The Relevance of 1619 in Black Family Oral History

This post is part of our forum on “The Significance of the Black Family in the US.”

HAMPTON, VIRGINIA USA – August 21, 2021: Scenes from the event at Fort Monroe commemorating the first arrival of enslaved Africans in 1619 (Shutterstock/ Michael Scott Milner)

The 400th Commemoration and Recognition of the year 1619 in the Commonwealth of Virginia exposed how Black family oral history, resistance posture, and landscape are manifested in our families. This essay provides the Tucker family of Hampton, Virginia, as a case study. The Tucker Family is an African American family who are guardians of the Tucker Family Cemetery and beholds oral history that include an ancestor named William, born unto Antoney and Isabella, who were among those Africans that disembarked the ship White Lion at Point Comfort (present-day Hampton) in August 1619. The power of oral history underscores narratives of resilience, traditions, and connectedness to landscapes that are important in identity and resistance in the African Diasporic community. African American families function as organic African families. Not only is the institution of the Black family indispensable to the continuity of culture and survival, but also it serves as the major socialization entity, whereby people become conscious of themselves, and their relationship with one another within the community, and wider society.

The Black family is also an important incubator of healing rituals through storytelling, cemetery preservation of ancestors, and recitations of painful narratives of overcoming, outlining how succeeding generations may maintain a resistance posture to heal and reclaim culture. Exploring oral history as a methodology, allows us to examine what information is transmitted in public cultural memory. Christel Temple has argued that the African Diasporic community approaches cultural memory by enlivening our historical awareness in ways to inform how we behave in social and political climates by summoning proof and perspective from our own dynamic traditions.

As someone who lead the 400th commemorative efforts in the Commonwealth of Virginia in 2019, I offer that “the impact of 1619 is that what happened in that year became the fate of those early Africans and their progeny in colonial Virginia and ultimately in America.” Ritualistically, every August, the Black community gathers at the Tucker Family Cemetery for a memorial service in Hampton, though city officials and political constituents have attended. The Tucker Family Cemetery has over 100 graves and is just seven miles from Point Comfort, and a quarter of a mile from where the Tucker plantation operated. Every August, God is beckoned, elders are present to provide instruction, libations are poured, children perform traditional African movement, flowers are placed at every grave impression, and lamentations are offered with a word from a community leader about the power of resilience, of family, of the specific connection to the land that has been in the family for generations.

This ritual is not only for the Tucker family, and those participating in the ritual feel the power of the space, knowing that the grounds were walked upon by Africans generations before. It connects the participant with the international narrative of 1619, to the sacred space that is owned and managed by the Tucker Family. “The impact of 1619 is that what happened in that year became the fate of those early Africans and their progeny in colonial Virginia and ultimately in America.” 1

The William Tucker family based in Hampton claims sacred land, and as an ancestor baby William Tucker. “A 1625 muster in Elizabeth City, Virginia (formerly Kicotan, now the city of Hampton), lists that Antoney (Negro) and Isabella (Negro) had William their child baptized” Antoney and Isabella labored in the household or on the land of “Captain William Tucker, commandant of Point Comfort, the port where the ship White Lion landed with about 20 Africans in August, 1619” The child William is often described as the first African child born in America; however, there is a second child listed in the 1625 muster at Flowerdew Hundred, and no records indicate which child was born first. Records do not exist as to the fate of this family, yet the William Tucker family claims this history as their own. They have engaged in genealogical research, DNA testing, and formed a foundation called The William Tucker 1624 Society to preserve their family’s historic burying ground in Hampton, the Tucker Family Cemetery. This family believes that the remains of  William Tucker’s progeny are buried there.

The power and relevance of oral traditions lies not only in the retelling of memory but in how it informs our resistance posture and resilience to heal. The oral tradition has been used to maintain and reclaim African culture, socialize members in role responsibility to undergird the family’s wellbeing, maintain a resistance posture for spiritual, mental, and cultural health solvency, and it has assisted with connecting our people to the earth when allowable. This ritual carries healing properties duplicable to all families seeking wholeness and togetherness in the midst of virulent anti-Blackness in every social institution and social public policy enacted against Black people. The challenges Black people face are essentially the same now as for the past century, related not to“family stability but to the socioeconomic conditions that tear families asunder due to poverty, income and wealth disparities, health, discrimination and racism,” as noted by sociologists Leanor Johnson and Robert Staples.

Rituals that take place in a sacred landscape are impactful. To be on land that has been consecrated by the bones of our ancestors, land that has been in families for generations, connects us to our personal history in a visual manner. Cemeteries signify identity, lineage, narratives, and connectedness to Mother Earth that should be retained, where Black joy is re-imagined. Spaces may be transformed into educational, rites-of-passage, and safe play spaces for children. Africana social work scholar Aminifu Harvey reminds us that rituals are inclusive, signifying membership, healing, and wholeness. Rituals regenerate and resist disorder, address disease and disruption, and usher in dialogue and collaboration, through vulnerable revelations of internal struggles and strife. Rituals are foundational to employing a resistance posture and manifesting the resilience of people who are connected to the ancestors and are capable of transcending oppressive institutions. This socialization and healing is an integrative awareness with a deep immersion in our African-influenced culture. Such a natural escape renders cultural relevance from the horrors of whiteness and anti-Blackness. Black psychologist Nancy Boyd-Franklin observed that Black people experience anti-Blackness daily in schools, courts, hospitals, or social welfare agencies, often under considerable threat or pressure. Collective and meaningful healing and cultural regeneration do not occur in those institutions.

Picture of the entrance to the Tucker Family Cemetery in Hampton, VA, August 1, 2019 (Photo captured by the author)

As evidenced by the public ritual sponsored by the Tucker family, the recovery and reclamation process of African culture underscores the socialization agency of Black families. Not only are Black people estranged and warred upon in social institutions, but such estrangement and alienation from natural resources should also be considered in the recovery and reclamation process. Aminifu Harvey explained that alienation is may be defined as being out of harmony with one’s own self, community, and environment. The power of our identity as ethereal beings confronts alienation, and transforms an oppressive identity construction, with origins in 1619 as non- or pseudo-citizens. Africana psychologist W. Wade Nobles instructs that human alienation for African people is the sense of being disconnected from one’s spirit (even though one is highly spiritual) and having a sense of not being truly or completely human (and not knowing it).” Therefore, such a ritual of memory and resilience is a process where one transcends imposed ideas of a hyphenated or immigrant identity, to one of a global person bonded with ancestors who are alive and powerful. This ritual of memory and resilience responds to the alienation emblematic of oppressive forces that Black families face in social institutions daily.  Hosting these rituals in landscapes that are ours is important to conduct, as these cultural healing methods remain obscure in governmental agencies, since, as Nancy Boyd-Franklin argues, “many Black families are very hesitant to approach clinics, hospitals, and mental health centers since all are clearly perceived by White institutions and as extensions of these social service agencies.”

Records do not exist that explain what happened to Antoney, Isabella, or baby William. Yet their model of an African family in the English settler colony is a tender reminder that they existed and are remembered yearly by the Tucker family in Hampton, Virginia. The absence of records does not diminish who they were, and never are they only regarded as ‘enslaved people.’ They are held up as models of ancient African culture, resilient models of husband and wife, and ancestors who first wore the badge of Blackness in the racially-constructed plantation capitalistic system. Engagement in rituals in sacred spaces such as cemeteries that we do control and preserve should not only be visited during Decoration Day (a 19th-century practice of decorating graves of the deceased after the Civil War, which is a precursor to Memorial Day), or in the event of a Homegoing. These landscapes are sources of healing, memory, identity, and reminders of resilient patterns of how families lived and endured the worst of times, so that we may fight on.  As impoverished families continue to be victimized through ethnic cleansing of cities for unaffordable housing, cemeteries where our families are buried are our sacred cultural landscapes. The year 1619 is a reminder that family is not only who we physically know or knew, but those great clouds of witnesses who gave us our flesh, blood, culture, and the land where they are buried, so that we may remain connected to them as family.

  1. Colita Nichols Fairfax, ed., The African Experience in Colonial Virginia Essays on the 1619 Arrival and the Legacy of Slavery (Jefferson, NC, 2021)
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Colita Nichols Fairfax

A native of Richmond, Virginia, Colita Nichols Fairfax Ph.D., is Professor, Robert C. Nusbaum Honors College Senior Faculty Fellow, and Inaugural Faculty Fellow with the Center for African American Public Policy at Norfolk State University. She edited The African Experience in Colonial Virginia: Essays on the 1619 Arrival and the Legacy of Slavery (2021, McFarland and Company). Her Ph.D. is in African American Studies from Temple University. Follow her on Twitter at @clnfairfax.

Comments on “The Relevance of 1619 in Black Family Oral History

  • I love this piece. The “First Black Family” and their story must be spoken of more often. The reasoning behind The Relevance of 1619 in Black Family Oral History should be brought up to the youth state-wide, or at least in the Hampton Roads area. The struggle that the Tucker Family had endured, yet the family is still here to inform and teach the diaspora about that struggle, is terrific. I wish my people had such an “oral” recollection of our history and our struggle.
    Peace to the First Black Family.

    Reply

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