their descendants were enslaved in the United States and colonies that became the United States. At the Federal, State and local level, this country continued to perpetuate, condone, and profit from practices that brutalized and disadvantaged the American Descendants of Slaves through slavery, sharecropping, convict leasing, Jim Crow, redlining, unequal education and disproportionate treatment at the hands of the criminal justice system.  The current “State of Black America” today is the direct result of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

On August 20, 2019 and beyond, thousands of people across the country commemorated this historic event with a host of ceremonies, education programs, musical performances, and exhibits.  In 2017, Simmons College of Kentucky in conjunction with the National Baptist Convention of America International, Inc., the Progressive National Baptist Convention, and the Cooperative Fellowship of Baptists presented “The Angela Project.”  The Angela Project has been a three-year journey revisiting the painful past and learning about efforts to win our freedom and equality.  Throughout this journey, there has been a reflection on the past for the “Liberation of the American Descendants of Slaves” which included 40 days of prayer.

On Tuesday August 20, 2019, Simmons College of Kentucky’s Angela Projects presented the 400th Year Commemoration Ceremony, which included over 20 pastors from many different denominations, who acknowledged the impact of slavery and laws that enforced racial discrimination in the United States. Approximately 2,000 people attended the event. The program covered the journey of American Descendants of Slaves and our hopes as a people, past and present, for racial equality and healing, each of which are consequential works in progress and important in moving forward beyond the 400 years.

The program began with remarks from Dr. Kevin W. Cosby, President of Simmons College of Kentucky.  Dr. Cosby talked about, “the 20 plus Angolans who spent six weeks at the bottom of slave ship to be slaves of the Portuguese.   The first woman who arrived here was given the name of Angela. That’s where the name of the project originated.”  He went on to say, “The slaves labored and built tremendous wealth for this country, and we have gathered on this occasion to repair our history.  We have gathered here to make the Angela Project whole.”

The Opening Prayer was given by the Rev. Dr. Elijah Brown, the General Secretary of the Baptist World Alliance.  He prayed that, “We as white Americans confess that we misused and abused human beings for centuries.”

Then we heard Testimonies from our ancestors.  They did a reading from the accounts of testimonies from the archives of the Underground Railroad which highlighted the injustice, cruelty, brutality and inhumanity of slavery. Some 20 pastors from across the country spoke about the inhumanity of slavery. Whites and Blacks together acknowledged the wrongs that had been done in hopes of moving forward toward repentance and reparations.  The services concluded with a luncheon and a discussion on, “Where We Go from Here.”

On October 4, 2019, there was an American Descendants of Slaves (ADOS) Conference hosted by St. Stephens Baptist Church in Louisville.  Approximately 2,000 people attended.  The purpose of the conference was to pursue justice and reparations for our children and grandchildren for generations to come.  The New York Times and CNN News covered the conference.

Currently before Congress, H.R. 40 and S. 1083 are now pending in the 116th Congress. They were introduced on June 24, 2019, establishing a Commission to Study the Effects of Slavery on African Americans, and to apologize for the injustice that has been perpetuated for the 400 years.

Before the abolishment of slavery, 400,000 enslaved Africans were sold in America.  They labored from sunrise to sunset creating immense wealth for white people North and South.  They built this country including the plantations of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

These slaves and their descendants built the White House and the Capitol, where even today the residents do not experience home rule. The NAACP is urging the U. S. House of Representative to pass legislation to make Washington, DC the 51st state, because of “taxation without representation.”

These slaves and their descendants built the railroads “that crisscrossed the South.”  It was the relentless buying, selling, and insuring of slaves that financed such institutions as the Southern Baptist Seminary and Georgetown University.  They picked cotton from sunrise to sunset fueling the Industrial Revolution.  Wall Street was built on the back of 246 years of “free labor.”

Most importantly, we have been on the forefront fighting for freedom for everyone.  The New York Times reported that, “The very first person to die for freedom was Crispus Attucks, a fugitive from slavery, yet he gave his life for a nation in which his own people would not enjoy freedom.”

Dr. Kevin Wayne Cosby stated in his sermon, “The Biblical Case for Reparations,” “We fought in the Civil War, the Mexican War, the War of 1812, World Wars I & II, the Vietnam War, and the present wars.”  He concluded that “liberation without reparations” is over, and it’s time that the American Descendants of Slaves get paid.  America owes us.

Dr. Cosby concluded that the battle is now ours. Let’s pursue justice and reparations for our children and grandchildren.

Gracie Lewis is a longtime activist for social and racial justice. She works with the Kentucky Alliance against Racist and Political Repression. Contact Gracie at  louisvillepeace.org/kentucky-alliance

Featured Photo: 400th Year Commemoration Ceremony presented by Simmons College of Kentucky’s “Angela Projects” at St Stephen Baptist Church, Louisville, Kentucky, August 20, 2019
Photo by Allen Hill, Allen Hill Photography (allenhill2000@gmail.com)