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Commemorating Virginia’s Complex 400-Year History in Jamestown

July 29, 2019

My term as Lt. Governor has coincided with two very important milestones that are now 400 years old. These two milestones -- the first representative body in the English-speaking New World and the first landing in Virginia of enslaved Africans -- highlight the twin threads that have been woven into the fabric of Virginia’s history.

My term as Lt. Governor has coincided with two very important milestones that are now 400 years old. These two milestones -- the first representative body in the English-speaking New World and the first landing in Virginia of enslaved Africans -- highlight the twin threads that have been woven into the fabric of Virginia’s history.

Virginia has been at the forefront of building America’s great experiment in representative democracy -- from Jamestown, to Patrick Henry and Virginia’s call for rebellion against Great Britain, to Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, to George Washington’s leadership of the Continental Army and service as the first President of the United States, to being the home of the most Presidents and the longest serving legislature in the Western Hemisphere, to electing Doug Wilder as the first African American to be elected Governor in any of the United States.

Yet, Virginia also has been stained by its determined effort over a long period of time to subjugate its own peoples through slavery, eugenics, segregation, Massive Resistance, and discrimination against people because of who they are and whom they love.

In 2019, we have observed the 400-year history of Virginia’s high and low moments — the birth of representative democracy in the Commonwealth and the forced landing of enslaved Africans at Point Comfort in Hampton, Virginia. We reflect upon the importance of democratic institutions we’ve built as a nation and remember the ongoing ills caused by Virginians adopting the evils of slavery and racial oppression.

Because the 400th anniversary year is more important than the frenzied and fickle politics of the moment, I attended in my role as Lt. Governor events in Jamestown and Hampton that honored our proud achievements as the location of America’s first representative legislative assembly and commemorated the first landing in Virginia of enslaved African Americans who with their descendants have contributed mightily to Virginia’s success.

Enslaved Africans in Virginia who have been cast into eternity largely with anonymity need us now to stand up and recognize their lasting contributions and to celebrate their faith, perseverance, and triumph of spirit in the face of unimaginable cruelty and seemingly insurmountable odds.

In their own way, each of them and their families heroically rose to the call of history and made progress possible for future generations despite being denied their basic humanity, due process, education, or a place of dignity in our society. With God’s aid and grace, they made a way out of no way. And, they kept the bright flame of hope burning in the abject darkness of the midnight of slavery — a flame that ultimately lit a path from slavery to freedom.

I am fortunate and proud to be able to know that I am the great-great-great grandson of Simon Fairfax, a man who was enslaved but freed in Virginia by the 9th Lord Fairfax on June 5, 1798. Simon, along with his family and ancestors, made a significant difference in their community and contributed positively to our Commonwealth’s history.

It is with Simon and so many others known and unknown in mind that I showed to all in attendance that no one can diminish Virginia’s continuing efforts to cast aside its racist past and move forward as a state built on the blended contributions of Native Americans, enslaved Africans, settlers from Europe, and later immigrants from across the globe. After a complex and often tragic and triumphant 400 years, that, in total, is the Virginia that I proudly honored.

As only the second African American statewide official ever elected in Virginia, I am well aware that Virginia was first among all states to popularly elect an African American Governor, the Honorable L. Douglas Wilder. It was Virginia that provided the electoral votes to assure Barack Obama’s election as the first African American President in November 2008. It is Virginia that continues to work to overcome the cruel and lasting legacy of racial segregation and massive resistance. It is Virginia that has thrived with a workforce that is more than 15 percent foreign born and a population that is becoming dramatically more diverse every day. It is Virginia that is moving forward as a Commonwealth dedicated to bettering the lives of its residents and expanding the oxygen of opportunity to all. These are proud results of representative democracy in our Commonwealth.

These extraordinary achievements, accomplished by rising to the better angels of our nature, often in the face of committed and nefarious foes of progress, are what I honored by participating in commemorative events observing 400 years of Virginia’s history.

The enslaved Africans who were forced to land in Virginia in 1619 likely could never have dreamed of stepping foot in the halls of the newly formed government as anything other than servants to their masters in the legislative body. 400 years later, one of their African American descendants presides over the Senate of Virginia as Lt. Governor and is officially titled, “Mr. President.”

That remarkable and improbable journey of the generations is exceptionally worthy of commemoration and celebration and it is why I served in my role as Lt. Governor in Jamestown and Hampton.

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