A Tragic Anniversary: August 1619 and the Beginning of a 400 Year Legacy

Four hundred years ago this month, in late August of 1619, a destructive and evil idea was introduced to the American colonies. Since then, our society has struggled to eradicate the germs of racial superiority that have ravaged our souls.

Painting of the arrival of the first Africans arriving in Virginia. By Sydney King

August 20, 1619 is the accepted date when “20 and odd negroes” arrived to the Jamestown colony in Virginia and were exchanged by the ship’s captain for food and supplies. While indentured servitude of other countrymen was a common practice, what quickly developed in Jamestown during the next 50 years was the institution of lifetime enslavement based upon race (e.g. Christian baptism was no longer deemed sufficient for an African slave to be granted their freedom; the institution of race-based slavery was written into the statutory law of the colony)Tracing the customary practices and assembly laws from 1619 to 1700 we see that very quickly that enslaved Africans were treated as less human than white Europeans. This is what is meant by white supremacy. Today those words – white supremacy – sting when we hear them, in part because they name an evil reality from our past and present that we wish were not true. They sting even more so for those of us who have been sheltered from its reality. 

As our country continues to live with the reality of racial disparities and struggles to heal from the wounds of racism, it helps to look back at our history in order to understand that this sickness has shaped and molded our culture for 400 years. That has been the fruitful result of leading several Sankofa journeys with groups of black and white pastors to visit the civil rights landmarks in the South.

For almost half a millennia this Great Experiment we celebrate as the United States has also been maligned by the idea that one race was superior to others.

For almost half a millennia this Great Experiment we celebrate as the United States has also been maligned by the idea that one race was superior to others. White supremacy was the subconscious thought that allowed Black children to be taken from their mothers and sold at auction during slavery. White supremacy was the understood military code that led to the Tuskegee Airman – WWII aviators became one of the most highly respected fighter groups of World War II, yet their flight group was created solely because the black airmen were perceived to be mentally and physically inferior to white airmen. White supremacy was the root of the racial hatred that incited mob violence and vigilante lynching of more than 4,000 African Americans in the US between 1877 and 1954 (including Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie on June 15, 1920 in Duluth, MN).

Newspaper credit: Minnesota Historical Society

As students of the Bible we understand the deep roots of sin that carry over from generation to generation. We learn that the whole human race lives under the curse of sin because of Adam’s original sin. We read Daniel, Isaiah, Jeremiah and the other prophets and learn that the exiled generation bore the consequences of their ancestors’ sins. In Transform Minnesota’s resolution on Pursuing Racial Justice and Reconciliation, we state that “racism is an affront to the value of individuals created in God’s image” and that “this denial of person hood and belonging runs contrary to the peace and unity that God intended in the beginning and that the Bible depicts as our destiny.” For all that we celebrate about America, we also have “a tragic history of genocide against Native Americans, the cruel practice of enslaving Africans, and the unjust segregation and exploitation of immigrants and the descendants of slaves.  

Pastors and Leaders, Sankofa 2019

Within our network of evangelical churches we teach and talk frequently about racism because we acknowledge that 400 years of pervasive, destructive, dehumanization of enslaved Africans and other non-white people leaves deep wounds and scars upon our society. American Christianity has been shaped and formed in a culture that has a 400 year history of elevating the white race above other races. That bias has seeped into our churches as well, and it will take persistent, spirit-filled, Christ-centered effort by us in the Church to undo centuries of sin.  

While we pursue a hopeful vision of justice and reconciliation it is still necessary to identify, understand and undo a pernicious evil that has so long lingered in the soul of our nation, and in the souls and pews of our churches. And so we have led multiple Sankofa trips – with black and white pastors in recent years to catalyze relationships between leaders; we’ve led training sessions on dismantling racism in the Church to help us recognize that we all have bias; we’ve held prayer services and joint worship celebrations to bring Christians of different races together around Jesus Christ.

On October 10 and 11 we are hosting Pastor, Author and Historian Dr. Jemar Tisby for two days of training on “Fighting Racism” and Understanding Racism in America”, because the church must move from inactivity to intentionality and advocacy.  

As a follower of Jesus Christ, I remain hopeful in the power of His resurrection to change my heart and to heal to wounds of four centuries of inhumane sin and injustice and to bring about justice and reconciliation that flows from the throne of God.  

August 20, 2019