People & Places

First African Landing Day event in Burlington celebrates Black faith, resilience and creativity

Pepople cheer for gospel performer Essential Praise at the Vermont First African Landing Day 2022 commemoration in Burlington on Saturday August 27, 2022. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The resilience and contributions of the descendants of enslaved people who first sailed to North America more than 400 years ago were celebrated with music, poetry, prayer and community at Burlington’s Intervale Center on Saturday. 

Initiated by the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance, the fourth annual Vermont First African Landing Day drew a couple hundred people to a grassy field flanked by a traveling exhibit, music, speeches and catered barbecue. It also featured discussion of and information about Proposal 2 — a constitutional amendment that would remove references to slavery from the Vermont Constitution. 

The Legislature has twice passed the measure. It would take effect if voters approve it this November during Vermont’s general election. 

“The most important thing that you have to remember is that it’s not symbolic. This is not a gesture,” said Rev. Mark Hughes, executive director of Vermont Racial Justice Alliance, referring to the constitutional amendment. 

While the Vermont Constitution was the first in the country to generally prohibit slavery, its Article 1 included language carving out an exception: that no person serve any other “as a servant, slave or apprentice” unless “bound by the person’s own consent, after arriving to such age, or bound by law for the payment of debts, damages, fines, costs or the like.”

The amendment would remove that language and replace it with: “therefore slavery and indentured servitude in any form are prohibited.”

Said Hughes, “You have to wonder, if it only takes 20 seconds to find in the Constitution because it’s the first first Article, why is it that our elected officials that take an oath to it didn’t notice it for 245 years.”

Young people attend the Vermont First African Landing Day 2022 commemoration in Burlington on Saturday August 27, 2022. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The Vermont Constitution, adopted in 1777, became the first to include exclusionary provisions, which other states and the U.S. Constitution’s 13th Amendment later emulated. “There was no other constitution that ever contained any language that permitted slavery in any manner before the Vermont state Constitution,” Hughes said. 

According to national advocates who have been organizing to delete slavery and indentured servitude exceptional clauses throughout the country, Vermont’s amendment is consquential.

“We must say to the country that there should be no exception to slavery because it is immoral,” said Savannah Eldridge of Texas, an organizer for the Abolish Slavery National Network.

Rhode Island was the only state to have fully abolished slavery prior to the adoption of the 13th Amendment in 1865. In the last four years, three states have abolished slavery from their state constitutions: Utah, Colorado and Nebraska.

This year, Vermont is a part of “the Freedom Five,” along with Alabama, Louisiana, Oregon and Tennessee. All have advanced ballot initiatives to abolish slavery from their state constitutions and #endtheexception, according to Max Parthas of South Carolina, co-director of state operations for the Abolish Slavery National Network.

The network’s goal is to remove the exception clause and repeal and replace the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery and involuntary servitude “except as a punishment for crime where of the party shall have been duly convicted.” A joint resolution to that effect (H.J.Res.53) has been submitted to the U.S. House.

“I believe that we will see in this generation the final legal end of slavery,” Parthas said.

Essential Praise performs gospel music at the Vermont First African Landing Day 2022 commemoration in Burlington on Saturday August 27, 2022. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

In 2019, a year after the U.S. Congress established the 400 Years of African-American History Commission Act, Gov. Phil Scott took a step towards reconciliation by proclaiming the fourth Saturday of August to be “recognized and Commemorated as First African Landing Day in Vermont.”

This year’s celebration was themed “We’ve come this far by faith.” It led to discussions of faith in religion, in resilience, in community and harbored the hope for a better, more just future for Black people in the country.

“There are many well known events in the summer and throughout the year that we as Americans look forward to celebrating,” Christine Hughes, director of the Richard Kemp Center, wrote ahead of the event. “Most of them have historical roots that quite often are lost on us. Instead, Vermont has taken the unique approach of unearthing something that was previously lost.”

As the afternoon sun pierced clouds over Burlington, visitors to the free event relaxed to the music of Adrian B. King, Baptist Gospel Choice and Rajnii Eddins. Friends and neighbors picnicked while others examined the 1619 Traveling Exhibit, which tells the story of Africans from Angola to Virginia. It remains through Sunday at the Richard Kemp Center, where programs will continue.

Xusana Davis, Vermont's executive director for racial equity, speaks at the Vermont First African Landing Day 2022 commemoration in Burlington on Saturday August 27, 2022. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

First-time attendee Cortney Smith of Burlington said she came to see Black people come together, to be with her community and to meet new people.

Lanae Buford, 12, of Georgia, who also attended the past three annual events, said she came to see her people and was enjoying this year’s event. Her father, Joe Buford, was among the panelists.

Her mother, Wynea Buford, who heard about the event through her church, said she came to spread the message of the First African Landing Day and to hear Adrian B. King.

The speaking program included faith and justice leaders outlining history, the perils of systemic racism to the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement with messages of hope.

Panelist Emiliano Void, founder of the nuwave Equity Corporation, quoted George Orwell in saying, "Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”

“So I think we have to have ownership of what we’re doing today, informed by what we came from or what we've been doing to ultimately have clear direction on how we move forward,” he said.

Vermont's executive director of racial equity, Xusana Davis, gave a shoutout to Black artists and their capacity for creativity despite decades of subjugation, bigotry and genocide. 

Raphaella Brice, right, chats with Kathleen Kemp at the Vermont First African Landing Day 2022 commemoration in Burlington on Saturday August 27, 2022. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

“Faith is an art form, it doesn’t come easy and that’s what makes it precious,” she said. “With all the time and the waiting and the faith we have had and the creativity that we possess, the only option we have is to demand that place where we bring our fallen chair to the table and say, ‘Look, the solutions you have we have seen before and we remain unimpressed.’ But we come with faith and creativity to create something amazing.”

Keynote speaker Bishop Dwayne Royster, senior pastor of Faith United Church of Christ, from Washington, D.C., outlined the struggles of Black people in America from the first Africans who against their will arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, some 403 years ago to the generational trauma of enslavement. He called for a new day and a new country following the killings of George Floyd and Trayvon Martin. 

“Perhaps in this moment, if we are faithful enough to believe, what we see falling down around us is not falling down in a bad way but is collapsing so that we can build something new,” he said. “We can create something far more beautiful than we have ever seen.”

Though doing the work while looking to the future takes courage and tenacity, sometimes it takes something more, something bigger than ourselves, said Hughes in his closing statement. “In order to be able to walk in that consistently, we have got to believe stuff that we don’t see sometimes. Amen.”

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Auditi Guha

About Auditi

Auditi is Chittenden County editor at VTDigger. Originally from Calcutta, India, she graduated from Emerson College with an MA in journalism. She has worked as an editor and reporter for several newspapers, and in various beats. Most recently, she covered race and justice at Rewire.News, and higher education at the New Bedford Standard-Times. She previously worked at several Massachusetts newsrooms. She is a mentor for young reporters through the Report For America program, founded the Boston chapter of the South Asian Journalists Association, and is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Email: [email protected]

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