Collaboration with the Richmond Peace Education Center‘s annual essay contest, “Remembering 1619 and Restoring Justice.”
By Sarah Mathew •
In 1619, my second great grandfather was kidnapped from his home in Angola and forced onto a Portuguese slave ship, just to be stolen by English pirates. After all this, he was finally delivered to the English settlement of Point Comfort where he, along with 20 other Africans, were sold to colonists who exploited them for hard labor in the tobacco fields. As years went by, my great-great grandfather raised a family, who grew up in this system of enslaved Africans who toiled in the plantation’s tobacco, rice, and cotton fields. As I share this story, I can’t help but relate it to the exploitation that still happens today.
Recently, a winery in Virginia hired 23 undocumented workers to add to its undocumented labor force. Evidence has come to light that this winery hires people, knowing that they are undocumented. The winery then provides the immigrants with fake green cards and social security numbers, solely to take advantage of this cheap labor force. Like my ancestor, these immigrants work tirelessly to provide for their families and their new life in America but don’t see any results from their hard labor.
Just as the winery relies on the forced immigrant labor, wealthy Virginians became so dependent on slave labor that they would stop at nothing to keep their chattel from seeking freedom. My great-grandfather had heard stories about enslaved Africans who escaped to the North to gain their freedom. Those narratives made him dream of a better future, and one night he escaped to the swamps, where he knew the bloodhounds couldn’t track him. He survived days just living off nature’s offerings. He followed the North Star by night and slept fitfully during the day to evade the bounty hunters. At last, he connected with the Underground Railroad, which led him to freedom.
Great-grandpa settled in New Jersey where he was safe until the Fugitive Slave Act was approved. The bounty hunters from Virginia now had permission to hunt for runaway enslaved Africans, even if they had settled in the North. My great-grandfather, along with so many other Enslaved Africans, was dragged all the way back to his owner and whipped almost to his death. Sharing this abhorrent part of my family’s history makes me wish that people would no longer enslave and mistreat each other. However, these same issues run rampant in Virginia, which is currently sixth in the country for human trafficking cases.
Women and children throughout the U.S. are abused for the sole purpose of sexual exploitation. In Florida, a brothel disguised itself as a massage parlor to cover up its true purpose. This massage parlor was tucked into a strip mall in an ocean-side community and appeared picture perfect. Nonetheless, authorities discovered that the unwilling and undocumented prostitutes were not allowed to leave and received no pay except for earning tips. The Palm Beach State Attorney defined the situation as “modern-day slavery.” Clearly, the mindset of treating innocent people as property lingers.
Even though his school was segregated, my grandpa loves to describe the one-room schoolhouse he attended. Black children of all ages shared a single teacher who used textbooks cast off by the white school. My grandfather describes those cold winters in the unheated school house where he could hear teeth chattering throughout their arithmetic class. According to the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling, these schools existed because they were considered separate but equal to the white schools which were given so many more resources.
Finally, in 1954 in Brown vs. the Board of Education, the Supreme Court recognized that separate but equal didn’t ensure an equal education for both white and Black children. Even as this ruling caused so much happiness for my grandfather, many white Virginians hated the idea of sharing their schools. Politicians in Prince Edward County created Massive Resistance and decided that closing the schools was better than desegregating them. Private schools were opened to educate white children, but Black children were left to fend for themselves.
My father told me about how his mom sent him to live with his aunt in a neighboring county, so he could go to school. Many of his friends were not so lucky and just stayed home. Only after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did Prince Edward County reopen schools which were forced to accept Black students. Police escorted 4 of my dad’s teenage friends, all scared for their lives because of the color of their skin, into the local high school.
This long struggle ended with justice in the form of equal education, but problems, especially de-facto segregation, still arise from age-old mindsets. Virginians can begin to solve these modern developments by first learning about their history and then addressing the injustices they see. Only by making sure that the quality of a student’s education is not determined by his zip code, will we be able to ensure an equal education for all. By maintaining equal opportunities and standards for everyone, we safeguard the peace that the enslaved Africans in 1619 dared only dream about.
Sarah Mathew is a rising junior in high school, school newspaper editor, an avid reader and writer of realistic fiction. She intends for her writing to bring connections across different cultures. She supports women in leadership and is a closet chocoholic.