The year 2019 marks 400 years since the first documented arrival of Africans in the United States. Early in 2019, legislators passed a bill to establish the 400 Years of African-American History Commission to develop and carry out activities throughout the United States to commemorate the anniversary. In alignment with the national agenda to recognize the significance of this anniversary, Washington University in St. Louis hosted a three-part series from February to November of 2019.
Known as The 400 Years Plus Trilogy, the series explored the various aspects of the black experience from historical and current perspectives. The “plus” is a vital recognition that the 1619 documentation of some 20 or so Africans arriving off the coast of Virginia does not include the history of Blacks in the Americas that dates much earlier. All events featured national speakers to garner interest and wide-spread appeal, and drew from local talent and leadership for robust and engaging programs.
The purpose of the three-part series is to acknowledge the incredible history of struggle, resiliency, and contributions of Blacks, and to reflect on black identity and progress in the next century. The series served as a time and space for fellowship, celebration, and inspiration. All events took place in Graham Chapel, on Sundays, in the afternoon.
Historical and Current Significance
The significance of this anniversary is of great magnitude given the historical context. Early humans first migrated out of Africa, and northern Africa is known as the cradle of civilization. The far-reaching contributions and impacts of Africans on humanity are too numerous to name. It was only within the last several centuries that people of African descent were claimed as property, and sold as indentured servants beginning in the early 1600s. Thus began the tragic and horrendous period of enslavement that has cast a long, dark shadow upon civilization. Black people have carried the burden of nations without the benefits and the impacts of slavery continue even now, in both explicit and implicit forms. Despite this, Black people have survived, persisted, and struggle to thrive under system racism and oppression.
The 400-year anniversary coincides with the fifth anniversary of Michael Brown, the tragic murder of an unarmed black youth that alighted a movement in St. Louis and around the nation. Following the death of Michael Brown, Jr. in August 2014, the city of Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis County, drew international attention and became a symbol of racial strife and inequity in the United States. The event catalyzed the region to get to the root of the wide-spread disparities facing St. Louis, particularly prevalent among African Americans, and to map out a regional agenda for moving forward. Since then, St. Louis has served as an epicenter of the movement to advance Black lives and thus attention to the 400-year anniversary of Blacks in America is most fitting for the region.
Timing and Location
Each of the three proposed events were strategically scheduled to coincide with other historically meaningful events and hosting them during the following times elevates the importance of the series:
- Black Struggle, Resiliency, and Hope for the Future (Sunday, February 10, 2019) occured during Black History Month;
- Civil Rights – Past and Present (Sunday, June 2, 2019) was aligned with Juneteenth, which commemorates the June 19, 1865, announcement of the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of African American slaves throughout the former Confederate states; and
- Four Hundred Years Forward: Freedom in the Next Century (Sunday, November 10, 2019) was held in the month during which national elections are held.
All events took place in Graham Chapel on the Danforth Campus of Washington University in St. Louis. Since its dedication in 1909, Graham Chapel has served as a well-regarded venue, hosting prominent figures in politics, academia, religion, the arts and the sciences. As a top-ranked institute dedicated to discovery and driven to meet the world’s challenges, Washington University is an excellent host for a series that brings attention and prominence to such a significant topic.