‘Arrival Day’ brings chance for unity

Published 9:48 pm Tuesday, August 16, 2016

By Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and Sen. Mamie Locke

One year ago, we gathered at Fort Monroe to dedicate a new historic marker that recognized Old Point Comfort in Hampton as the site of the first landing of Africans in English North America. The dedication was done in a spirit of recognition, commemoration and victory as historic facts came together to recognize this location as the first arrival of Africans to the future country.

President Barack Obama declared Fort Monroe a national monument, recognizing the need to preserve and promote the historically significant site. As he signed the proclamation, he looked forward to the day that he would bring his daughters to visit.

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Especially as we approach the 400th anniversary, many families from all over the nation will visit Fort Monroe to learn about the roots of African American heritage found in Hampton.

As we prepare to commemorate the significant event this year, we find ourselves facing a great challenge. We are fractured as a country, divided along political, cultural and economic lines. Angry rhetoric, discord and images of acts of violence fill our consciousness. The need for understanding and unity is greater now than at any time in recent memory.

African Arrival Day on Aug. 20 at Fort Monroe provides us all an opportunity to come together as a community to commemorate this first arrival and recognize nearly 400 years of contributions the African culture has made on this land.

The time has come for all of us to find common ground in the appreciation of the strength of spirit African people displayed, thriving despite being forced into bondage, while maintaining their heritage despite being uprooted from their homeland.

America is a country of immigrants — some of us by our own free will, others forcibly — but here we are, together, many cultures melded together into one. And that is what makes America special.

There is, perhaps, no place better to begin the dialogue of understanding and unity than Fort Monroe. For this site, where the first Africans were traded for supplies, is also where three enslaved men, Frank Baker, Shepard Mallory and James Townsend, escaped the bondage of slavery by seeking freedom and asylum within the confines of Fort Monroe in 1861 at the onset of the Civil War.

Their actions inspired others to follow and eventually thousands of escaped slaves sought their emancipation at Freedom’s Fortress, the very same land where the first Africans arrived and were traded as property.

The Fort Monroe Foundation is committed to encouraging dialogue that leads to unity and educating our community about the stories too often left out of history books.

When we gather on Aug. 20 for the Commemorative Ceremony near the site of the first landing, may we do so recognizing not only the spirit of the event from a historical perspective, but from a contemporary standpoint, as well.

The hope is that an event such as this, offering a chance to share our collective heritage and diversity, will open our hearts and minds to each other and we will use this as a source of historical grounding and a catalyst for healing going forward.

For more information on African Arrival Day at Fort Monroe, please visit www.americanevolution2019.com.

Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam is the vice chair of the Fort Monroe Authority Board of Trustees. Sen. Mamie Locke is a member of that board.