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Jamestown interpreter tells the story of 'Angela,' one of the first Africans in Virginia; her faith is a mystery

Adelle M. Banks/Religion News Service | 8/9/2019, 6 a.m.
Wearing a yellow head wrap, gray skirt and soiled apron, a woman who says she is “called by the name ...
Interpreter Valarie Holmes portrays Angela, one of the first enslaved Africans to arrive in Virginia, at Historic Jamestowne. Adelle M. Banks/RNS photo

Wearing a yellow head wrap, gray skirt and soiled apron, a woman who says she is “called by the name of Angela” stood by the James River and told her story, one of faith and courage, darkness and hope.

“Every day, I rise,” said interpreter Valarie Holmes in late March on her first day portraying an enslaved woman forcibly brought to Virginia 400 years ago. “And then I ask: ‘Great Spirit, speak to me and give order to my thoughts, my words, my hands, my feet this day.’ ”

A group of dozens of visitors to Historic Jamestowne, the preserved site of the first permanent English settlement in the United States, listened on the windswept banks of the river as Ms. Holmes spoke, including snippets of faith in her story.

The presentation is just one of many ways Americans are commemorating the 400th anniversary of the arrival of “taken people,” as Ms. Holmes calls the first documented Africans who arrived against their will in Virginia.

About 12.5 million Africans were transported and sold during the trans-Atlantic slave trade from the 16th to the 19th centuries. More than 300,000 were shipped to the United States, historians estimate. The 1860 U.S. Census recorded a U.S. slave population of close to 4 million. The Emancipation Proclamation officially freed some Southern slaves in 1863, but many black people remained enslaved until 1865.

Archaeologists continue to work to find out more about the places where Angela and other enslaved people were brought and details of the lives they led.

Ms. Holmes’ interpretation attempts to fill in the gaps even as she and scholars of this time in history say the specifics of Angela’s faith — and that of many other enslaved Africans brought to the United States — remain a mystery.

But experts say that she was nevertheless a believer of some sort.

“Angela, being someone who was taken from her homeland, having crossed oceans, being in a captive situation on strange land, displaced from everything that she knew — I would think, yes, she’s a woman of faith,” said Dr. Lauranett Lee, who moderated a recent scholarly conference, “Faith Journeys in the Black Experience: 1619-2019,” that was co-convened by Virginia Union University’s Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology.

Ms. Holmes depicts Angela as a Catholic. Some 20 percent of African slaves were Muslim, historians estimate. Others practiced local, traditional religions.

“There’s going to be a mix because even those who arrived here were not specifically from the same area, the same tribe,” added Dr. Lee, a University of Richmond lecturer and the founding curator of African-American history at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture.

“They were caught up in kidnapping and slave-trading nets and the slavers themselves did not want too many individuals from the same group to be together because then they could communicate.”

In Ms. Holmes’ 45-minute presentation, Angela spoke of Catholic priests who were among the “trespassers” in her homeland, the kingdom of Ndongo in what is now the west-central African country of Angola.