Jamestown+ 400 Years: What Stories of Remembrance and Resistance Mean to Us All

This year, 2019, marks the 400th anniversary of the first landing of Africans at colonial Jamestown, to be sold into bondage. Such an historic moment raises challenges of open and honest observance of the full ramifications of that pivotal event – an observance that embraces remembrance and reparation, resistance and reform, contrition and correction. 

In helping initiate the 400 Years of Inequality Project, I have been genuinely surprised and inspired by the responses that other upwellings of reflection about the long legacy of slavery have produced. For example:    

  • Georgetown University has confronted its history of selling slaves in the 1830s to pay its bills. It acknowledged the irreconcilable contradiction of a college with an avowedly religious founding mission having profited from slavery, and it established an endowment to make reparations to the descendants of the sold slaves. 

  • As the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice, focused on the history of racial lynching, opened in its city, the Montgomery (Alabama) Advertiser examined its own historic, shameful coverage of lynching, and printed an apology in a front page editorial.  

  • The New York Times decided to review its coverage of the lives of women and minorities commemorated in its obituary section and found a massive inequality. They are now addressing this through more balanced coverage, as well as by publishing obituaries of lives that were overlooked in the past, like those of Ida B. Wells, who led the fight against lynching, and of Ruth Wakefield, who invented the Toll House cookie.  

  • National Geographic asked a scholar to analyze the problematic approach to race that once characterized the pages of that magazine, and identified an important evolution over the past hundred years.  

We are not the only country benefitting from such historic reflection.  On April 27th, 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron announced the creation of a foundation for the memory of slavery, to be headed by the country’s former prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault.  Ayrault was selected because of his role in leading the city of Nantes to acknowledge its intense participation in the Atlantic slave trade, which included focusing the city’s museum on telling this horrendous story, and also installing a remarkable memorial in Nantes to the abolition of slavery.  

Millions of people now visit Nantes to become acquainted with this story. I have been one of them. Two aspects of the city’s work have stayed with me.  

First, Nantes forthrightly told its own story. The city now clearly acknowledges that it was the leading French port in the slave trade, outfitting expeditions that went to Africa to trade cloth and other items for human beings, then went to the Americas to sell those people into slavery. The names of the ships and the dates they sailed are presented in the public space. Standing in the port of Nantes and imagining those ships evoked another era and the ways in which making money trumped human rights.

Second, Nantes has used its city museum to present the artifacts of the slave trade. For example, they display paintings which depict the ships and their cargo, not as abolitionist propaganda, but as owners’ documentation of their cargo. These frank presentations of the business of the slave trade were shocking to me, but helped me understand the inner workings of that business. I got a much deeper understanding of this global effort.  

We are all suffering from the legacy of slavery and what those of us involved in the 400 Years of Inequality Project have called the resulting “ecology of inequality.”  The struggle against that inequality is a long one. Every group and every place has a story, whether it is of dispossession of Native Americans, denial of rights of working people, or the exclusion of Asian Americans. There are also stories of resistance – of strikes and sit-ins, of uphill election campaigns and movements to provide sanctuary to refugees from injustice.  The 400 Years of Inequality Project has invited families, groups, and organizations to participate in observing this anniversary by looking at their own stories of resistance, to find strength for the work ahead. 

Such reflections give us a deeper understanding of the construction of inequality, so that we may de-construct it.  They also energize us, by coming together to look at the truth and think forward to a better future.  

As we remember Jamestown, the upwelling of our local stories is a very powerful way to move the struggle forward. From Georgetown to Montgomery, Nantes to here in New York, people and institutions have identified past practice and found important and moving ways to correct the injustice that they found embedded in it. 


Throughout October, Urban Matters will publish reflections on the meaning of the 400 Years of Inequality Project.  



Reposted from the Center for New York City Affairs

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