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Aaron Burr, vice-president who killed Hamilton, had children of color
John Pierre Burr, one of two children the former vice-president Aaron Burr is said to have fathered with a servant from India, was officially memorialized as a descendant of the founding father at a ceremony in Philadelphia on Saturday.
The elder Burr was the vice-president to Thomas Jefferson between 1801 and 1805 but is perhaps best known for killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel, an act which made him the villain in a hit Broadway musical.
The younger Burr, who lived from 1792 to 1864, was a prominent member of black society in Philadelphia. Rumored to be the vice-president’s son for several years, he was officially recognized by the Aaron Burr Association in 2018.
At Eden Cemetery in Philadelphia on Saturday, the not-for-profit association unveiled a headstone for John Pierre in a ceremony which featured a procession of men in tricorn hats, carrying flags.
The headstone identifies John Pierre as the son of Aaron Burr and reads: “Champion of justice and freedom, conductor on the Underground railroad.”
A descendant of John Pierre Burr, Sherri Burr, spoke at the ceremony, which came about largely because of her own work to determine whether Aaron Burr was John Pierre’s father.
Burr, an emeritus professor of law at the University of New Mexico and the third vice-president of the Aaron Burr Association, told the gathered crowd: “From henceforth I hope John Pierre Burr is never again referred to as ‘the natural son’ or ‘the illegitimate son’, but is simply referred to as ‘the son’,” the Washington Post reported.
Along with other evidence Burr found, a DNA test showed she was related to Stuart Johnson, another Burr descendant.
At the Aaron Burr Association’s annual meeting last year, members voted unanimously to recognize that Aaron Burr had two children – the other was Louisa Charlotte – by Mary Eugenie Beauharnais Emmons, who was from Kolkata, India, and was a servant in the Burr home.
The association was founded in 1946 and knew of rumors about John Pierre for more than a decade. In 2005, a black woman named Louella Burr Mitchell Allen came forward, claiming she had traced her lineage to John Pierre.
It was the work of Sherri Burr which swayed members of the association, a group of roughly 75 Burr descendants and history fans, to formally recognize the lineage. Historians told the Post the evidence Burr had found was convincing.
Sherri Burr is working on a book, Aaron Burr’s Family of Color. A historical fiction book about Burr’s “secret wife”, by Susan Holloway Scott, is due for release next month.
Close ties between the founding fathers of the United States and people of color, including the people they enslaved, have become a more prominent thread in public history.
In 2018, Jefferson’s home at Monticello launched an exhibit about Sally Hemmings, an enslaved women who had Jefferson’s children. The relationship was an open secret while Jefferson was alive but for two centuries it was largely avoided at historical sites and in school textbooks.
In 2017, the first comprehensive history of George Washington’s runaway slave, Ona Judge, was published by the historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar. Washington’s home in Virginia, Mount Vernon, hosted an exhibit about Judge.
The Aaron Burr Association timed its headstone instillation to coincide with the 400th anniversary of enslaved Africans being brought to the US.
Point Comfort: where slavery in America began 400 years ago
The blue waters of the Chesapeake lap against the shore. Sunbathers lounge in deckchairs as black children and white children run and play on the beach. And close by stands a magnificent oak tree, its trunk stretching three great arms and canopies of leaves high into the tranquil sky.
Over half a millennium, the Algernoune Oak has witnessed war and peace and the fall of empires, but never a day like the one in late August 1619. It was here that the White Lion, a 160-ton English privateer ship, landed at what was then known as Point Comfort. On board were more than 20 captives seized from the Kingdom of Ndongo in Angola and transported across the Atlantic. This dislocated, unwilling, violated group were the first enslaved Africans to set foot in English North America – ushering in the era of slavery in what would become the United States.
This site, now Fort Monroe in Hampton, southern Virginia, will host a weekend of 400th anniversary commemorations on 23-25 August, culminating in a symbolic release of butterflies and nationwide ringing of bells. Americans of all races will reflect on a historical pivot point that illuminates pain and suffering but also resilience and reinvention. Some see an opportunity for a national reckoning and debate on reparations.
For a people robbed of an origins story, it is also an invitation to go in search of roots – the African in African American.
“Once I learned that I was from there it changed something in me,” said Terry E Brown, 50, who has traced his ancestry to Cameroon and enslaved people in Virginia and North Carolina. “I have a fire in me to just learn about why and who I am. There’s something deep down and spiritual about it and I want to connect to it. I’m American, and I believe in this structure that we have, but I’m emotionally and spiritually tied to Africa now that I know where I came from.”
By the early 17th century the transatlantic slave trade – the biggest forced migration of people in world history – was already well under way in the Caribbean and Latin America. In 1619 it came to the English colony of Virginia. The San Juan Bautista, a Spanish ship transporting enslaved Africans, was bound for Mexico when it was attacked by the White Lion and another privateer, the Treasurer, and forced to surrender its African prisoners.
The White Lion continued on to land at Point Comfort. John Rolfe, a colonist, reported that its cargo was “not anything but 20 and odd Negroes, which the Governor and Cape Merchant bought for victualls”. They were given names by Portuguese missionaries: Antony, Isabela, William, Angela, Anthony, Frances, Margaret, Anthony, John, Edward, Anthony and others, according to research by the Hampton History Museum.
The captain of the White Lion, John Jope, traded the captives to Virginians in return for food and supplies. They were taken into servitude in nearby homes and plantations, their skills as farmers and artisans critical in the daily struggle to survive. Slavery in America was born.
Yet it all requires a leap of imagination in the serenity of today’s 565-acre Fort Monroe national monument, run by the National Park Service, or in the low-key city of Hampton, home to Nasa’s Langley Research Center.
Brown, the first black superintendent at Fort Monroe, said: “The early colonists are trying to survive and they’re not doing it. They’re resorting to cannibalism because they just can’t figure this thing out. When the Africans show up, the game changes a little bit because they knew how to cultivate rice, sugar and cotton, all those things were perfect for this environment and for what they were trying to do.”
It would be another century until the formation of the United States. By 1725, some 42,200 enslaved Africans had been transported to the Chesapeake; by 1775, the total was 127,200. Thomas Jefferson, the author of the declaration of independence, which contains the words “all men are created equal”, was a Virginia slave owner and, by 1860, the US was home to about 3.9 million enslaved African Americans.
The events of 1619 are at once both remote and immediate in a state where white nationalists caused deadly violence in Charlottesville two years ago and in a nation where their enabler occupies the White House.
Brown reflected: “African Americans make up about 13% of the population and our young black men account for about 49% of America’s murders. People who look like me, about 41% of them are sitting in a jail cell. Now I can easily blame that on one thing but I can easily tie it to the very beginning of this country. It’s so easy to treat other people like they’re less than human if you don’t know them. So what I’m hoping this 400th will do is raise the awareness level.
“We’re not going to change people’s behaviour overnight but maybe if you sit back and think, ‘man, 400 years’, they were enslaved for 246 years so they lived under the most oppressive conditions imaginable but they managed to reinvent themselves …They created new music and new art forms and new families. It’s one of the greatest stories and it’s amazing that they survived it.”
Last month, Donald Trump travelled to nearby Jamestown to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the first representative legislative assembly. The US president made reference to the first enslaved Africans’ arrival in Virginia, “the beginning of a barbaric trade in human lives”, but there are currently no plans for him to attend the commemoration at Fort Monroe.
Gaylene Kanoyton, the president of the Hampton branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), said: “He’s not welcome because of everything that we’re commemorating, the arrival of slavery. He’s for white supremacy, he’s for nationalism, he’s for everything that we are against.”
Built by enslaved labour, the fort has a multilayered history, full of contradiction and paradox, like America itself. It witnessed the beginning of slavery but also the end: early in the civil war, three enslaved men seeking freedom escaped to Fort Monroe and were deemed by the commander as “contraband of war”, spurring thousands to seek sanctuary behind Union lines and ultimately a shift in government policy towards emancipation.
There are other threads from past to present. Among the Africans who arrived on the White Lion were Anthony and Isabela who, in 1624 or 1625, had a son, William, who was baptised. In a census they are identified as “Antoney Negro: Isabell Negro: and William theire Child Baptised.” They were living on the property of Captain William Tucker, so are now known by this surname, and William is often described as the first African child born in English North America.
A local family in Hampton believe they are his direct descendants. Walter Jones, 63, whose mother is the oldest living Tucker, said: “We traced as far as we could and then we had word-of-mouth records. We heard this years and years ago and so a lot of us have been through family history and we just never realized how significant it was. From what we’re able to dig up, everything still points to that.”
Jones and his relatives maintain a two-acre cemetery in the historic African American neighborhood of Aberdeen Gardens in Hampton, where many of their ancestors are buried. A simple grey monument is inscribed with the words: “Tucker’s cemetery. First black family. 1619.” A short distance away, a headstone says, “African American female. Approx age 60. Discovered July 2017.” Dozens of white crosses dot patches of grass and soil representing unmarked graves.
Can Jones, a retired software engineer, forgive the enslavers? “The way we were raised and the way I was raised is that we forgive all for some of the things that were done because it wasn’t just them. It was going on everywhere so it was unfortunate and in some cases Africans were also involved in some of the slave trade.
“There’s more discord to not being recognised as being such a vital part of our history and our nation’s history here and what was contributed. We didn’t come here by choice but we chose to excel and to build a country which wasn’t our own. So sometimes I think not having that type of recognition makes you a little bitter. If it hasn’t come by now, when will it? And now that it’s 400 years coming up, how many people truly will even recognise that?”
The Tuckers are not alone. The anniversary coincides with a boom in online and TV genealogy. Donnie Tuck, the mayor of Hampton, a majority African American city, took a DNA test earlier this year and found lineage in Nigeria and other countries.
“Now we look at progress and, with so many documentaries and programs where you’re exploring what slaves went through and the civil war and the period afterwards, I think there’s a whole new emphasis and we have more resources available to us. There’a a real hunger among African Americans to try and know our roots and our experience, our journey here to America and even that whole journey for the last 400 years.”
Some have taken the curiosity further and travelled to Africa. Last month, the congressman James Clyburn was part of a congressional delegation to Ghana, led by the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, that visited Cape Coast and Elmina castles to observe the 400th anniversary. It was his second trip to the “door of no return”. “All I remember the first time I went there was walking through that door and looking out at the ocean and the impact that was,” he said in a phone interview.
Clyburn believes that America has still not fully confronted the issue of slavery. “It’s an issue that’s been avoided in this country as much as possible. If it were an ongoing process I think that we would be much further down the road on that. We continue to treat this whole issue with what I like to call benign neglect. We tend to feel that if we ignore it, pretend it didn’t happen, then it didn’t happen or if we don’t need to do anything with it then we won’t.”[...]
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