The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Jamestown ceremony marks birth of democracy in America; black Va. legislators skip because of Trump

July 30, 2019, marked the 400th anniversary of the first representative assembly in Jamestown, Va. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

JAMESTOWN, Va. — The racial tension at the roots of the American experiment bubbled over Tuesday at the place where it all started, as the mere presence of President Trump turned festivities marking 400 years of representative democracy at Jamestown into a theater of protest.

Trump himself was well-behaved, sticking largely to a recitation of history and praise for the British settlers who formed a government in Jamestown on July 30, 1619. It was “the greatest accomplishment in the history of the world, and I congratulate you — it started right here,” he said.

But his anodyne words came with an increasingly heavy baggage of racial division that Democrats struggled to confront. Some stayed away. Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who carries racist baggage of his own, appeared early, then slipped back to Richmond before Trump arrived.

And Del. Ibraheem S. Samirah (D-Fairfax) interrupted Trump’s speech with a brief protest that got him escorted out by police and caused the heavily Republican crowd to erupt in chants of “USA!” and “Trump! Trump! Trump!”

All on a day that Virginia leaders had spent years preparing for as a celebration of the state’s storied past.

“I don’t want to talk about that,” House of Delegates Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) said when asked about Samirah’s outburst. “I think it was a good day. We’re really trying to focus on the commemoration.”

Trump’s presence overshadowed elaborate efforts to acknowledge the complexity of Jamestown’s heritage. At every step, speakers and organizers were careful to emphasize that 1619 also marked the arrival of the first Africans and the start of slavery, as well as the first major presence of women in the colony. Neither group were represented in that first legislative body.

“We have to remember who it included and who it did not,” Northam said at an early-morning ceremony at the site of the original fort on Jamestown Island. “That’s the paradox of Virginia and America and our representative democracy.”

Virginia Democrats vow to boycott Trump if he comes to Jamestown, but their own governor sent the invite

Northam, whom fellow Democrats urged to resign this year when a racist photo from his 1984 medical school yearbook page came to light, did not mention Trump. But he spoke pointedly about immigration and inclusiveness, two topics central to Trump’s nationalistic rhetoric.

“No matter who you are, no matter who you love, no matter where you came from, you are welcome in Virginia,” he said, and then deviated from his script: “There is nothing — nothing — more American than that.”

'Shared' destiny

When Trump arrived later at a giant air-conditioned tent at Jamestown Settlement, a living-history museum about a mile from the island, he became the first sitting president to address a joint session of Virginia’s General Assembly in its 400-year history.

He spoke of “our shared great, great, great American destiny. America always gets the job done; America always wins. That is why, after 400 years of glorious American democracy, we have returned here to this place to declare to all the world that the United States of America and the great Commonwealth of Virginia are just getting started. Our future is bigger, bolder, better and brighter than ever before.”

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The audience of about 700 included three former Republican governors — George Allen, Robert McDonnell and Jim Gilmore — as well as a group of mostly Republican state lawmakers and Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), who introduced Trump. Former governor Gerald L. Baliles (D) also joined them, as well as Democratic Reps. Elaine Luria and Jennifer Wexton.

While many Democrats made a point of not clapping, the crowd was otherwise effusive, applauding and cheering loudly. About halfway through, Samirah, wearing a dark suit and holding a white sign with black lettering, stepped out into the center aisle.

“Virginia is our home! You can’t send me back!” Samirah shouted. Trump fell silent, and then the crowd began to shout and boo. Police escorted Samirah out.

“Here in Virginia, we’re going to make it clear that democracy is for all, not just the privileged,” Samirah said later, citing Trump’s recent comments that four congresswomen of color — three of them born in the United States — should “go back” where they came from, as well as the treatment of immigrants at the Mexican border.

His sign read “Deport hate” and “Go back to your corrupted home.”

The Republican Party of Virginia denounced Samirah, reviving allegations that he is anti-
Semitic, which first surfaced when he ran for office in a special election this year and which he has called a “smear.” Jack Wilson, the party chairman, sent a fundraising email later in the day that said: “Democrats hate America. Instead of viewing the USA as a land of the free and the home of the brave, Democrats see a genocidal country which can never do enough to apologize to the world for our existence.”

A Democratic Virginia state lawmaker, interrupted President Trump's remarks July 30 in Jamestown, Va., by holding signs reading “Deport Hate." (Video: Reuters)

A small number of Democrats walked out after Samirah’s protest. The state’s Legislative Black Caucus and other Democratic lawmakers boycotted the Jamestown events, and the caucus accused those who chose to attend and remain silent of being complicit in Trump’s racism.

While Northam and Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) left hours before Trump arrived, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) stayed.

The second African American to hold statewide office and a descendant of a slave, Fairfax said he stayed because the event was bigger than any one person. He did not clap for Trump but shook the president’s hand at the start and finish of the speech, and Trump thanked him by name during his remarks.

“The words I heard the president say in that speech were in many ways the right words but are often directly contradicted by his actions,” Fairfax said later.

Though surprised by Samirah’s act of defiance, Fairfax did not condemn it. “I certainly understand the sentiment,” he said, adding that the administration’s treatment of asylum seekers is “inhumane” and that Trump’s rhetoric toward people of color has been divisive.

“We’re here in Jamestown celebrating the birth of representative democracy. It’s all about people’s views being heard,” he said.

Several Republicans praised Trump for sticking to his message and resisting the impulse to wing it. The president seemed to read closely from a teleprompter. At one point, reciting a list of Virginia patriots from the Revolution, he paused at George Wythe. “W-i-t-h,” Trump read, apparently from a phonetic text. “A great name,” he said.

Black Va. legislators to skip Jamestown because of Trump, say those who attend are ‘complicit’ in racism

Alternative events

In Richmond, the Democrats who boycotted the Jamestown commemoration hastily arranged alternative events Tuesday, including a wreath-laying at the state Capitol and a visit to the site of a notorious slave jail.

Gathering shortly after 9 a.m. inside the Capitol, 14 black and white lawmakers laid the wreath below marble plaques listing the black lawmakers who served in the General Assembly during Reconstruction, before poll taxes and other Jim Crow-era restrictions disenfranchised black voters.

“We wanted to reflect this morning, this week, this year on the good, the bad and certainly not forget the ugly,” said Del. Lamont Bagby (D-Henrico), chairman of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus. Noting the black legislators who served from 1869 to 1890, he said, “That is the passion that has drawn us to this space instead of Jamestown today.”

The group then walked three blocks to the site of a slave jail known as “Devil’s Half Acre” and were joined by a few more legislators, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney (D), Rep. A. Donald McEachin (D-Va.) and Herring.

“We are at the right place at the right time,” Stoney told the crowd. “Today, sons and daughters of enslaved Africans stand united, not bound by shackles but bound by common cause — to ensure that the hopes and dreams and desires of our ancestors come to fruition.”

Democrats stressed they were not objecting to policy differences with Trump but to what they called a pattern of racist behavior.

“I’m just appalled that he’s chosen race as the fundamental basis for his campaign for reelection,” said Del. Mark D. Sickles (D-
Fairfax), who praised how some Republicans had pushed back against anti-Muslim prejudice, including former president George W. Bush after the 9/11 attacks and the late senator John McCain (Ariz.) during his 2008 presidential campaign. “This is not a dog whistle; it’s a foghorn. This is plain, out-and-out racism.”

Tuesday’s events came after Trump unleashed a torrent of incendiary attacks against Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) and his majority-black district that includes Baltimore, which he called “rat and rodent infested” where “no human being would want to live.”

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At Jamestown, a line of protesters formed across the street from the event space by 8:30 a.m., with anti-Trump chants and signs calling for impeachment.

Trump has long been unpopular in Virginia, the only Southern state not to vote for him in 2016. With all 140 seats in the state legislature on the ballot this fall, Virginia Democrats say taking a stand against Trump will inspire voters to show up in November and help them make gains in the General Assembly. Republicans are nursing wafer-thin majorities — 20 to 19 in the Senate and 51 to 48 in the House, with a vacancy in each chamber.

'Confront contradictions'

Inside the tent, Republicans who control the General Assembly emphasized the need to “confront contradictions” in Virginia’s history, acknowledging that “the legacy of Jamestown 1619 is complex,” as Cox put it in formal remarks.

Some of the contradictions were captured by Cox himself: He’s a Republican who was proud to have Trump attend, but he’s also a retired high school civics teacher who said he was thrilled to introduce remarks from historian Jon Meacham.

Meacham has said that Trump joins Andrew Johnson as the country’s most racist presidents. The historian told the lawmakers that “we don’t tend to build monuments to people who build walls. We build monuments to people who open doors.” The line drew applause from the same crowd that would later cheer the president.

Speaking in a reconstructed version of Jamestown’s original timber church, Meacham condemned “the maelstrom of Twitter and tribalism.”

“We should not sentimentalize the American experience,” he said. “The nation has been morally flawed from the beginning. We must be honest about that. And our honesty should lead us to do all that we can to be about the work of justice.”

“Faith in representative institutions is ebbing,” he said. “Reflexive partisanship is the order of the day. . . . Our politics are more the clenched fist and the harsh remark, more than the open hand and the welcoming word.”

Bells rang as dignitaries entered the church for the brief ceremony, and then a 17th-century honor guard with drum and flag led the group from the church to the tent where the president would speak.

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