The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What we get wrong about the roots of slavery in America

How we remember the past shapes the fight for racial justice today

Shackles in the Slavery and Freedom Gallery at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2016. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Four hundred years ago, Sir George Yeardley, the governor of the fledgling colony of Virginia, bought “20. and odd Negroes” from an English pirate named John Jope. Having attacked a Portuguese slave ship on its way to Mexico, Jope — technically a privateer, or a government-sponsored pirate — found 350 enslaved Angolans chained inside the fetid, overcrowded ship.

Jope took as many Angolans as he could, then made his way to Hampton, Va., where Yeardley bought several of them. Starved for labor, Yeardley did not think twice about putting these enslaved Africans to work alongside the colony’s many white indentured servants.

The arrival of those Angolans in 1619 has long served as the starting point of African American history, even of racism itself. This year, the 400th anniversary of their arrival, the date shows no signs of losing its prominence. Across the country, symposiums are being held, exhibitions planned and books published. But overemphasizing the date might, in fact, be damaging to today’s fight for racial justice.

Starting at 1619 means foregrounding slavery and white dominance, eclipsing the story of how Africans, both on the continent and in the Americas, successfully resisted Europeans from the start. It also suggests a certain timelessness to anti-black prejudice, when in fact racism developed over time, and was as much a consequence of slavery as it was a cause of it. Finally, placing the origins of slavery in the South not only minimizes racism’s reach — as if the South had a monopoly on slavery and its justification, racism — but also devalues the importance of Africa and the African diaspora to black history.

In short, overemphasizing 1619 might cause us to forget that racism was made by human beings — and can be unmade by them, too.

The year 1619 plays an outsized role in our historical memory, in part because it is the first year that historians have definitive records of Africans coming to an English colony in North America. But Africans were on the continent long before then. In 1526, for instance, several enslaved Africans took part in a Spanish expedition in what is now South Carolina. They soon rebelled, preventing the Spanish from founding a colony, as the historian Michael Guasco has recently recounted.

The experiences of the Angolans also differed markedly from the lives of most enslaved black Americans in the centuries to come. The English lacked experience with plantation slavery, and the ambiguities of slavery’s legality enabled several of the enslaved Africans to negotiate for their freedom within a few years. White indentured servants also vastly outnumbered the enslaved Africans, who made up just 3.5 percent of the colony’s population. It was not until the turn of the 18th century that Virginia became the kind of slave society we remember today, with 40 percent of its population enslaved.

It’s also deeply misleading to begin the story of racial slavery in British North America. In truth, the British were latecomers. By the time the British established their first successful colony in Virginia, half a million enslaved Africans had already been forced to work on Brazilian sugar plantations or in the silver mines of Peru and Mexico. The fact that the first 20 Angolans were taken from a Portuguese slave ship destined for Mexico speaks volumes. The pioneers of racial slavery were the Portuguese and Spanish, who had begun to seize Africans from West Central Africa in the mid-1400s and established successful plantations, worked by enslaved Africans, in places like the Canary Islands, Madeira and São Tomé.

To begin the story of black America in 1619 also risks perpetuating the myth of black powerlessness. African leaders willingly sold slaves to Europeans, but they were neither passive victims nor ruthless tyrants. Most African leaders refused to sell slaves from their own kingdoms, and they demanded high prices and elaborate diplomacy.

Indeed, the African perspective has traditionally been left out of the 1619 story. Many of those first Angolans probably came from the province of Ndongo, where the Portuguese had recently launched an invasive war. In addition to killing, raping and pillaging, the Portuguese enslaved thousands of free Ndongo residents, a fraction of whom, unexpectedly, arrived in Virginia. But Ndongo’s leaders resisted the Portuguese invaders. In 1624, a Ndongo woman, Queen Njinga, took over the throne and waged a successful counterattack. For a quarter-century, Njinga held off the Portuguese and prevented the sale of her people to their traders, a remarkable story most recently detailed by historian Linda Heywood.

Unlike the Portuguese, the English originally had little interest in the African slave trade. When the British began to colonize what remained of the Caribbean and North America, they initially hoped to replicate the silver mining success of the Spanish or the fur trade of the French. In Virginia, neither plan came to fruition, so they took the knowledge Native Americans gave them about tobacco cultivation and in the 1620s began to lure hundreds of poor Englishmen desperate enough to sell themselves into seven-year contracts (“indentures”) in the hope that at the end their service, they’d be given land.

Slavery may have been rare in England, but that was not because of any moral scruples. Throughout the 15th and 16th centuries, the English experienced slavery primarily as slaves, not enslavers. English mariners often were captured and enslaved by Catholic and Islamic slave-raiders roaming the Mediterranean Sea. Early modern Englishmen had little desire to replicate a system at home that they frequently fell victim to abroad.

But practicing slavery in the New World? That was another story. The English showed little hesitation in adopting the system from the Portuguese and Spanish. Like them, they began with enslaving thousands of Native Americans, who were ubiquitous in colonial New England, Virginia and even the Caribbean.

Of course, things eventually changed. Native American slavery and white indentured servitude were phased out. White people were quickly prohibited from being slaves. By the 18th century, slavery became exclusively black, and the legal loopholes the early Angolans had exploited were firmly closed. Virginia’s 1705 slave codes, the colony’s first comprehensive laws concerning slavery, gave slave owners complete authority over their slaves, allowing them to kill their slaves “free of all punishment . . . as if such accident never happened.” Slaves could no longer appear in court and now needed written permission to leave their plantations. Unlike whites, free blacks could no longer own guns or employ white people. Whites who married blacks were sentenced to prison.

Yet the year 1619 remains a powerful symbol. In the late 19th century, black historians seized on the date in part to highlight the extreme violence African Americans in the South were facing after Reconstruction, and to highlight the fact that blacks had been here from the nation’s start. Ever since, black communities have embraced the date as a starting point to tell the story of black America.

Perhaps, then, the better task is not to ignore the date, but to revise how we remember it. The arrival of those early Angolans may not be the ideal beginning for black history in America, but it was one small moment when early English colonists faced a choice: What would they do with these fellow human beings? That Yeardley chose to keep them as slaves, almost unthinkingly, neither diminishes the date’s significance nor the culpability of whites.

Rather, it reminds us that history is made not by momentous choices whose consequences are immediately understood, but by the daily decisions that are all too easy to dismiss as meaningless. 1619 matters because every moment does.