Fourth annual Vermont First African Landing Day commemorates resilience through Black faith
Last weekend, Burlington held its fourth annual Vermont First African Landing Day.
The Vermont Racial Justice Alliance hosted a full-day of performances, powerful speeches, and conversations.
This annual commemoration is to honor the first Africans to arrive in the U.S. and the contributions of African Americans to the country.
This year’s theme focused on the role that faith played in the lives of descendants of slavery. Burlington’s Intervale Center was full of gospel music, hundreds of smiling faces, and a few young members of the community.
Several artists from across the country each took the stage and enchanted the audience, from local poet Rajnii Eddins to songs by the group Baptist Gospel Choir.
Keynote speaker Bishop Dwayne Royster came all the way from Washington, D.C., to deliver a powerful speech about the struggles of being Black in America, from slavery to police brutality.
Cortney Smith’s magenta hair swayed and rocked to the Plattsburgh State Gospel Choir.
“I hope they have more of this, you know, and not just, you know, of course to support Black people, but just to support the love of the world to bring back the community together,” she said.
Gospel songs historically have a theme of resilience and surviving a struggle through faith. Several artists graced the stage and encouraged visitors to join them in praise dances.
Listen to the Plattsburgh State Gospel Choir:
As the hot summer sun hovered overhead, people enjoyed free ice cream and home-cooked meals, and lay in the bright green grass. The day was not only rooted in building community, but educating them as well.
Inside of a nearby barn was the 1619 Traveling Exhibit, honoring 400 years of African American history. The traveling museum is on display at the Richard Kemp Center.
Kathleen Kemp is on the board of directors for the center, and is Richard Kemp’s oldest daughter.
“This event for me is almost a re-grounding, and a resurgence, just coupled with the … us Black folks getting together to celebrate, to worship, to eat and enjoy each other's company, and make those professional connections that have been missing so far,” she said.
Bruce Wilson leads a nonprofit dedicated to inspiring youth. He was excited to attend the event.
“I feel so joyous in my heart hearing gospel music, see people who've seen it," he said. "Oh, man. So that's what it does for me, man. I couldn't miss this at all."
This commemoration started in 2019 after much campaigning and finally a proclamation by Gov. Phil Scott:
"All in the State of Vermont are encouraged to learn about the Commemoration of the First African Landing Day to expand understanding and appreciation of the significance of the arrival of Africans in the United States; and the contributions of African Americans in the United States."
Scott made the proclamationand signed it on Aug. 24, 2019. The commemoration came alongside the 400th anniversary of the first recorded arrival of enslaved Africans in mainland English America in August 1619. Since then, every fourth Saturday in August is First African Landing Day in Vermont.
“All that is left is for folks to have the courage and commitment to show up, embrace this opportunity and be a part of the messy work of addressing the legacy of slavery — eradicating systemic racism,” wrote Christine Hughes, director of the Kemp Center, in a statement.
This event helps to set the table to continue liberating Black and Brown bodies.
“This means coming together, standing with and acknowledging the contribution, resilience and power of Black folks in Vermont, and commemorating with us in the spirit of the fact that we have come this far by faith,” Hughes said.
“All that is left is for folks to have the courage and commitment to show up, embrace this opportunity and be a part of the messy work of addressing the legacy of slavery — eradicating systemic racism.”Christine Hughes, Kemp Center director
As part of the day, event organizers also held space to discuss Proposal 2, which would amend the Vermont Constitution to prohibit slavery in all forms here.
Since 2018, three states have removed slavery from their state constitutions: Utah, Colorado and Nebraska.
Kamau Allen is the cofounder of the Abolish Slavery National Network. He’s behind the successful campaign in Colorado.
“We now have five states on the ballot, including here in Vermont," he said. "So that's why it's such an honor to be invited here as a guest in your state."
The four other states with ballot initiatives to prohibit slavery in their constitutions are Alabama, Oregon, Louisiana and Tennessee.
Vermont's Legislature already passed the anti-slavery amendment, and Vermonters will vote on the issue in November.
Rev. Mark Hughes leads the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance and is leading the charge on passing Proposal 2.
“I want to be careful, because this is not a celebration, because it's not really a happy story," Hughes said. "But it's a resilient story. And it's a proud story.”
He says faith and resilience go hand in hand in this continued fight for liberation.
“My life was really centered and grounded in the faith," Hughes said, "and it was because somebody had the fortitude to believe and have faith and have hope that something would be better than it was, that we were able to advance.”