John Lewis, Karen Bass, Pelosi and CBC mark 1619 slavery anniversary
Deborah Barfield Berry
Published 6:09 PM EDT Sep 10, 2019
WASHINGTON – Led by African drummers, a parade of Congressional Black Caucus members, including civil rights legend Rep. John Lewis, marched into Emancipation Hall on Tuesday to mark the 400th anniversary of the first Africans brought to the English colonies.
“All of our history is what makes this country a great country,’’ said Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, noting the nation has been reluctant to embrace all of its history, including slavery.
The ceremony was held in Emancipation Hall, an ornate foyer in the Capitol Visitor Center, named after the slaves who helped build the U.S. Capitol. With a statue of abolitionist Frederick Douglass only a few feet away, Republican and Democratic leaders cited the work of civil rights activists like Douglass and the contributions of African Americans to the building of the country.
They also noted how far the country has come and how much more needs to be done.
“This is not history, this is today,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York.
Many in the packed hall came dressed in African garb from full ensembles to dresses made of colorful cloth.
Caucus members sported Kente-cloth sashes over dark suits.
“Today we complete the journey that we began in Ghana,’’ Bass said.
This summer marked the 400th anniversary of the arrival of a ship from Angola carrying the first Africans to the English colonies. Across the country, lawmakers, civil rights activists, national park service officials and descendants of enslaved Africans have held ceremonies to remember the country’s “original sin” and the impact of chattel slavery.
Several members of the Congressional Black Caucus, which has a record number 55 members in Congress, traveled to Ghana earlier this summer to mark the anniversary. Others, including the national NAACP, led pilgrimages to African countries. A few traveled to Angola where some of the first slave ships sailed from its shores.
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The ceremonies come at a particularly intense period in race relations in the country.
Earlier this summer, President Donald Trump encouraged four new congresswomen of color to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places’’ from which they came. Last year, he called African nations “shithole countries.”
Trump also recently came under fire for slamming Baltimore, which is represented by Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, a prominent African-American congressman. Cummings, a Democrat and chairman of the Oversight and Reform Committee, has launched investigations into the Trump administration.
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The legacy of slavery has also been an issue in the 2020 presidential election. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., a presidential candidate, and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, have introduced legislation to set up a commission to study reparations.
Later this week, the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, Inc. will host its annual legislative conference, which will also include programs to recognize the year 1619.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who traveled with members of the caucus to Ghana in July, called the trip humbling. She called for action in Congress to address some of the ills of slavery, including support for legislation to protect voting rights.
“We must tell the unvarnished truth,” she said. “So much more work needs to be done.”
Zina Pierre, who attended the ceremony, said it’s important to keep the “history alive so that people will understand and know the cost of what it took us to get to where are today.’’
Actress Alfre Woodard, one of the speakers, said not only did enslaved Africans survive the brutality of slavery, but they “flourished.”
The audience stood and applauded as Woodward rattled off the names of African Americans, including Shirley Chisholm, Colin Kaepernick, Barack and Michelle Obama, Lewis, Langston Hughes and Charles Drew among others.
“You are the dream and the hope of the slaves!’’ she said.
Rev. Dr. Leslie Copeland-Tune, CEO of the National Council of Churches, who attended the program, said the commemoration is important particularly during this time of racial division.
She said the ceremony was inspiring.
“This really is encouraging as a black woman from the ancestors of slaves… to honor them and what they went through and what they endured and to know that we’re still here. We are still rising.”