In the summer of 1619, a cargo of 20 captive Africans arrived at the English settlement of Jamestown to be sold into bondage. The human merchandise was unexceptional: The Atlantic slave trade had been underway for years. But the destination was special.

This is thought to be the first shipment of subjugated Africans to British North America — planting the seeds of slavery and marking the beginnings of the African American saga.

Almost 400 years later and two miles downstream, African American dairy farmers Joe and Peter Smith are up before dawn for the 6 a.m. milking at the dairy they operate. The dairy — known as the National Memorial to the Progress of the Color Race in America — has about 40 cows and 1,000 acres, ground hallowed, perhaps, by the spirits of those first slaves. In these fields many years ago the Smiths’ now-aged father, Marion, had a vision.

He saw people coming across the James River and walking onto the shore. But they were not distressed. They were rejoicing that they had found the farm and its sustenance, happy that they had reached their promised land.

Marion Smith — a follower of the Washington radio evangelist Lightfoot Solomon Michaux, who had established the farm in the late 1930s — vowed then that he would work the dairy as long as he lived.

It would be a model, a memorial and place of promise for African Americans, near a spot that had once seen their enslavement.

Ever since, generations of Smiths have tended their cows and land, gathered at their homestead to dine, pray and sing, and have treasured the timeless connections between family and place.

Michael E. Ruane is a Washington Post reporter.

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