1619Fest pays tribute to the first African slaves in America through music and history


To commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first enslaved Africans brought to America, Thelonius Cook created 1619Fest, an event to honor their legacy with dancing, educational programming and live music.

“This is a celebration, in a way, of African culture, but then it’s also a tribute to the many, many nameless people who history didn’t bother to mention by name,” Cook said.

He said he came up with the idea while working as a tour guide in Jamestown and Colonial Williamsburg.

“Last summer, I started to realize that we were starting to come up on 2019, which would be the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first Africans, so that kind of planted the seed in me to do something,” Cook said. “I never imagined I’d do something on this scale, but to do something, a commemoration or just to contribute to those Africans.”

As 2019 arrived, he noticed the anniversary wasn’t getting a lot of attention.

“Specifically, I remember in February there were a couple of events that came and passed and I was surprised at the lack of publicity they had gotten,” Cook said.

So, Cook began planning his own event in early spring. Originally, he only reached out to a few artists to try to put together a music festival.

“But once we got the first big-name (act), which was Akae Baka, everything else started to build on that,” he said.

One of Cook’s goals is to educate and reconnect people with West African culture.

“That’s one thing I think was lost, and strategically so, when the Africans were brought here: they lost their languages,” Cook said.

Music is a huge part of the festival. One of the groups bringing the sounds of African and African American culture to the stage is Atumpan Edutainment, which will perform a program called “Sounds of Freedom.”

“What we do is take (the audience) on that journey to explore how the sounds of African culture that were given to us by the musicians and storytellers called ‘griots,’ evolved through slavery and changed into sounds that are now familiar to us today,” said Corey Staten, cofounder of the group.

“It’s a great introduction to people to what started out as a very ugly scar on world history and African history and U.S. history actually gave rise to a very beautiful flower called ‘African American cultural expression’ through our stories, folklore, dance and music.”

The Philadelphia-based group, Kulu Mele African Dance and Drums Ensemble, also will be at the festival. Bryant Lee a long-time dancer, said they perform because it’s important to keep the tradition of West African dance going.

“As we preserve this special dance, this dance that comes from many, many, many years ago, it’s a must that we keep it alive,” Lee said. “Africa is a place people must know about and it’s a must that this cultural dance we push so hard, that people know about it.”

In addition to culture, Cook said he wanted to teach people the history of 1619, because growing up in the Tidewater Region, he didn’t learn a lot about it in school.

“We went to the settlements in Jamestown and I don’t recall learning much of anything about where the African slaves came from,” Cook said. “These were things I learned much later in life.”

That is why Mark Summers, manager of public and educational programs at Historic Jamestowne, said it was important for the organization to participate in the festival.

“For many years, we did a terrible job at being inclusive and telling the whole story — and I think that needs to be stated,” Summers said. “My organization maintained a segregated park until the 1930s.”

Historic Jamestowne will hold its First Africans Walking Tour in the morning. Summers, the tour’s creator, said it’s about the first enslaved Africans who were brought to Jamestown and the world around them.

The tour will conclude at the Angela archaeological site. Angela is the only one of the first enslaved Africans recorded with a name in Jamestown.

“We don’t have a lot of African people we can point to by name, to sort of piece to the details of their life or even to pay tribute to, so (Angela’s) been kind of evolved as this symbol to represent the other 20 or so Africans that arrived that year,” Cook said.

Summers said because so little is written about Angela, archaeology is the primary source of information about what her life might have been like.

“I want to talk about her in a sense that we can find evidence at least of the world she saw,” Summers said. “It’s like one of my colleagues says: When we look at the Jamestown Fort, we’re not looking for John Smith physically, we’re looking for the world of John Smith — and it’s the same idea, we’re looking for the world of Angela.”

Summers said even after 1619Fest concludes, he wants the discussion of the first Africans to continue.

“Too often, we find people will talk about a subject because of an anniversary event and stop, and that’s not the case here,” Summers said. “We want to continue to keep this discussion going.”

Want to go?

Event will be from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Aug. 17, Billsburg Brewery/Jamestown Marina, 2054 Jamestown Road. Most events are included in the ticket price; Tickets $0-$30; purchase at eventbrite.com. For the complete list and schedule of events visit 1619fest.com.

The First Africans Walking Tour is 10-11:30 a.m., beginning at New Towne in Historic Jamestowne, 1368 Colonial Parkway. Admission to Jamestown required; $0-$20; purchase at the park.

Amelia Heymann, aheymann@vagazette.com, 757-298-5828, @HeymannAmelia.

Copyright © 2019, The Virginia Gazette