In the U.S. Capitol, largely built by enslaved Africans, members of Congress held ceremonies to mark 1619, the year Africans landed in the Virginia Colony and centuries of American chattel slavery began.
Tuesday’s ceremony was hosted by the 55-member Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), and welcomed lawmakers from both sides of the aisle. The crowd ranged from Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) and special guests such as actress Alfre Woodard.
Saying it is time to “to finally, finally tell the full story, the unvarnished truth,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi shared stories of an official visit with 13 CBC members to Ghana this summer, where she addressed Parliament, and the delegation paid respects at Cape Coast and Elmina `slave castles’ where Africans bound for ships entered `The Door of No Return.’
“We saw the tragic sites where men committed inhumanity against his fellow person – man,” said Pelosi of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. “We saw where kidnappings were perpetuated, where human dignity was denied and where the hope was lost, as so many caught their last glimpse of home before being sentenced to a life of slavery.”
In a space with statues and busts of Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks, the sound of African drumming, and spirituals from the Howard University Singers filled the air.
Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole, president of the National Council of Negro Women, and Pulitzer-Prize winning Harvard professor, Annette Gordon Reed, spoke powerfully about the history and legacy of African Americans.
While some historians say the “20 and odd Negars” who landed in English North America were indentured servants, Reed said these human beings were enslaved. “There was no indentured contract,” she said, noting that colonists and the nation eventually wrote “slavery and white supremacy into law.”
Yet those early Africans and their descendants “made a way out of no way,” said Cole, exhibiting “resistance and resilience.” Black Americans enriched the U.S. economy, and created music, culture, culinary traditions and more. “They not only survived, they flourished!” Cole said.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) who has introduced legislation around reparations for African Americans, said the nation must make amends. Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA), Chairwoman of the CBC, agreed.
America is an “amazing country,” but despite “our incredible history,” the country must acknowledge 246 years of slavery and fight for a more perfect union.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the Republican Leader of the House, told the audience that slavery led to “many shameful moments” in America.
“Our nation isn’t perfect,” he said, “and there’s more progress to make.”
Senate Minority Leader, Chuck Schumer (D-NY) became emotional during his remarks.
“It’s our job, all of our jobs. ..,” he said. “To unite against the tendrils of oppression and injustice that emanate from our history: in our criminal justice system and our health care system, in the boardroom and at the ballot box, on our streets and in our schools. …And what the history books will say about us, four hundred years from now, is entirely in our hands.”
Alfre Woodard brought the house down, reciting the names of her ancestors, before weaving in a long list of famed Black Americans: Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, Barack and Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, James Baldwin, Mae Jemison, and Dr. Charles Drew, to name a few.
With a dramatic, emotional flourish, the actress then gave a shout-out to every “Beulah” and “Sadie” or “Jamal” and “Lamisha.” Excerpting a line from the famed Maya Angelou poem, she shouted: “You are the hope and dream of the slave!” The crowd rose to its feet; and perhaps somewhere in the hallowed halls of the Capitol, the ancestors wept and cheered, too.