There’s nothing like going home. As observances of the 400th anniversary of Africans landing in colonial America continue, members of Congress are among those making pilgrimages to the motherland.
This summer, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi traveled on official business to Ghana. At least a dozen CBC members journeyed to the West African nation. They included CBC Chair Karen Bass and Democratic leadership such as Majority Whip Rep. James Clyburn, Rep. Barbara Lee, and civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis.
The group met with Ghanian officials such as Speaker Aaron Mike Oquaye and leaders of Parliament.
The members of Congress also visited Cape Coast and Elmina “slave” castles, among dozens of massive forts used to hold Africans before they were loaded onto ships to be sold in the Americas. They paid respects at the “Door of No Return,” the last stop before men, women and children crossed the Atlantic Ocean.
“I consider this to be a fitting and proper way to commemorate the 400th year since the enslaved people were forced to leave their homeland and sent in bondage to the New World,” said Clyburn, founding chair of the International African American Museum being built in Charleston, South Carolina. Historians say about 50 percent of enslaved Africans arrived there. “I seek to pay homage to the sacrifices of our African ancestors and honor the contributions they made to building the United States of America.”
Chairwoman Bass termed the trip “profoundly significant.”
“Our ancestors were first brought to this continent in chains,” she said. “Arriving on the shores of America 400 years ago after a treacherous journey, they began a period of 250 years of enslavement. We have come so far, but we still have so far to go.”
Pelosi delivered a speech that marked the first time in history that a Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives has addressed Ghanaian Parliament. She confirmed the friendship between the two countries and said the United States is committed to the African continent.
“It was an honor to return to Ghana. The sites we’ve seen are an inextricable part of America’s heritage and will forever be seared in our hearts and minds,” said Pelosi, who praised the discussions and engagements with Ghanaian government officials and civil society leaders.
“They are key to advancing our shared interests and cooperative efforts to alleviate poverty, eradicate disease, address the urgency of the climate crisis and ensure economic prosperity and security for future generations.”
Members of Congress have led efforts ranging from reparations bills to a commission that acknowledges what occurred in Virginia four centuries ago and its aftermath.
In June, Congressman Donald McEachin (D-VA) hosted several CBC members in his Richmond district for events related to the 400th commemoration. He was joined by Rep. Bass, the CBC chairwoman; fellow Virginian Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA); Rep. John Lewis (D-GA); Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA); and Rep. Steven Horsford (D-NV).
Highlights included a "State of Black America Town Hall," plus opening ceremonies for the exhibition “Determined: The 400-year Struggle for Black Equality” at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture. There was also an official dedication of Arthur Ashe Boulevard.
Rep. Lewis delivered an address, and before introducing the civil rights icon, McEachin said that the long African-American struggle for equality is still an aspiration.
“Shackles don’t have to be made of iron to hold people back,” he said, citing low-performing schools, criminal justice issues, health care access, housing and economic inequities.
“Systemic racism is, unfortunately, alive and well in the United States and every one of us must be foot soldiers for its eradication. We have our work cut out for us, but we also have great shoulders to stand on. When we are discouraged and angry, we should remember our ancestors and what they endured and what they passed on to us.”
Scott agreed with that sentiment. Along with U.S. Senators Tim Kaine (D-VA), Mark Warner (D-VA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Roy Blunt (R-MO), he was behind the bipartisan 400 Years of African American History Commission Act legislation.
Supported by the NAACP, the National Urban League and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the bill was signed into law in January 2018 by President Donald Trump.
It established a 15-member commission to coordinate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in the English colonies. The commission was also charged with planning, developing and carrying out a broad series of programs and activities aimed at honoring the countless contributions of Africans and African-Americans.
“The history of Virginia and our nation cannot be fully understood or appreciated without learning about the first Africans who arrived at Point Comfort, Virginia, in 1619,” said Scott.
“We must fully tell the story of African-Americans, the contributions to the fabric of our nation, and resilience.”
(Photo: Julio Obscura)