By Byron Rushing
What we now call “America” (a name that is about 500 years old) is a collection of tribes, nations, and countries—with founders—the indigenous peoples who arrived here tens of thousands of years ago, the imperial Europeans who attacked and invaded these lands, and the Africans whom the Europeans stole and brought here as property, chattel, to supply and supplement the labor for the Europeans to exploit the vast resources of these lands.
America’s founding peoples, whom European-Americans would come to call “the Red, the White, and the Black,” are the founders of the Americas and the founders of the United States of America.
Over the past several years, I have been so moved by Indigenous people acknowledging and asking us all always to acknowledge the first peoples on whatever lands we are on. It is a simple, profound, gracious telling and reminder of the truth.
Wherever we are in the Americas we are on the land of Indigenous people. People who were here thousands of years before the invasions of Europeans. In the Fenway, we are on the shores of the land of the Massachusett people, who used the rich waters for fishing and the rich rocky resources of the mainland for toolmaking. Places the English invaders would come to call Roxbury and the Brookline Marshes.
These acknowledgments have brought me to consider and to ask you to consider another acknowledgement, an acknowledgment of a time: the date and year when the first Africans were brought to a place, wherever that place may be.
For us the acknowledgment may go something like this:
We stand on the land originally occupied by the Massachusetts and visited by the Nipmuck and the Wampanoag and the Pawtucket. And to which the first Africans were brought, enslaved, in 1638.
The first record of a group of African people arriving in Massachusetts is from John Winthrop’s journal. In his July 1637 notation, Winthrop wrote, “We had now slain and taken, in all, about seven hundred [Indians]. We sent fifteen of the boys and two women to Bermuda, by Mr. Pierce; but he, missing it, carried them to Providence Isle.” William Pierce was the captain of the Desire which was built in Marblehead and sailed out of Salem. Providence Isle was a Puritan settlement off the coast of Central America.
In an entry dated February 26, 1638, Winthrop wrote in his journal: “Mr. Pierce, in the Salem ship, the Desire, returned from the West Indies after seven months. He had been, at Providence, and brought some cotton, and tobacco, and negroes, etc., from thence, and salt from Tertugos. Dry fish and strong liquors are the only commodities for those parts. He met there two men-of-war, set forth by the lords, etc., of Providence with letters of mark, who had taken divers prizes from the Spaniard, and many negroes.”
In 1637, Puritans in the Caribbean had already begun to engage in the slave trade—probably purchasing them from Spaniard slavers.
We know the name of the ship, the name of the captain, the name of the recorder of the events, but today, after 384 years, we have not one of the names recorded of the 17 Indigenous people “sent.” Nor of the enslaved Africans “brought.”
We know the names of the slavers and slave traders. We need to add the names of the enslaved.
Slavery and the slave trade in the Americas existed longer than emancipation and the period of civil rights has yet existed. If you use 1619 as the approximate date of the introduction of slavery in the North American British colonies, slavery lasted for 246 years. It will not be until 2111 that people of African descent will have been free as long as they have been enslaved in these United States.
If this virus has brought us to the verge of a “new normal,” it must mean for us and for all we tell, a time when we decide to tell the truth and teach the truth about all that history which has been “lost, stolen, or strayed.” Tell the story of all the peoples who founded this nation and this state and this city; and who work to continue to transform it today. Here on the shore of the land of the Massachusett, which Europeans invaded in 1630, and to which Africans were brought in February of 1638.
This piece was published in the February 2022 issue of The Fenway News and was reprinted with permission from the author.
One thought on “The Story of “America” Needs to Recognize Everyone”
I see there was a census in Massachusetts in 1765 that listed “Negroes” in virtually every town. If the local historical/preservation societies took it upon themselves to try and identify those people through local records, think of all the enslaved people who would finally be known by name. We are working on that in our small Rhode Island town of Warren and have indentified 32 people by name with 8 others known but unnamed. We have been able to write biographies on 20 people, including 6 who were soldiers in the Revolutionary War. We’ve been at it for six years and we find new information regularly.