The good people of Virginia are rightly proud of themselves this month as they celebrate the Commonwealth’s 400th anniversary of representative democracy at the Jamestown settlement, a historic development that set the stage for the eventual founding of the United States of America.
On Tuesday, exactly four centuries to the day, President Donald Trump heaped praise on Virginia for establishing the foundation for self-governance in the pre-Colonial British territories. In time, those Virginians would join with other settlers to declare independence from the Royal Crown and argue for the inalienable rights of free men to establish the laws that governed them.
Trump declared those ideals “the greatest accomplishment in the history of the world, and I congratulate you — it started right here.”
I marvel in wonderment over how many Americans recognized or even appreciated the cruel irony of Trump, inarguably the nation’s most racist modern-day president, speaking about Virginia’s historic role in the founding of freedoms he now is tearing asunder. For all of the noble and enduring ideals of American democratic self-governance that were born with the establishment of the Virginia General Assembly, so too was created the damnably durable strains of racism that this president and his allies exploit for personal and political gain.
In this moment, an accurate portrait of history — in Virginia and the United States — is essential for every American to know, understand, and embrace. Platitudes and selective nostalgia are not history. Facts, however, are stubborn and immutable things.
Every Virginia school child learns about the 104 English men and boys who encamped on May 13, 1607 in the New World, having picked a premier spot along the Atlantic coastline and naming it Jamestown, for King James I. They also know that more than a decade passed before newly appointed Gov. George Yeardley presided over the initial session of the first representative legislative body in Virginia, sowing the seeds for the then-radical notion that free men have the right to live under the laws that they themselves establish — not imposed upon them by kings or dictators.
Much less well known is the fact that Yeardley — who presided over that first legislative body on July 30, 1619 — became very wealthy as a plantation slave owner. Even less well appreciated is the fact that, as the legislative body of 29 white men met in Jamestown, the first documented shipload of Africans landed in the “free world” as enslaved people at Point Comfort, a nearby port in what is now Hampton, Virginia.
According to historical records of colonist John Rolfe, well-known to history buffs as the white man who married Pocahontas, in late August 1619, the White Lion, an English ship that flew a Dutch flag, landed at Point Comfort.
Pirates aboard the White Lion and a sister ship, the Treasurer, had attacked a Spanish ship that was heading for Vera Cruz off the eastern coast of Mexico. Thinking the ship carried caches of gold, the English pirates found the ship was loaded with Africans stolen from the Kongo in West Africa. Upon landing in Virginia, the White Lion’s captain traded his human cargo for provisions to allow his crew’s return to England.
Historian James Horn, president of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation, explained in a recent interview with The Washington Post that the landing of the White Lion and The Treasurer was the unofficial start of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.
As Horn put it:
1619 gave birth to the great paradox of our nation’s founding: slavery in the midst of freedom. It marked both the origin of the most important political development in American history, the rise of democracy, and the emergence of what would become one of the nation’s greatest challenges: the corrosive legacy of racial discrimination and inequality that has afflicted our society since its earliest years.
Little wonder that Trump’s appearance at the Jamestown commemoration was an unfortunate — yet somehow poetically accurate — twist to Virginia’s and America’s protracted and confused struggle with democracy and race. Many Democrats, including the Commonwealth’s Legislative Black Caucus, were so outraged by the president’s recent attacks on black leaders in Congress that they boycotted his speech.
Virginia’s Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam spoke early, but left the festivities well before Trump arrived, so as to avoid the politically uncomfortable scene of sharing the stage with him.
And one Democratic state lawmaker, Del. Ibraheem S. Samirah, staged a one-person protest by shouting and holding up a printed sign that led to his being ushered out of the air-conditioned tent as Trump spoke.
To be sure, the celebration of democracy and the protests against racism are a part of the complicated history of Virginia and the United States. There’s no way to understand either without first learning the full historical background that gave birth to them both.