Riley Forehand’s braces could wait.
The 11-year-old postponed her orthodontic appointment on Tuesday to come to the Jamestown Settlement with her 10-year-old sister Raegan and their father, Clay Forehand, chairman of the Carolina County Board of Supervisors.
The family wanted to be there for a special ceremony marking the 400th anniversary of the first meeting of a representative legislative body in the Western Hemisphere — the July 30, 1619, meeting of the House of Burgesses, forerunner to Virginia’s modern General Assembly.
“I just wanted to be here,” Riley said, waiting in line outside the tent where President Donald Trump would deliver the keynote address. “I don’t know why. It’s just a big deal.”
Her father added: “It’s a big anniversary. I don’t think I’ll be able to make the 500th. And it’s the first time in my life I’ve had the opportunity to be in the company of the president.”
Depending on how strictly Forehand defines “company,” he will still have to wait to fulfill that goal. The tent filled, and he and his daughters were among 150 or so attendees who were turned away and relegated to watching in a nearby building on closed-circuit TV.
William Delatte Jr. of Newport News was luckier. With a Trump 2020 cap perched on his head, he had a spot near the back of the tent and got to soak in the president’s full speech. It was his first time being so close to a sitting president, and he was clearly excited.
Was it all he hoped it would be?
“Yes, it was,” he said firmly.
And was there anything that especially hit home from the president’s remarks? He thought for several seconds, reviewing it in his mind.
“You know, it’s all a blur right now,” he said. “I liked the whole thing. And I’ll always have the memory of being here, and I’ll always have the photos I took.”
At Jamestown Beach, away from the pomp and circumstance, about 350 protesters showed up, chanting phrases like “this is what democracy looks like” and “No Trump, no KKK, no fascist U.S.A.”
Across the street, about 20 people demonstrated in support of the president.
There were a handful of iconic red “MAGA” hats on Tuesday at Jamestown Settlement, and one protester led peacefully out of the tent while displaying a banner that read “Deport Hate,” but the morning festivities largely steered clear of partisan politics.
Diane Leopold of Richmond made her first trip to the Settlement, not so much to see the president but to be a part of a 400-year anniversary.
“We’ve been reading about it all leading up to today,” she said. “It’s history, and we just wanted to see the whole thing up close.”
“The whole thing” included pageantry as only Virginia can deliver. The event was attended by representatives of the native tribes that greeted the first settlers four centuries ago, and a couple of historical interpreters appeared as George Yeardley and John Pory — respectively, the governor and speaker who oversaw that first meeting. (Pory’s handwritten notes are currently on display at the Jamestown Settlement, on loan for the first time from the National Archives of the U.K.)
“For many years the future of our General Assembly was very much in doubt,” explained Mark Greenough, in character as Pory. “Yet it is also true that people living here carefully promoted and protected the right to elect our own Burgesses — a very precious right.”
Speakers made it a point to avoid describing “the new world” of the early 17th century as an idyllic paradise. It was only shortly after that historic first legislative session that the first Africans arrived on Virginia’s shores, taken from their homeland and sold for food and goods.
Sir David Natzler, former clerk of the British House of Commons, said these early legislators represented the ideal of democracy, even if they couldn’t yet reach that level.
“Representative democracy is not a perfect system of government, and the Burgesses were not all exceptionally righteous men,” Natzler said. “But the ideal of representative democracy — started so many years ago in Athens and 400 years ago right here in Virginia — has survived bruising contact with real people.
“These events were important not only in Virginia, not only in America, but throughout the world. The idea took root that people wanted to be governed by laws of their own making.”
Rev. Christopher Epperson, rector of the Bruton Parish Episcopal Church, concluded the morning session with a prayer that connected the past to the present.
“Some arrived here seeking a better life,” he said. “Some were seeking freedom, and some economic possibilities. Some came here and their arrival marked the end of freedom and a mockery of (God’s) dream of a human family. Today we are seekers in our time — looking for equality and justice that often seem to be in short supplies.”
The Virginia Gazette staff contributed to this report.
Mike Holtzclaw, 757-928-6479, firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter @mikeholtzclaw.