Wilder rebukes planners of 400th anniversary of Africans arriving in Virginia
By MICHAEL MARTZ Richmond Times-Dispatch
Former Gov. Doug Wilder called his ceremonial role “a polite inclusion” and criticized the content of the event.
Former Gov. Doug Wilder says he was honorary chairman of a committee that never met — at least with him — to plan the upcoming commemoration of the 400th anniversary of enslaved Africans’ arrival in Virginia.
Wilder, a grandson of slaves and the first African American elected as governor in U.S. history, called his ceremonial role “a polite inclusion” for an event that he said is not giving a full account of the legacy begun by the arrival of Africans at Point Comfort in August 1619.
“I was astounded,” the former governor said in an interview on Thursday, adding, “I never was invited to a meeting of any kind.”
Wilder’s account, which he first made public in a blog post in late June, comes as Virginia prepares for a celebration next week of the founding of the General Assembly as the first representative political body in North America in 1619, long known as the “red letter year” because of the arrival of the first women and enslaved Africans to the Jamestown Colony.
The public events came under political scrutiny last week after reports that President Donald Trump had been invited — both by Republican legislative leaders and Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat — to speak at the ceremony on Tuesday to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the General Assembly.
Wilder has tried unsuccessfully to establish a national slavery museum, first on 38 acres overlooking the Rappahannock River in Fredericksburg, and then in the church in which he was raised in his native Richmond.
The organizers say they met privately with Wilder twice and invited him to participate in next week’s events, as well as speak at an Aug. 23 ceremony to commemorate the arrival of 20 or more Africans who had been taken by privateers from a Spanish slave ship.
“We still certainly hope he will [speak],” said Ben Dendy, chairman emeritus of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation and a member of the steering committee for the 2019 commemorations.
He described Wilder’s role as “honorary chair of the working group” on planning for the 400th anniversary of Africans arriving in North America.
“I understand if he feels he wasn’t included enough, but we did want him to participate,” said Dendy, a longtime lobbyist and Democratic political operative who first met Wilder as a teenage page in the Virginia Senate.
Wilder said he spoke with Dendy, whom he considers a friend, last month just before posting on his blog an account of his disillusionment with the 400th anniversary.
“I told Ben, ‘It’s insulting,’ ” he said in the interview.
In the blog post on June 26, Wilder wrote, “Foolishly, I thought that my being the grandson of slaves, and the first person of color to be elected as governor of any state in America, that I may have been able to show and speak to what slave conditions were and how direct descendants met with them. The events of 1619 inexorably shaped the history of America’s founding, and continue to ripple through to this very day.”
“I recently learned that my participation at that level was not intended,” he said.
In a subsequent post on July 4, Wilder recalled his reaction in 1969 to efforts by famed Richmond civil rights lawyer Oliver Hill Sr. and other black leaders to celebrate the 350th anniversary of Africans arriving in the colony.
According to a letter written by John Rolfe, the “20. and odd Negroes” were brought by an English privateer, which had seized them from a Spanish slave ship. They were sold for food and other provisions and then likely into slavery.
The black leaders in 1969 “spoke of the increased number of ‘Negros,’ proclaiming, ‘we are 20 then, we are 20 million now.’ I could not understand what they were celebrating,” Wilder said.
“That year also happened to coincide with my first run for political office in the VA State Senate,” he added. “I was not supported by the ‘black’ leadership and the fact that I criticized the celebration was frowned upon. I became the first person of color to be elected to the VA State Senate since Reconstruction.”
In the interview on Thursday, Wilder said he also declined an invitation to join a group formed by former Gov. Bob McDonnell to promote racial reconciliation.
“What do slaves have to reconcile?” he asked.
The former governor says the 400th anniversary is a missed opportunity to teach the true story of African American history in Virginia and the rest of the United States.
“It’s not something that I take lightly at all,” he said.
Wilder, along with other former governors, was invited to attend events next week for the 400th anniversary of the assembly’s founding, but he said a scheduling event already had prevented him from going.
Asked whether he would have attended otherwise, he said, “Fortunately, I didn’t have to make that decision.”