‘We didn’t just sit down and let this happen’: Hundreds in Philly mark 400th anniversary of American slavery

Listen 1:06
Hundreds gather at the President’s House on Independence Mall to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first arrival of enslaved Africans. (Miguel Martinez for WHYY)

Hundreds gather at the President’s House on Independence Mall to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first arrival of enslaved Africans. (Miguel Martinez for WHYY)

The first documented African slaves in America arrived in the British colony of Virginia 400 years ago today.

To mark the anniversary, more than 200 black children donning white shirts marched across a stage on 6th and Market streets in Center City Philadelphia — each child holding signs representing every year since that first slave ship with stolen people entered the Chesapeake Bay in 1619.

The Avenging The Ancestors Coalition called it a “Commiseration Commemoration Day.”

Michael Coard offers remarks at a gathering at the President’s House on Independence Mall to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first arrival of enslaved Africans. (Miguel Martinez for WHYY)

Event organizer and Philadelphia defense attorney Michael Coard said the gathering that drew a few hundred spectators was a way to remember the brutality of slavery and its aftermath.

“We’re talking about slavery and its residue — which is the black codes, which is sharecropping, convict leasing, Jim Crow, federally ignored/sanctioned lynching, gerrymandering, redlining, mass incarceration, police brutality,” he said.

Coard said he chose a location near the President’s House where George Washington held nine slaves in captivity as a reminder that slavery wasn’t a sin exclusive to the South.

Germantown grandmother Camara Jordan appreciated that symbolic choice.

“There’s an extreme lack of true authentic factual history taught about our people and the enslavement of them in this country taught in school,” she said.

Jordan’s 8 and 13-year-old grandchildren were among the 200 who marched.

“They’re helping to make history,” Jordan said. “They may not realize it now, but one day they’ll be able to look back and say, ‘I was there.'”

Hundreds gather at the President’s House on Independence Mall to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first arrival of enslaved Africans. (Miguel Martinez for WHYY)

Breyann Morgan, 10, learned of the event Saturday while at the beach with her family. She was immediately on board.

“I get to be a part of something big,” she said.

Coard hoped the event would also celebrate African American leaders who resisted oppression.

“Because we didn’t just sit down and let this happen,” Coard told the crowd. “We had Nat Turner. We had Harriet Tubman. We had Gabriel Prosser. We had Sojourner Truth — we had many black folks resisting and rebelling.”

Qahhaaru Re-Imhotep,10, echoed that sentiment.  During the event, he held the year 1729.

“They didn’t get taken out of bondage by someone else. They made sure they got out of bondage by taking themselves out of it,” he said.

Children like Re-Imhotep guided the audience through the struggles and victories of the past four centuries with signs that marked several rebellions.

Jeffry Hand and Dana King read the names of the nine slaves kept at the President’s House. Hundreds gathered on Independence Mall to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first arrival of enslaved Africans. (Miguel Martinez for WHYY)

Noteworthy years were 1656, when Elizabeth Key Grinstead was one of the first slaves to petition for her freedom in Virginia; 1789, when founding fathers ratified a constitution  with slavery-related clauses; and 1954 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the concept of “separate but equal” schooling as unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education.

At 3 p.m. the Centennial Bell in Philadelphia rang nine times — once for each slave that lived in the President’s House.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.