In late August 1619, a shipment of “20 and odd Negroes” arrived on a ship to Virginia. They were not the first Africans in Virginia, but this human cargo is widely viewed as the beginning of slavery in the English colonies. This symbolic moment reverberated through the Civil War, the civil-rights movement, and the racial tensions that still echo in America today.

The distinguished historian John Thornton wrote that because of recent archival discoveries, we have a pretty good idea of who these Africans were.

We now know that the “20. and odd Negroes” that arrived at Point Comfort in August 1619 had been taken on the high seas from the Sao Joao Bautista. This ship was a Portuguese slaver captained by Manuel Mendes da Cunha bound from Luanda, Angola, to Vera Cruz carrying slaves in conformity with an asiento, a contract to deliver slaves to Spanish colonies. . . .

They were not seasoned slaves of many origins brought from the Caribbean, as was previously accepted by most historians, but probably a much more ethnically coherent group just recently enslaved in Africa. In particular, they were from Luanda, the recently established capital of the Portuguese colony of Angola.

Unlike most of the slaves who came to the Americas, these Angolans may have had some familiarity with Catholic Christianity.

By 1619, a Kimbundu-speaking Christian community existed in Angola, with its own informal catechismal literature, delivered by the Jesuit priests who had accompanied the first conquerors in 1575. . . . Quite possibly then those slaves who ended up in Virginia instead of Vera Cruz had at least been introduced to the Christian faith, though Virginia slave holders, with their fear that Christianity would make slaves free, would have been reluctant to admit it, had they known. . . .

They did not conform to the stereotyped, parochial image of Africans from precolonial villages. They were more likely from an urban or at least urbanized area (though they probably knew how to raise crops and domestic animals), and they had learned the rudiments of Christianity.

It is important for Christians (and all Americans) to know the story of these slaves (they were almost certainly slaves, not indentured servants). The vast majority of people who crossed the Atlantic from the 1500s to the Civil War were African slaves, not Europeans. Slavery was right at the center of the founding of the European colonies in America.

These “20 and odd Negroes” began a terrible story of exploitation and racial strife. We are still grappling with the fallout from slavery as a nation, and in our churches today. We should remember, and we should lament.