Sometime in August 1619, the first Africans in the English colonies arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, just a few miles away from what would become the College of William and Mary, founded in 1693 as a royal charter institution of higher education for the sons of the planter elite, some of whom brought their servants to campus with them. In his poem “American Heartbreak,” poet Langston Hughes (1902-1967) re-visits the Jamestown African American experience, as a “site of memory”:
I am the American heartbreak--
Rock on which Freedom
Stumps its toe--
The great mistake
That Jamestown made long ago.
As Jamestown prepares to celebrate the quadricentennial of the arrival of indentured Africans and European women at the first permanent English settlement in the New World, we are reminded that 1619 represents a pivotal moment, for these arrivals are, in large measure, what secures the permanence of the colony itself. The arrival of Africans, men and women, assures that there will be cheap labor to work the tobacco hybridized for export; the presence of European women assures there will be “white” progeny to whom the accumulated wealth of Europeans will be passed.
But what is the great mistake Hughes refers to? Given the multiple meanings of stumping one’s toe in African American vernacular culture, Hughes’ “American Heartbreak” is pregnant with possible meanings. And who better than Hughes, whose grandfather, Charles Henry Langston, was a Virginian born to a mother of mixed American Indian and African descent and a white father who freed all of his enslaved children, to point out the contradictions of freedom and bondage living side by side?
So much of what later becomes definitively “American” is established at Jamestown. Just as the House of Burgesses establishes the forms legislatures would take in the future, the exploitation of Native Americans and Africans firmly establishes a pattern and a system whereby the wealth of a few depended on the labor of others who would not reap the bounty in equal share. And though there was no precedent in English law at the time the indentured Africans arrived, enslavement was not long in following. Inequality was established as part of the fabric of Jamestown; those who received the blessings of democracy simply accepted them without thinking about where their freedom came from and whose bondage it depended on. Native Americans and Africans were “Americanized” to fit this mindset, whereas “becoming American” meant something very different for the American born in England.
The 1619 Initiative of the College of William and Mary Middle Passage Project works closely with the College’s Lemon Project: A Journey of Reconciliation as well as other academic partners on campus and throughout the Commonwealth. In the first year, Norfolk State University has taken the lead in an effort to raise the enduring questions emanating from the history of Jamestown by sponsoring the "1619 and the Making of America" conference. The College of William and Mary is proud to be a partner in this effort and hopes that others will join in so that a new conference will be sponsored by a different Virginia institution of higher education each year leading up to 2019.