The Historical Event

In 1619 a ship named the São João Bautista sailed from São Paulo de Loanda, the capital of Portuguese Angola, laden with over 350 enslaved Africans bound for Vera Cruz in the colony of New Spain (present day Mexico). As the slave ship crossed the Bay of Campeche in the Gulf of Mexico, two English privateer ships, White Lion and Treasurer attacked it and seized 60 Africans. The privateers, looking for refuge and supplies, sailed north until reaching Point Comfort in Virginia.

This historical event will change the course of the history from the early years of the Virginia Colony, to the founding of America and into the future.

Fort at Massangano - An archway leading to a ruined building.

What should the Memorial be?

Shortly after Brian Owens was selected as the sculptor for the memorial, the Fort Monroe Authority staff and Brian embarked on a listening tour around a multi-state area. Numerous locations were selected so that people could meet the sculptor and he could hear ideas from the public on what they thought the memorial should encompass.

The meetings included members of the local community, as well as students from:
  • Howard University
  • National Museum of African American History and Culture
  • Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia
  • Northern Virginia Community College
  • College of William and Mary
  • Hampton University
  • Norfolk State University
Here are some of the key points from the listening tour:
  • The memorial needs to connect to the story
  • Focus on people–it should bring respect to them
  • Place the memorial in an interactive space
  • Images should propel us into healing
  • Depict the enslaved in resistance and their enslavers as brutal
  • It is a shared history
  • The art should refer back to Africa
  • We should see them as strong–heads-up/shoulders back
  • Panels should tell a story
  • They all had lives before they came to this shore
  • Should be an uplifting experience with a sense of hope
  • Include the middle passage, the kidnapping of Africans
  • Visitors should be shocked by the honesty of the memorial
  • When people leave they should be empowered to tell the history
  • Reverse the dehumanizing aspect of our current historical narrative
  • Use imagery to reinforce they were humans
A man is giving a lecture to a group of people about African lending in Virginia's 1619 project.
Truth

Four key themes evolved after numerous public sessions and presentations hosted by various organizations such as the African American Association of Museums (AAAM) and initiatives such as the National Park Service Global Shared Heritage project. The desire is that through reflection and contemplation visitors will have the opportunity to make emotional and intellectual connections to the history of the African landing through the exploration of the themes and the memorial:

Truth

This memorial seeks to remember and acknowledge the contributions of Africans in America, often in contrast to what we have traditionally learned in the education system, this team will continually consult the most current and accurate scholarship and engage descendant communities.

Empathy

This memorial provides an opportunity to reflect on the history, stories, and contributions of Africans and their descendants in this new world; through demonstrated examples of survival, resistance, perseverance, and ingenuity.

Respect

This visual representation of the African Landing will communicate core values, traditions, cultural retentions, and skills unique to Central Africans and essential in acknowledging the contribution of Africans and their descendants in the making of America in spite of forced migration, forced servitude, and structural oppression.

Hope

This memorial will emphasize 1618 – 1628 through imagery and accompanying interpretive panels serving as a catalyst and essential opportunity for people and communities of all walks of life to explore the lived experiences of first Africans and contemplate how they navigated and made sense of a new world in slavery and in freedom, forging a new identity as African American.

The Result

The Sculpture’s Three Elements:

The sculpted relief, situated on a semi-elliptical surface in a park setting, will be 25’ long and 9’ high and oriented on a direct line of sight to Angola from where the first Africans originated. One side of the relief will capture their debarkation from the White Lion at Point Comfort in August, 1619. The reverse side will have several panels designed to depict the story of the first Africans from their life in Africa, to their capture and subsequent voyage on the middle passage, their exchange for victuals, and the early years in Virginia. The memorial will culminate in a sculpture of the first documented child of African parents, who was baptized in the colony, cradled lovingly in their arms representing hope in the future.

The Relief has two sides:

The Relief has two sides

The drawing above denotes the debarkation of the first enslaved Africans in Virginia. At the far left the ship White Lion is anchored in the channel near Point Comfort. At the far right supplies are being handed over in exchange for the Africans.

The Relief has two sides

The front side of the Relief shows two parts of the narrative, reading from right to left. In the center is a rupture in the relief wall that reflects the violence of the middle passage. The right side of the panel provides context for understanding where the first Africans came from, specifically the Kingdom of Ndongo.

The panel on the far right shows a scene, with a ngola (ruler) providing guidance to his councilors. Njinga (depicted with a battle ax), the future queen of Ndongo and Matamba, was known to sit with her father during his councils. In the distance the kingdom’s soldiers are depicted.

To the left the panel depicts a village scene. There were seventeen provinces incorporated into over 700 murindas or territories. There are many dwellings shown within the agricultural surroundings. The worship of ancestral spirits permeated everyday life and people practiced various rituals, rich with symbolism and music.

The panel closest to the rupture illustrates the Portuguese and their mercenaries, the Imbagnala attacking and capturing villagers for the purpose of enslaving their residents and profiting from their demise. People fought back and resisted which is prominent in this panel.

The rupture in the middle of the sculpture is specifically about the Middle Passage. It shows people being put into the hold of the ship, cramped and side by side, the continents are visible in the lower part, the ship at sea and the landing at Point Comfort.

The left side of the relief depicts the Africans’ presence in the Virginia Colony and emphasizes their contributions, as involuntary as they were, to creating the economic engine that enriches the colony’s elite. There are several smaller scenes in the panels that acknowledge the skills and abilities the Africans brought to North America. Specifically, working with metals, their knowledge of agricultural techniques and quality of crops, and their physical labor.

The panel to the far left shows an African woman and man at the point at which they are transitioning to life in Virginia and the reality that they will more than likely never see the land or the families from which they were so violently taken.

Resources for Relief

The Figures

The Figures represent all descendants of the African diaspora. They are inspired by the story of Antoney and Isabella, two of the Africans who were brought to Point Comfort in 1619, were purchased by Captain William Tucker, commander at Point Comfort, a shrewd businessman and wealthy landowner. Their story is one of resilience and survival, having survived their abduction, voyage through the Middle Passage, arrival on a foreign land, forced into labor for a colonist, all while withstanding the effects of the 1st and 2nd Powhatan Wars.
Their son, William, is known to be the first documented child of African descent baptized in Virginia. Today, their descendants carry on the legacy.

The Arc

Site Concept Design

The architectural firm Baskervill from Richmond, Virginia was selected to design the African Landing Memorial site. Working closely with the sculptor and Fort Monroe Authority staff a preliminary design was completed in June 2023.

Description of site:

“The proposed memorial plaza is situated adjacent to the Engineer Wharf entrance and sea wall and will relocate an existing vehicular drop-off and on-street parking that currently occupies the space. The memorial plaza consists of a raised pedestrian crossing / speed table, pedestrian-only plaza, stone site walls, and sculptural elements. The proposed plaza is designed to respond to the sculptural artistic works proposed by Artist Brian Owens, with a shape that is inspired by the Sankofa symbol, meaning “it is not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind,” as a remembrance of the events of the first Africans that arrived in Virginia at Point Comfort, on the shore of present-day Fort Monroe, in 1619.”

An artist's rendering of a bus stop near the ocean in Virginia.