Great moments in Black history occur in August
nA month of improbable milestones
Merdies Hayes Editor | 8/8/2019, midnight
We’re all very familiar with the many titles and terms referring to the month of August. Familiar phrases like “snow in August,” “hot August night” or even William Faulkner’s landmark novel “Light in August” are often common parlance within daily conversation.
African slaves arrive in America
The month of August is also a remarkable reference point in Black history, most notably that exactly 400 years ago this month the first African slaves arrived in Jamestown, Va. The slave trade in the New World, of course, did not begin on America’s east coast. As far back as 1570, Africans began to arrive in Brazil and, in short order, in the Caribbean and in parts of Central America. Between 1570 and 1850, it is estimated that somewhere between four to five million slaves had arrived in Brazil alone to work on plantations, toil in various mines, and to be sold as indentured servants.
History estimates that just over 20 African slaves originally stepped onto the Virginia shoreline. These men and women were probably treated as servants and set free after working for a set number of years. By the early 1700s, however, the Virginia Assembly had passed a set of Black Codes—or slave laws—which institutionalized chattel slavery and stipulated that offspring of a female inherited their enslaved status from their mother.
Prior to arrival, most of the Africans had lived in tribal villages in West Africa (e.g. Ghana) before they wee captured in wars or kidnapped by other Africans who traded slaves. They were then sold to White slave merchants who packed them into large slave ships traveling across the Atlantic Ocean. The “Middle Passage” lasted for roughly four to six weeks and as many as one out of five Africans died from hunger, thirst, disease and mistreatment. Those who did survive the ordeal arrived in Jamestown tired, weak, sick and terrified.
Once they arrived at port in Virginia—probably at Yorktown—slaves were brought up on deck and sold. Tobacco planters poked and prodded each slave to see if he or she was healthy and strong enough to do the decades-long hard work expected of them. Most African slaves had been separated from their families when captured or when sold at the slave market. Once they were sold, both men and women were put to work immediately in the unforgiving Virginia sun.
During their first few months in Virginia, new slaves went through “seasoning” which meant letting their bodies acclimate to the new climate...and the many new diseases found in the New World. Many of these early slaves died during their first year in captivity.
Across the Atlantic, the British Empire officially ended its participation in slavery in August 1833. At that point, it is estimated that at least 12 million Africans were taken to the Americas as slaves between 1532 and 1832. At least one-third of these persons were transported on British ships. The vast majority of the slaves under British authority would be transported to the West Indies.
The unexpected August odyssey jumps forward 120 years to Mississippi in August of 1955. Fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was visiting relatives in the little town of Money when when he was accused of whistling at a White woman named Carolyn Bryant. In those days, African-Americans had to adhere to an unwritten—but well familiar—rule to never initiate a conversation with a White person unless spoken to first.