The year 2019 (particularly in August) is the commemoration of the first accepted year of arrival of Africans into colonial America. Mainly from Angola, those “20 and odd Africans” first landed at Point Comfort on the James River (now part of Fort Monroe, Va.), then were taken to Jamestown colony on the British ship, White Lion.

As mentioned in an earlier week’s column, the U.S. just established, via H.R. 1242 in 2018, a 400 Years of African American History Commission which will provide a series of events, festivals, historical renderings and other activities associated with the history of the development of African Americanism in the U.S. Ebony Magazine just did a special edition story devoted to that history, and many of us teach and preach about aspects of the history and politics of the evolution of the Black Experience in the U.S.

In a well-worn public attitude, it is believed that African American culture began with the arrival of those ‘20 and odd’ African slaves. Thus, according to that view, the African American experience began as a slave experience and slave culture.

As a university instructor for over 20 years, I have consistently tried to kill that belief. As an historical fact, African Americans did not begin their history in colonial America as slaves. Those ‘20 and odd’ Angola Africans came into the Jamestown colony as indentured servants, not as slaves. In 1619, Jamestown had no legal slavery—it did, however, have a legal designation called indentureship.

Some will say that there was no real difference between slavery and indentured servitude, and that eventually it all melded into the Virginia law of 1705 which created the legal basis of slavery and eliminated the status of indentureship. For sure, there were masters aplenty who treated their indentured servants very badly and as private property.

However, indentureship was a legal relationship with enforceable rights, allowable court testimony, recovery for servants in property or money, etc. Once slavery was established in Massachusetts, Virginia, and then Maryland, slaves could not testify in court on their own behalf, had no property rights, and had no rights to causes of action against masters for ill treatment. In the evolution of the Black presence in colonial America, and the evolution of their contributions, slavery as a legal entity enforceable by law, was always a hugely important part of the equation.

As noted by Ebony’s Lerone Bennett, in his groundbreaking text, “Before the Mayflower,” out of that first group of indentured Africans in Jamestown, at the end of their contracts, they each received land grants, food, clothing and tobacco to launch them on their own independent lives. Antonio and Marie Johnson (who married) were part of that early group and received 250 acres of land in settlement of their indentureship, which they turned into a tobacco plantation. Some of that first generation of African Americans also became owners of what is now Greenwich Village in New York.

The point is, in re-looking at and commemorating 400 years of African American history, contributions, achievements and significance in this country, we must at least start with more truth about the beginning of that journey. Our history in this country did not begin as slaves.

Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.

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