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  • Writer's pictureAnita Friday


No! I am not writing about the 45th president of the United States. This is about one of the half truths told in America that feeds our national pathology...the poison about race that infects each and every one of us.

A great deal of attention was given to the year to 1619. It was heralded (by many) as the anniversary that “20 odd Negroes” first arrived on the shores of colonial America as slaves. This arrival has been touted as the beginning of slavery in what would become the United States.

The truth is that these Africans were slaves ONLY if one also believes that the 100 homeless children who were shipped from London to Virginia around Easter in 1619, (some four months before the arrival of the ‘20 and odd Negroes) were also slaves.

“In 1618 the City of London and the Virginia Company forged an agreement to transport vagrant children. London would pay 5 (British pounds) per head to the company for shipment. Supposedly bound for apprenticeship, these homeless children-a quarter of them girls-were then sold into field labor for twenty pounds of tobacco.” (see footnote below)

Why isn’t the story of these children told? Why isn’t the story of poor English women being “sold” in Virginia and Maryland for 120 pounds of tobacco told? Were these people (both African and European) slaves or were they indentured servants? Were there distinctions with respect to their life experiences and the way they were treated by those who paid for their labor?

The truth of the matter is that Africans and poor English people were treated equally as indentured servants throughout the better part of the 17th century. They worked together and lived side by side.

Widespread knowledge of this truth could help to dispel the idea of inherent inequality based upon ethnicity or race. The truth is that wealth and NOT nation of origin determined one’s standing in colonial America.

Lies and half truths fortify mythology. And the lie that race has always mattered in this country continues and allows society and its institutions to grow and mutate over time.

And the lie that one race matters more than another is the lie that is poisoning our country.

And so I ask that we think about why the question of race became so important in this nation? When did that change happen and what are the consequences of that change today?

What if the truth... that in 1619 poor English women and orphans from London and 20 odd Africans arrived in colonial American and began working side by side as indentured servants, was the narrative that we were told?

From The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter.

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