American slavery was born 396 years ago this week on August 20, 1619. And it lived throughout America, including in Philadelphia.
On that fateful day, as noted by English settler John Rolfe, a rich tobacco planter, “… there came a Dutch man of warre that sold us twenty and odd Negars” in the Virginia Colony at Old Point Comfort (now Fort Comfort in Hampton), making them the first enslaved Blacks in the land that would become America.
Following raids in southern Africa by Luis Mendes de Vasconcellos and his Portuguese troops beginning in 1617, he invaded the village of Ndongo in Luanda, Angola, in 1619 and loaded 60 of those Kimbundu-speaking human beings aboard the slave ship Sao Joao Bautista before ordering it sent to Vera Cruz, Mexico.
After setting sail, that ship encountered an English privateer called the Treasurer, which was accompanied by its enforcer, the White Lion, a ferociously armed Dutch war vessel.
Together, they later encountered the Sao Joao Bautista in the waters of the West Indies, attacked it, and robbed it of its entire cargo, including the Africans. Twenty of those 60 were loaded onto the White Lion, which arrived at Old Point Comfort on August 20. The Treasurer arrived a few days later and its captain attempted to trade the remaining 40 but couldn’t get the value he wanted, so he transported them to Bermuda where they, too, were held in brutal bondage.
Among the 20 captured Angolans left at Old Point Comfort, two, namely Antonio and Isabella (whose Spanish Christian names were forced upon them like we name our pets today) were traded to Captain William Tucker for “badly needed provisions.”
By the way, four years later, Antonio and Isabella became the parents of the first Black child whose birth was officially documented in Colonial America. And the name imposed upon him was William Tucker — the very same name of the very same Captain who enslaved his parents. A third identified person, who was given the name Pedro, and the remaining 17 others were traded for additional products to Governor George Yeardley and his Cape Merchant Abraham Piersey who forced them to labor at plantations along the nearby James River in what would become Charles City.
But such trading, selling, and forced labor were not unique to Charles City or James River plantations or Old Point Comfort or Virginia or even the South. It happened right here in Philly, as well. On the southwest corner of Front and High- now Market- stood the London Coffee House, which opened in 1754 with funds provided by 200 Philadelphia merchants. It was where shippers, businessmen, and local officials, including the governor, socialized, drank coffee and alcohol, and ate in private booths while making deals. It was where, on the High Street side, auctions were held for carriages, foodstuffs, and horses — and, by the way, human beings, specifically African humans beings who had just been unloaded from ships that docked right across the street on the Delaware River.
In 1991, a historical marker was installed on the corner of Front and Market and it reads: “Scene of political and commercial activity in the colonial period, the London Coffee House … served as a place to inspect Black slaves recently arrived from Africa and to bid for their purchase at public auctions.”
The biddings happened like this: The captured Black men, women, and children, usually about five or six at a time, were placed on a thick wooden board that was approximately three feet wide and eight feet long and that was set atop two heavy barrels on each end.
These whipped and shackled human beings were paraded onto the boards, displayed by being forced to slowly turn around and bend over, inspected by having their mouths forced open, their genitals grabbed, their limb muscles flexed, and then they were auctioned to the highest bidder. Immediately afterward, they were sold off- mother from daughter, father from son, brother from sister, husband from wife. Following these forced separations, they were scattered across the country. And they would never touch or even see one another again.
Slavery was an essential component of day-to-day life in Pennsylvania generally and Philadelphia specifically. In the 1760s, nearly 4,500 enslaved Blacks labored in the colony. About one of every six white households in the city held at least one Black person in bondage. This cruel institution began in this colony in 1684 when the slave ship Isabella from Bristol, England anchored in Philadelphia with 150 captured Africans.
A year later, William Penn himself held three Black persons in bondage at his Pennsbury manor, 20 miles north of Philadelphia. Even George Washington enslaved Blacks, 316 to be exact. And he illegally- yes, illegally- held nine of them right here in the so-called City of Brotherly Love at America’s first “White House,” which was officially known as the President’s House at Sixth and Market (then High). In fact, it was at that very location where, in 1793, he signed the notorious Fugitive Slave Act, a law that threw escaped Black men, women, and children back into bondage.
Remember August 20, 1619 and its ongoing effects today. In fact, never forget and always avenge.
The words from David Walker’s Appeal, written in 1829, along with the words of Christopher James Perry Sr., founder of The Philadelphia Tribune in 1884, are the inspiration for my weekly “Freedom’s Journal” columns. In order to honor that pivotal nationalist abolitionist and that pioneering newspaper giant, as well as to inspire today’s Tribune readers, each column ends with Walker and Perry’s combined quote — along with my inserted voice — as follows: I ask all Blacks “to procure a copy of this … (weekly column) for it is designed… particularly for them” so they can “make progress… against (racist) injustice.”