Congressional Black Caucus Recognizes the 400th Anniversary of African Arrival in US

The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) recently hosted its annual five-day legislative conference from September 11 to 15. The annual event showcased the organization’s political, social and cultural commitments. In addition to a plethora of activities and festivities, this year’s celebration has added significance because the CBC recognized the 400th anniversary of 20 captured Africans arriving in the English colony of Jamestown. This moment is commonly understood as the beginning of slavery in what would become the United States.

The event took place on September 10 in Emancipation Hall, which is the main room of the US Capitol Building’s Visitor Center. The hall’s name commemorates the enslaved individuals who constructed the building. Dressed in colorful, African inspired outfits and led by African drummers, the guests included a number of civil rights luminaries including Congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.), a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and participant in the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965. The event featured remarks from Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), and Chairwoman of the CBC Karen Bass (D-Calif.), according to USA Today.

The speakers emphasized the relevance of past events for the present and future. Nancy Pelosi addressed the audience and spoke glowingly of her recent participation in commemorative events in Ghana. “How humbling it was to travel with the Congressional Black Caucus to Ghana, to see that history first-hand,” Pelosi said in her remarks. “Here in America, we rededicate ourselves as a nation, and as a people, to our ongoing pursuit of a more perfect union, with liberty and justice for all."

Karen Bass stated: “All of our history is what makes this country a great country.” The event also featured remarks by accomplished actress Alfre Woodard. Woodard said enslaved people not only survived the institution of slavery, they “flourished.” She then read a list of African American trailblazers including former President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, former New York Representative and trailblazing presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm, NFL player Colin Kaepernick and civil rights icon and Georgia Congressman John Lewis.

Referring collectively to these trailblazers, Woodard invoked the words of poet Maya Angelou by stating, “You are the dream and the hope of the [enslaved].”

This event was an extension of several commemorative actions taking place this year. All over the country, civil rights activists, lawmakers, and national park officials have participated in ceremonies devoted to remembering the origins of slavery in North America.

Members of the CBC participated in commemorative events in Ghana and other citizens have traveled to Angola, the embarkation site of some of the earliest ships carrying the enslaved. The CBC trip to Ghana included Nancy Pelosi and thirteen members. Dubbed as “The Return,” the representatives traveled to Ghana in July and addressed the Ghanaian Parliament. There, they discussed regional security and the possible expansion of the African Growth and Opportunity Act.

Karen Bass took a few moments to reflect on the solemnity of the occasion: “The sites we’ve seen in Ghana are an inextricable part of America’s heritage and will forever be seared in our hearts and minds. Our discussions and engagements with Ghanaian government officials and civil society leaders were key to advancing our shared interests and cooperative efforts to alleviate poverty, eradicate disease, address the urgency of the climate crisis, and ensure economic prosperity and security for future generations.”

“We look forward to building on the progress we have made and strengthening or friendship to the benefit of both nations.”

In addition to traveling to Ghana, members of the CBC and other lawmakers traveled to Richmond, Virginia in June at the invitation of Congressman A. Donald McEachin, a Democrat from Virginia’s 4th District. The commemorations in Richmond were part of broader celebration of Black achievements from 1619 to the present. The lawmakers also participated in a town hall meeting on contemporary conditions in the Black community. The events honored Arthur Ashe, a Richmond native, and the first African American man to win the Wimbledon Tennis tournament.

McEachin is also the sponsor of the “African Burial Grounds Network Act” designed to preserve the sites. The bill notes that many of these sites are in disrepair or have been replaced by development. The bill would fund grants for research and restoration, according to WFLA.

The CBC currently has 55 members. Since its establishment in 1971, the CBC has worked to promote the political interests of African Americans.

About the Author

Stephen G. Hall is a sections editor for The North Star. He is a historian specializing in 19th and 20th century African American and American intellectual, social and cultural history and the African Diaspora. Hall is the author of A Faithful Account of the Race: African American Historical Writing in Nineteenth-Century America and is working on a new book exploring the scholarly production of Black historians on the African Diaspora from 1885 to 1960.