Four hundred and three years ago, the first Africans were forcibly brought to Point Comfort, at the mouth of the James River, on the date recorded in the colonialist John Rolfe’s letters as “at the latter end of August” in 1619.
Taken from their homeland in Angola by Portuguese slave traders and subsequently captured by English privateers in the Gulf of Mexico, these 20 men and women were the first Africans in mainland English America, including one woman known to the historical record only as “Angela,” listed as living in the household of Captain William Pierce in Jamestown in 1625.
To recover the story of these enslaved people, Jamestown Rediscovery produced Angela: Jamestown and the First Africans, a book aimed at adding dimension to what has been learned through archaeology, history, and historical research. The book is written by a team of scholars, who chose to dedicate it to historic interpreter Valarie Gray-Holmes, whose portrayal of Angela brought her story to life for thousands of visitors to the national park site.
“Her job was to give humanity to the historic outline we provided,” said Angel Johnston, communications manager at Historic Jamestowne. “Our visitors remember her programs. For a lot of them, it’s a hard topic, so it’s a really emotional memory.”
It’s hard for Gray-Holmes, too.
“Back in 2017, when first asked if I would be willing to develop an interpretation of this ‘person from the past,’ I was flattered, but then the reality set in,” Gray-Holmes wrote of her casting. “I was given a single name… Angela. No last name, paintings, or images. A name perhaps given to her as she reached the shores of Jamestown.”
Gray-Holmes struggled with the weighty responsibility of getting Angela’s story right but was buoyed by a visitor who told her, “Even if it is not Angela’s story that you tell, it is someone’s story.”
Johnston said Gray-Holmes was flattered by the dedication, graciously deflecting credit to the research she relied on.
“It really does take a village does it not?” Gray-Holmes said. “It started with a life to represent lives and all who honored our American story. What a great job using all of your expertise, experiences, and hearts in telling and sharing the backstory.” The book is available online at historicjamestowne.org or can be purchased at the Historic Jamestowne museum store. There is an admission fee to the park site but visitors may enter the gift shop without purchasing a ticket. The Visitor Center is open from 9am until 4:30pm daily except certain holidays. For more information visit the website or call 757-856-1250.