1619: What You Need To Know About The First African Slaves In America

An in-depth retrospective on the 400-year anniversary of enslaved Africans arriving in America.

As historians study the early Africans who arrived in Virginia, myriad answers have arisen but also countless questions. BET has tapped the expertise of everyone from historians to collectors of African-American artifacts to glean answers.

Artist Richard Schlecht illustration of Angela at Jamestown?s Riverfront (Photo: Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation)
Artist Richard Schlecht illustration of Angela at Jamestown’s Riverfront (Photo: Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation)

What do we know about the first Africans?

Only a few of the first Africans are named in early Virginia records.  

Antonio (sometimes called Anthony) and Isabella Tucker were married and labored on land owned by Captain William Tucker. They likely arrived on the White Lion or Treasurer, however, records don’t say definitively. Today, their descendants share their history through oral traditions and gather for reunions.

Photo of Terry Brown, Superintendent at Fort Monroe National Monument posing with the Tucker family. They are descendants of the first African child (William Tucker) born in English North America. (Photo: Terry Brown)
Photo of Terry Brown, Superintendent at Fort Monroe National Monument posing with the Tucker family. They are descendants of the first African child (William Tucker) born in English North America. (Photo: Terry Brown)

The family is noted in the Kinsey African American Art & History Collection, which celebrates the achievements of Black Americans from 1595 to present times and has been exhibited nationally and around the world. Amassed by Bernard and Shirley Kinsey during their five decades of marriage, the acclaimed collection includes paintings, photos, rare books, letters, manuscripts and more.

Items range from an early version of the Emancipation Proclamation, to an 1853 copy of Solomon Northup's book 12 Years a Slave (which was made into a film that won the Academy Award for Best Picture); to the earliest-known Black baptism record and Black marriage record.

In the new edited volume, Rethinking America’s Past: Voices from the Kinsey African American Art and History Collection edited by Tim Gruenewald (University of Cincinnati Press), Bernard Kinsey writes in the foreword: “One little known and fascinating story concerns Antonio and Isabela Tucker, who came to this continent in 1619 as indentured servants rather than slaves. They earned their freedom, married and had a son, William, born in 1625, who was the first child of African parents baptized in Jamestown.”

In 1625, one of the first Africans, a woman named “Angelo” (Angela), was listed in a colony-wide census as living in the household of Captain William Pierce of New Towne, a well-connected and wealthy planter-merchant.

The Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation, in partnership with the National Park Service, is currently excavating Pierce’s property to visualize the physical and cultural landscape where Angela lived and worked. The team is looking for evidence of Pierce’s house, outbuildings, and gardens, as well as artifacts that can shed light on the household’s activities, diet, and structure. Angela would not have arrived with many, if any, personal possessions, so recovering African artifacts may be unlikely say experts. However, her presence can still be understood through more subtle clues in the archaeological record that sheds light on the intersection of English and Angolan cultures.

Another early African was Anthony Johnson, who arrived from England on the James in 1621.  Johnson’s experience was unusual; he was able to earn or purchase his freedom and eventually acquired land on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

If you notice their names, such as Angela, Antonio, some were Iberian and Christian names. Historians say that is indicative of the fact that in this area of Africa, particularly in Congo, there had been a longstanding engagement with Christianity.

Commemorative copy of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by Lincoln, 1864. (Photo: On loan from The Galbraith Family 2012 Trust)
Commemorative copy of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by Lincoln, 1864. (Photo: On loan from The Galbraith Family 2012 Trust)

By March 1620, some 32 Africans were recorded as living in Virginia; by 1625 only 23 were recorded. These individuals toiled in the homes and farms of the James River Valley. They were among the first in a long line of Africans who would endure slavery in colonial British America.

Were the first Africans indentured servants or enslaved?

The historical record does not say for sure, but most historians agree the vast majority of Virginia’s earliest Africans were enslaved.  There are no historical records to indicate they were given regular indenture contracts typically used by English servants. Once in Virginia, a few Africans may have been treated in a manner similar to white indentured servants or had an opportunity to earn freedom. Still, existing records do not indicate this was the experience for most Africans, who were enslaved.

Did the early Africans arrive at Point Comfort or Jamestown?

"The White Lion" -- the English ship carrying the first Africans -- arrived in Virginia at Point Comfort, which is now part of Fort Monroe National Monument. Original sources do not indicate where the Africans came ashore first, but many historians believe they probably did so while at Point Comfort.  The White Lion spent over a month in Virginia and likely sailed to Jamestown as well. Today, visitors can explore both Fort Monroe National Monument and Historic Jamestowne to delve deeper into colonial history with tours, education, discovery of artifacts and more. 

Many historians say the ship landing date was August 20, 1619. Other experts believe it was August 25, 1619. 

Weren’t there other Africans in the Americas before then?

Africans have been recorded in Spanish colonies in America since 1501, and were later part of Spanish colonization in Florida and present-day South Carolina.  Enslaved Africans were also present in the English colony of Bermuda in 1616. However, the enslaved Africans who arrived at Point Comfort in 1619 are considered the “founding” ancestors of African-Americans.

Why should Americans commemorate the events of 1619?

As a society, it’s important to fully understand the foundation of the United States of America. Learning about the challenges, successes and inequities of the past enables a full appreciation of the difficult path our nation has taken to arrive at where the nation is today. An  honest historical perspective can empower and motivate Americans, both current and future generations, to take an active role in shaping the course of the nation’s future. The first Africans’ arrival in Virginia launched a system of oppression that fundamentally shaped the U.S. and its culture, laying the foundation for generations of African Americans and their descendants.  

Hampton is where American slavery began. Moreover, it’s also the place where slavery began to end.  In the earliest days of the Civil War, three enslaved men sought freedom and escaped to Fort Monroe (at Point Comfort).  Their actions spurred a massive resistance movement and helped sparked a shift towards abolition of slavery and emancipation. Following the Civil War and president Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1865 formally ended the legal institution of slavery throughout the U.S.

Sources include:;; “Rethinking America’s Past: Voices from the Kinsey African American Art and History Collection” edited by Tim Gruenewald (University of Cincinnati Press); Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation. 

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