'20 And Odd. Negroes' In August of 1619, a British ship landed near Jamestown, Virginia with dozens of enslaved Africans — the first black people in the colonies that would be come the United States. Four hundred years later, some African Americans are still looking to Jamestown in search of home and a lost history.
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'20 And Odd. Negroes'

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'20 And Odd. Negroes'

'20 And Odd. Negroes'

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GENE DEMBY, HOST:

Have you been to Ghana before?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Never been to Africa.

DEMBY: OK.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: And that's what's exciting me - the fact that we're going to get a chance to go and see our people and honor our ancestors. Such a wonderful idea.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: You're listening to CODE SWITCH from NPR. I'm Gene Demby.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. It was 400 years ago this month that a ship arrived in a small British colony in Virginia. John Rolfe, a businessman at the Jamestown settlement - you may recognize his name from the story of Pocahontas - said at the time that the ship was unremarkable, carrying nothing but - and I'm quoting here - "20 and odd Negroes."

DEMBY: Those 20 and odd Negroes were the first enslaved Africans in the British colonies that would become the United States, and they would, of course, be followed in bondage by hundreds of thousands more.

We're going to talk about the significance of 1619, but to start our episode, Shereen, I want to introduce you to a bunch of black folks who, in 2019, were making their own transatlantic voyage - obviously, this time of their own volition - and in reverse. They're going from Jamestown, Va., to the Jamestown district in Accra, Ghana. And it's part of a trip put on by the NAACP.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Very excited about going to Africa.

MERAJI: All right, it's loud where you are. Set the scene for me.

DEMBY: OK, so we're in this crowded lobby in downtown D.C. It's about 7 a.m. on a Sunday morning, which is really, really early. But you can hear a couple hundred people. They're just standing around. And they're waiting to hop on some buses to Jamestown, Va., for the first leg of this trip. So people were talking about how they're feeling, what parts of the trip they're most excited about - for one woman, it was getting the results of the DNA test that's supposed to uncover her African ancestry.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: And so with the africanancestry.com reveal, they can pinpoint a tribe. And I think it would be fantastic if, while I'm there, I could find out what tribe my ancestors are from.

MERAJI: Of course, a DNA test is going to be involved in some way in this podcast...

DEMBY: Yeah.

MERAJI: ...Because we cannot get away from DNA tests. Anyway...

DEMBY: We can't get away from DNA tests.

MERAJI: (Laughter) Who's going on this Jamestown to Jamestown trip?

DEMBY: As you might imagine, it was almost all black folks. There were some folks who were in their 20s and 30s and some school-aged kids sprinkled in. But for the most part, it was boomers, which makes sense because the trip was not cheap. It was almost $4,000 per person.

MERAJI: Wow.

DEMBY: And so these were people with some expendable income, some expendable free time. Everybody had natural hair (laughter), lots of kente prints - like on T-shirts and stuff. And everybody was dressed comfortably, somewhere, like, right in the middle between, like, cookout fly and church-service fly. And people told us that they had come from all over the U.S. - from Colorado and Tennessee and Florida - to be part of this Jamestown to Jamestown cohort. Elliott Lomax (ph) is from D.C.

And have you been to Africa before?

ELIOTT LOMAX: I haven't. I haven't. But I was born and raised in Chocolate City, right? So I've been close to Africa in mind and spirit but not in body because I've never traveled abroad before. So I'm just excited to go and touch down in the motherland. And I think it's going to be very emotional, and I'm hoping that it's going to be, like, a life-changing event.

MERAJI: Oh, that feels like a lot of pressure and weight to put on one trip.

DEMBY: Yeah. I want to Ghana a few years ago, and it was a very emotional experience for me.

MERAJI: OK.

DEMBY: I went to one of the slave castles on the Ghanaian coast. And I looked out of the Door of No Return, which is the door through which a lot of Africans passed onto slave ships to take them to the New World. And that experience wrecked me. I was surprised at how powerful that experience was.

MERAJI: And for our listeners who may not know this, you also have a personal tie to Ghana.

DEMBY: Right. So I have a Ghanaian last name, Afum, that I don't really use, that I got from my father. But when I was in Ghana a few years ago, people at each stage of customs kept asking me, oh, Mr. Afum, you know, you're coming back home, like I was supposed to be there, like I was visiting family.

I don't have any family there, and I think it became very clear to everyone very quickly that I was not Ghanaian. But still, that language, that returning-home language, that's the same way that so many black folks, even people without immediate familial ties there, use to refer to trips to West Africa - right? - and Ghana in particular - returning home. And it's kind of weird to me.

But the Ghanaian government has also been calling 2019 the year of return. It's this big tourism initiative with all sorts of events and festivities. And the government there said it was expecting about half a million people from all across the African diaspora to come to Ghana for the Year of Return. The NAACP said that this crew, the Jamestown to Jamestown cohort, they will be the largest group of people coming from the U.S. to go to Ghana as part of the Year of Return.

Now we're trying to find a bus to get on.

So there were five busloads full of people. After a couple of hours on the bus, we're in Jamestown.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: We're here.

DEMBY: It was, as you might imagine, Shereen - Virginia in the summer, it is the South.

MERAJI: Hot.

DEMBY: It was very hot.

MERAJI: Muggy.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Going to get sweaty today (laughter).

DEMBY: I know.

People were groggy.

Get some rest?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: No.

(LAUGHTER)

DEMBY: So real quick, just so everyone gets a sense of what Jamestown is like - it's a tourist attraction. There's all sorts of buildings and forts meant to capture what it was like in the Colonial period in America. So after we walk through the visitor center, some drummers...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: ...Led this big procession over to this towering stone obelisk situation. And etched into the side of the obelisk, there were these important dates in Jamestown's history - when the British settlement was founded, the date in 1619 when the Virginia Colony created its first representative government.

The smaller inscription reads - lastly and chiefly, the way to prosper and achieve good success is to make yourselves all of one mind for the good of your country and your own and to serve and to fear God, the giver of all goodness, for every plantation in which our Heavenly Father hath not planted and shall be rooted out. What?

But no mention, Shereen, of the first Africans who landed there literally weeks after that representative government was formed; no references to the Powhatan people who had lived on that land long before the British colonists had even arrived.

MERAJI: And unfortunately, that doesn't actually surprise me.

DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: (Laughter) But I'm assuming that, you know, the folks who are leading this trip or the people that you met who were on this trip, they could fill in some of that history.

DEMBY: OK, about that (laughter) - so we asked some of the folks who were making this trip about 1619 - like what they knew about it, what they had learned about it growing up, why it was important to them. Some people said they only knew about 1619 because they got the invite for this trip, that they didn't learn about it in school at all.

MERAJI: Which is fair because I do not remember learning about it in school.

DEMBY: Really?

MERAJI: I don't remember learning about it, I think, until college.

DEMBY: Wow.

MERAJI: And I feel like I didn't even learn about it in the right way then.

DEMBY: Yeah, so we were hoping that people would be filling in the blanks about just what happened to those, quote, "20 and odd Negroes" that arrived at Jamestown. So we waited, and there were speeches...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: ...We would not exist but for this journey we call the transatlantic movement.

DEMBY: ...About the history of the NAACP and about voting Trump out of office, about defending Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, weirdly - you know, the blackface dude.

MERAJI: Yes, how could I forget?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: However, in Virginia, the majority of voters - including black voters - are not asking them to step down.

DEMBY: There were some references to the history and the middle passage and honoring our ancestors and what they went through.

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) Wade in the water.

DEMBY: There was a choral group. There were some prayers.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: We thank you, Lord God, for our forefathers, Lord God, our ancestors.

DEMBY: And the whole thing closed with a ceremony in which people wrote messages to their ancestors on cards, before placing those cards in a fire.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: I said, dear ancestors, thank you for your strength, for your spirit, for your struggle, for all you did to save us from what came anyway.

MERAJI: That sounds like a really lovely sentiment.

DEMBY: It was. That part was nice. But if you came to this thing in Jamestown, Va., not knowing anything about August 1619, not knowing anything about who was there and how they got there, you probably wouldn't have known any more after that long, hot morning was over.

MERAJI: But you knew some of that history already.

DEMBY: I mean, I thought I did.

The way we learn about this in school, if we learn about it at all, is that those 20 and odd Negroes, as you called them...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: Yeah.

DEMBY: ...That they're indentured, that they were not slave - like, enslaved; they were in some sort of contract labor situation.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: Yeah. Right.

DEMBY: Is that wrong?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: It's wrong.

MERAJI: Ooh.

DEMBY: Yep.

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: All right, then. Well, I guess you didn't know...

DEMBY: I did not know.

MERAJI: ...As much as you thought you knew.

DEMBY: Story of my life.

MERAJI: (Laughter).

DEMBY: After the break, we talked to an historian who took us all around Jamestown Island to fill in those blanks for us, and he broke down why so many African Americans are still looking for home.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Shereen.

DEMBY: Gene.

MERAJI: CODE SWITCH. We were just with a group of African Americans getting ready to take a trip from Jamestown, Va., to Jamestown, Ghana, to remember 1619, which is a part of American history most people, including Gene...

DEMBY: Who?

MERAJI: ...Seem a little unclear about.

DEMBY: I'm going to let that slide, Shereen. I'm going to let that slide. So we wanted a deeper history than the one we got on this bus trip. So the next day, Leah (ph) and I met up with someone who knew all about that.

Robert Vinson. Hey, I'm Gene.

ROBERT VINSON: Gene, how you doing?

DEMBY: How's it going?

VINSON: Come on in, if you want to come in.

DEMBY: Robert Vinson picked us up to take us on a tour of Jamestown Island. He's an historian and a professor of Africana studies at William & Mary, which is right down the road.

VINSON: (Inaudible) Here's some of that (ph). And so we're coming on to the island now.

DEMBY: And Robert reminded us that this land has a history that predates 1619. Thousands of native people from the Powhatan Confederation had been living in this area for a very long time.

VINSON: And so what is not often told (unintelligible) Jamestown settlement is that this was already settled land - right? - by Powhatan Confederacy, and these folk coming in were really regarded as encroachers. Where - the relationships, starting from 1607, were fraud.

DEMBY: So we got out of Robert's car, and we took a look around where we were, and he told us about what Jamestown probably would have looked like in 1619. It's peaceful and wooded. There all sorts of nature sounds. He said that back then, there would have been foxes and snakes and other kinds of animals. But when we were out there, there were just cyclists and cars, and we were pretty much alone. So we found this shady area to talk because I can't reiterate and stress to you enough, Shereen, it was so damn hot. It was so hot. And we got into some of the history of this place, the fact and the fiction.

The way we learn about this in school, if we learn about it at all, is that those 20-and-odd Negroes, as you call them...

VINSON: Yeah.

DEMBY: ...That they're indentured, that they were not, like, enslaved. They were in some sort of contract...

VINSON: Yeah.

DEMBY: ...Labor situation.

VINSON: Right.

DEMBY: Is that wrong?

VINSON: It's wrong. So these folk were enslaved, and so there's a backstory to who they are. So I always like to tell the African background of who they were before they came - right? - because obviously, they had a history. And they came from West Central Africa, and they were coming out of the state of Ndongo. And this was a powerful independent state, but at the point of - around 1615, 1616, the Portuguese had already established a colony called Angola, and they had done so in this area in 1575.

So you have a kingdom of Congo, you have a kingdom of Ndongo and then you have this Portuguese colony of Angola. Now, the Congo and Ndongo both had relations with Portugal on equal terms - right? - economic, political, educational, the whole nine yards. So all that's fine up until about 1615, 1616.

DEMBY: What changed?

VINSON: What changed? So there was a governor, a Portuguese governor named Vasconcelos who is aware of the fact that the Portuguese now have a colony in Brazil. And in order to make that colony viable, they need labor. And they don't have enough Portuguese, and they can't enslave enough Native Americans in Brazil to make that work. And so they think of the idea of - ah. Let's not just have a colony here. Let's actually use this colony as a base to engage in slave raiding.

MERAJI: All right, so the Portuguese have this colony in Africa called Angola, which they're now using to gather slaves to work in another Portuguese colony...

DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: ...Of Brazil.

DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: And I guess my question is, what does this have to do with the British colony of Jamestown?

DEMBY: Yeah, it is kind of a winding story, but a whole lot of things had to happen for those 20-and-odd Negroes to end up in Jamestown, Va., in 1619. Robert told us that the Portuguese linked up with this nomadic African raiding group called Imbangala. Together, they captured thousands of people from Ndongo to be sold across the Atlantic. And in 1619, there was one raid in particular that captured 350 Africans, who were then forced onto a Spanish slave ship called the San Juan Bautista.

That ship set off for a Spanish colony in what is today Mexico, but first, they stop in Jamaica and sell 24 children to buy supplies. Then they get back on their way to Mexico, but out on the high seas, the San Juan Bautista gets raided by two English pirate ships. One was the White Lion, and the other was The Treasurer.

VINSON: And in that battle, they are able to take off tallow and wax, which is used primarily to make candles, but also the real prize was about 50 to 60 Africans, right? So then this is where Jamestown comes into our story - right? - because all of this is taking place, you know, further south.

But it comes into our story because by 1619, these two English ships need somewhere to go. The English don't yet have colonies in the Caribbean, but they do in Bermuda and in Jamestown, and so that's where those two ships go. And so the word comes up to Jamestown that, oh, this White Lion - this ship is here, and they have these Negroes for sale, and they need supplies.

DEMBY: So the governor of Jamestown, George Yardley, and the head merchant of Jamestown, Abraham Piersey, go and meet up with the White Lion, one of the English pirate ships. A couple of days later, the other one, The Treasurer, would land in Virginia, too...

VINSON: To say, oh, let's check this out. Oh, you have these Negroes. Oh, OK. Now, historians will tell you - and I'm part of this clan, if you will, of historians - is that we have to be careful because the actual term slave is not used at this early period, right? And so we have to look carefully at the evidence to say what's happening here.

The other part that historians will point to is that, well, actual laws that focus on slavery does not happen in this early period of 1619 in the first couple of decades. It happens later. And the indentured laborers and the enslaved people are working, playing, living side-by-side, right? But there are distinctions because the indentured laborers are serving a term of indenture - usually seven years or so - and then they're granted their freedom.

So we know that in the case of Yardley, he died in 1627, as did Piersey. And Yardley - and Piersey, but particularly Yardley - had wills, and in those wills, these people who were enslaved within the household were passed down to the descendants. And not only did Yardley's children continue to own the people that their father had owned, Yardley's children actually sold two of the enslaved people's children.

And so that tells us something. There's a hereditary dynamic happening from the slaveowner's perspective, who was able to pass down property, including enslaved people regarded as property, but also, the enslaved people's children seem to have a condition of enslavement in the sense that they could be sold.

MERAJI: So what so many kids in the U.S. are taught, if they are taught about this history at all, is that the first Africans here were not enslaved. They were indentured servants.

DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: And what I'm hearing is that that is not true.

DEMBY: Yeah.

MERAJI: There's actual proof that they were treated like property that could be bought, sold or inherited. Another thing that I'm hearing here is that this first group of enslaved Africans that arrived in what is now the United States - they weren't from anywhere near Ghana.

DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: So in my mind, I'm like, why commemorate 1619 by going to Jamestown in Ghana and not - I don't know - going to Luanda in Angola, which is so much closer to where that original group was from?

DEMBY: Right. I was wondering the same thing, Shereen. Robert told us that people often think about Ghana as a place to honor their enslaved ancestors because Ghana, you know, has these grandiose slave castles on the coast because the Ghanaian government has made a big push to foster these pan-African connections. And it's also an English-speaking country.

MERAJI: Right, and they speak Portuguese in Angola.

DEMBY: Right, exactly. And Robert said Ghana does figure really heavily in the transatlantic slave trade, but that was well after the first arrival of Africans at Jamestown. But there's something about that construction - like, oh, I'm going back to Ghana, going back to my homeland - that seemed flattening to me, that whole Africa is a country thing. So I asked Robert, what is that about?

VINSON: It's because we have not been fully incorporated and accepted here, and so then we have that dynamic of - where do we go to look? We don't have the example of the Italian American or the Irish American to even go to a particular town to maybe have distant relatives still there - right? - who you can actually visit.

And so yeah, we looked to the whole continent, all of Africa, and we do that primarily because those of us who have sort of a pan-African sensibility understand that, as diverse and big as Africa is, it did go through a broadly shared history - recent history, at least - of colonialism. That happened throughout the continent, and those of us going through Jim Crow felt a connection. Our American Jim Crow is similar to their colonialism or South African apartheid.

And we've been dealing with centuries of other people denying our history. Hegel said we had no history, right? And people still say that we have no history, that we should be glad that we were enslaved and brought into history and civilization, right? And so yeah, we want to claim the whole continent because other people stole our right to be more specific about where we come from.

And then when we land on the African continent - and I have to be aware of this when I go to southern Africa. I go there pretty frequently. I'm not South African. And to say, ah, I'm an African - that's a little too easy. It's a little insulting to Africans who actually speak African languages and have folkways and say, oh, that's all it takes - a declaration and you're one of us? Wow.

But we're still African because there are other folk who make distinctions that say, yeah, you might be American but you're not real Americans - right? - when in fact, on average, our ancestry goes back to this country into the 18th century on average. And that's much earlier than the average European American, many who came in the late 19th or early 20th century. So our roots as Americans are much deeper than the vast majority of Americans in this country. The only ones who can stake the claim are the Native Americans. Other than that, it's us.

DEMBY: The first Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619. That was the year before the Mayflower. This one family that's kind of scattered around the part of Virginia we were entering - they can trace their family tree back a ways and, they believe, maybe even to this very moment that we've been talking about. So Leah and I left Robert Vinson in Williamsburg and went to meet that family at a cemetery in Hampton, Va.

MERAJI: All right. A cemetery is an interesting place to meet people for the very first time.

DEMBY: It is. It's weird, but we knew why we were going there. And it was kind of in a random-ass location, I should say. It's, you know, a couple acres, but it's tucked behind a bunch of suburban homes, and there's only a little patch of grass that'll lead you to it. But that's where we meet the Tuckers - or four of them, anyway.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Show me love.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Hi. How are you?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: How are you doing, dear? How are you doing?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I'm fine. Hello. How are you?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Oh, sorry.

DEMBY: They're cousins - Carolita, Julia, Verrandall and Walter. They kind of reminded me of my family a little bit.

How many Tuckers are there now? Like...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Trying to count all of them...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: That's right. We're still finding Tuckers. Let's just put it that way.

DEMBY: And they're all standing next to a granite sign at the entrance of the cemetery that reads, first black family. But an important cousin in this story who isn't there is their cousin Thelma.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: So we had a cousin. Her name was Thelma Green Williams, and she was the family historian.

DEMBY: And I asked them, what was Thelma like? Carolita, she said that Thelma was willful.

MERAJI: Thelma sounds like my kind of woman.

DEMBY: I'm sure you got that a lot, Shereen. I'm sure you get that a lot. And Carolita said that with kind of a smirk because apparently, Thelma was a very forceful personality, and she was fixated on the Tuckers' genealogy. When they were all young, the rest of the cousins, they would be out playing, you know, doing other things that young people do. But Thelma would tag along with the old folks and pepper them with questions about their parents, about their parents' parents.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: And a lot of people in our family just kind of let her do her thing. We ignored her. You know, some of us - I was the one buying the family tree maker. You know, it's like, here, Thelma. Put the - you know? But she was 100% passionate about this.

DEMBY: And as the cousins all got older, Thelma would go to historical archives and libraries to go document-diving to find out what, if anything, she could find out about the Tuckers, about their history. They said she always had these paper bags full of folders and documents and photos that the older Tucker relatives just had lying around.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: And she was gathering pictures. She was doing all this hard work, and she kept saying, these stories - you realize I now know what they're talking about.

DEMBY: The Tuckers knew that they had been in that part of Virginia for generations, but one of the stories that Thelma's grandmother used to tell her that had long been part of the family lore that a lot of people didn't sort of pay attention to was that the family was descended from William Tucker.

MERAJI: William Tucker - who's that? Does he have anything to do with 1619?

DEMBY: He does, as a matter of fact. There's a lot we don't know about those first 20-and-odd Negroes, but we know that in 1624, two of those 20-and-odd Negroes, Antony and Isabella, were recorded as working on a plantation in Virginia about 20 miles from Hampton, and that plantation was owned by a man named Captain William Tucker. But the records show that Anthony and Isabella had a son who was baptized as William.

MERAJI: Aha. So that would make William, as far as these records are concerned, the first black child born in the colonies that would eventually become the United States...

DEMBY: Exactly.

MERAJI: ...Which explains that marble marker at the cemetery that says, first black family.

DEMBY: Right. And of course, you know, there weren't a lot of well-kept records back then, especially for enslaved people, in the early 17th century. If you think about the Tucker's family tree, Thelma basically has the lower stuff, the more recent generations filled out. And the Tuckers believe they had the top part figured out through the family lore. That's William Tucker, born in 1624 to Antony and Isabella. What they don't have is all the stories in the middle that would connect William Tucker to their grandparents and great-grandparents in the 1800s.

And we don't really know much about William. I mean, we know he was born. We don't know how long he lived. We don't know when he died. We don't even know if he had kids. And in a lot of ways, that's kind of unprovable, but that connection is what Thelma, the willful cousin, spent a lot of her life trying to prove. So Thelma died in 2006 at the age of 64, and she was unable to finish her research, but USA Today quoted her in an old interview from 1998. It was about her quest to fill in the Tucker's history. She said, quote, "It's important that people know we didn't just fall out of the sky."

Would you mind just walking us to where your immediate relatives are in the cemetery?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I think the closest probably might be Thelma.

DEMBY: All of which, Shereen, brings us back to the cemetery that we're standing in - the lot where the Tuckers, including Thelma, are buried has been around for a very long time. One of their great-grandparents purchased it with some other folks for a hundred dollars back in 1896. Back then, it was called The Old Colored Burial Ground, and cousin Carolita, who we were speaking to, says that none of the Tuckers had really paid attention to this lot for a very long time - like, a very long time. When they were young, they didn't really care. Like, what young person wants to hang out in a cemetery? You know what I mean?

MERAJI: True.

DEMBY: So all those many, many Tucker cousins that grew up - they moved away, and so the Old Colored Burial Ground that they'd inherited just sat neglected for 50 years.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: A lot of the neighbors - because it was very closed off, people were dumping things back here. Kids would run through here with short cuts.

DEMBY: There were these eight-foot weeds. There were old trees that are falling over. There were snakes. Cousin Verrandall, he says it was a dumping ground.

VERRANDALL TUCKER: Nothing but brush and debris - refrigerators we found right there. Washing machines, toilets, basketballs...

DEMBY: In 2013, the mayor of the city of Hampton, Va., called the Tuckers out in the local newspaper. By then, a lot of people in the area had come to believe that William Tucker, that first black baby born in the colonies - that he might actually be buried somewhere in that cemetery. But the mayor said the Tucker cemetery was in, quote, "deplorable condition," and she said that she was willing to hear ideas from anybody who wanted to take over that land which the city thought was abandoned.

WALTER TUCKER: And I got pretty offended by it because all it takes is a summer or maybe two where things aren't being kept up and it's overgrown. Well, they wanted to list the cemetery as just unkempt, and somebody needs to take it over - before they talked to any of the family members about - hey. What's going on? Do y'all need some help?

DEMBY: Walter says that call-out was uncomfortable, but it was a wakeup call.

MERAJI: I bet.

DEMBY: The city basically said, you either have to do something or lose this land that had been in their family for generations, land where their relatives were buried.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: And we had to come together as a family. We had to start paying attention. We had to start doing our part. And it takes a lot of energy. It takes a lot of organization, and that was something that we learned as a family to do because we wanted to. And I hope others will want to preserve this history because this, to me, is history not just for our family but for those we don't know.

DEMBY: And so over many months, the Tuckers got together, and they got rid of all those old, dead trees and all the trash and the weeds and the refrigerators and the snakes. They put up an iron fence around the lot. And after this long process with lots of volunteers and local press attention and grant money, this unruly, dirty lot started to look like a quiet, solemn garden.

And so in just the last few years, the Tuckers went from never visiting this place, this little plot of land, to some member of the Tucker clan or some volunteer going over there every few days or so to water the flowers and to rake the leaves and to mow the lawn just to keep it presentable.

MERAJI: So they're literally tending their family's legacy.

DEMBY: Right. And they came to it reluctantly, obviously, but now they're kind of hoping that their own kids, who are teenagers - that they'll get more involved because one day, the Tucker cemetery, the former Old Colored Burial Ground - that's going to be their kids' legacy, too. Here's cousin Verrandall.

TUCKER: My daughter is now getting involved, and I've been talking to her like my father used to talk to me years ago. I didn't have any interest in it. It's like, oh, Lord. Here he go again telling these stories. And then my daughter, she felt the same way for a while. Now she's starting to get involved. She's starting to chime in now in our conversation, the family meeting that we have. And that makes me feel good.

DEMBY: And one last thing - so once that family cemetery was cleared, once it was clean, it started to give up even more secrets. So the Tuckers had this X-ray scan done of the ground, and besides the Tuckers they knew about, they found 100 more...

MERAJI: Wow.

DEMBY: ...Unmarked graves, some of which go back way further than they realized.

MERAJI: That's amazing. Do they know who's buried there?

DEMBY: No, not really. And, I mean, maybe there's more Tuckers, maybe lots of other black folks. Walter, one of the cousins, said that they thought about disinterring some of the remains that they had recently discovered but also that they'd started to think of it as hallowed ground. And so it was a sacred place that they didn't want to disturb, so they weren't going to.

MERAJI: But it is possible that those missing pieces of their family tree that cousin Thelma was trying to piece together that might connect them directly to William Tucker, that first black child born in what is now the U.S. - that they may be there, buried there.

DEMBY: But on some level, reclaiming this cemetery isn't just about corroborating whether their family lore is 100% true. Maybe it's more about remembering all those unknown people who were buried there - that they were here.

TUCKER: Because we built America. We built this country off of free labor. We built the capital. We've invented so many things, so many resources that everybody use every day. And it just feels so good to be a part of that and to keep that legacy going that's not being recognized like it should be.

DEMBY: That's cousin Verrandall, by the way. And I asked him, what is it like to have so much history, like, literally embedded on your property? And he said, the Tucker family's inheritance is so much bigger than him and his cousins.

TUCKER: This is American history. It's not just about us. It's about everybody. And it has to be told. It has to be told. Bits and pieces were told, but not the beginning.

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MERAJI: What cousin Verrandall is saying there really makes me think back to the people that you introduced us to at the beginning, Gene - the people who are making that trans-Atlantic trip to Ghana to mark 1619 and how what they're doing is very much connected to what historian Robert Vinson is doing with his work and what cousin Verrandall and the Tuckers are doing by tending their legacy and maintaining the cemetery. It feels like they're all trying - and, granted, in very different ways - to unearth a history that's been buried for 400 years to help themselves strengthen this connection they have to home and to help all of us understand - truly understand - this place we call home.

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DEMBY: All right, y'all. That's our show. You can follow us on Twitter. We're @NPRCodeSwitch. Shereen is @RadioMirage - that's @RadioMirage, all one word. I'm @GeeDee215. We want to hear from you. Our email is codeswitch@npr.org.

MERAJI: And don't forget to subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/newsletter/codeswitch.

DEMBY: This episode was produced by Leah Donnella and Jess Kung. It was edited by you, Shereen. Shout-out to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam, Karen Grigsby Bates, Kat Chow, Kumari Devarajan, LA Johnson, Adrian Florido, Sami Yenigun and Steve Drummond. I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: Easy, y'all.

MERAJI: Peace.

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