JAMESTOWN, Va. — Valarie Gray-Holmes sits quietly, her back to the audience gathered at benches under oak and cypress trees by the James River at Virginia’s Historic Jamestowne.
She smooths her beige, cotton skirts and grease-stained apron as she waits to be introduced. The peach stripes on her blouse are all but faded and her yellow headscarf is wrapped loosely around her salt-and-pepper hair. As the waves splash against the riverbank, she rises slowly, silently. She turns to the audience and begins her story.
“Every day I rise, and I come to a place and I cry,” she says.
Valarie’s character is a middle-aged woman reflecting on her young life of freedom in Angola in contrast with her lonely life as an enslaved woman in Jamestown. It is a story of pain and suffering: being torn from her community, forced aboard a slave ship, then a pirate ship, to be deposited in this strange and hostile land. She moves in close to a tourist, as if to take her by the hand. “Do you have a name from birth?” she asks. The woman responds. “Jane,” she says.
“I too, have a name from birth,” she says with a smile. “My name is…” Her eyes widen as she pauses abruptly, her fingers fly to her mouth. “But we won’t speak of that now. They call me Angela here.” She backs away, eyes downcast, and resumes her story, the wall between character and audience, enslaved and free, again intact.
Kaid Ray-Tipton, 25, of Arlington, Virginia, watched Valarie intensely. After the performance, he raised his hand. His father is black, his mother is white and his wife, Marla, is Burmese American. The couple came to Jamestown to honor their enslaved ancestors and to investigate the history of 1619, 400 years after the first recorded Africans in the Virginia colony landed in nearby Hampton. This was the first time he’d ever heard of Angela. Her story seemed like something he should have already known. And that both angered and embarrassed him.
“Why Angela, why now?” he asked.
It’s a question Valarie often hears.
Why isn’t Angela part of colonial history lessons? Why, 400 years later, are they just hearing her story?
“What if now is the time we are supposed to know about Angela?” Valarie tells Kaid. Maybe now the country is finally ready to acknowledge Angela’s importance – as the first African woman in Jamestown for whom there is a name and a story.
1619 Voices Project: Listen to oral histories of daring escapes from slavery
Angela was one of 350 enslaved Angolans aboard the San Juan Bautista ship as it sailed from Luanda in mid-1619, bound for Veracruz, Mexico. Captives from the Ndongo Kingdom endured a months-long journey chained and packed into the dark, musty hold of the ship, sitting amid cargo in filth, sickness and death. Only 207 survived the Atlantic crossing.
The ship was seized near Veracruz by two English privateer vessels, the White Lion and the Treasurer, who took the healthiest 55 or 60 to split between them and sell. The landing of the first “20 and odd” Africans in August 1619 was the primary subject of commemorations all over the nation this year.
Finding Angela, the first named African woman in Jamestown
Investigations editor Nichelle Smith finds inspiration in the fortitude and remarkable journey of the first recorded African woman in Jamestown.
Angela was brought to Jamestown a few days later with one or two others. They were among the Africans aboard the Treasurer.
Inauspicious as these landings may have seemed, they proved pivotal to the survival of the Virginia colony. The enslaved Africans came as the colony was recovering from drought and starvation that shrank its members from nearly 300 to 60. Tobacco cultivation was showing signs of becoming the viable, profitable industry that would save them. Skilled labor was needed.
The enslavement of Africans wasn’t new to the colonists; by 1619 there were many African servants or slaves in England and the Spanish and Portuguese had built empires in South America and the Caribbean based on African slave labor.
Nor was racism. Merchants and nobles had complained to the crown about societal ills they blamed on black people. Despite having African servants herself, Queen Elizabeth issued several proclamations in the late 1500s urging that “blackamoors” be driven from the land.
While white indentured servants from Europe could be had for cheap to help the Virginia colony prosper, enslaved Africans could be had for free.
From these first landings to nearly 250 years later when slavery was abolished, more than 360,000 Africans were taken from their homes to the United States. Angela is part of the origin, both proud and shameful, of the most prosperous nation on earth.
“Her story is the story of all the Africans who follow,” said James Horn, president of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation, which conducts archaeological digs at Jamestown.
Valarie’s interpretation of Angela’s life is but one part of the effort to tell her story. The other is a three-year, approximately $550,000 National Parks Service grant to the foundation to examine the area where she lived.
In 1625, six years after her arrival, Angela is listed in the colony muster with the Portuguese spelling of her Christian name – “Angelo, a Negro Woman” – living in the household of Captain William Pierce. By then, she had endured the transatlantic ordeal and survived Indian attacks in 1622 that nearly devastated the colony. Angela’s resilience is remarkable since colonists often died within months of arrival, just by dint of weather and disease.
Very few accounts of enslaved people exist in conventional public records – African Americans tracing their roots can turn to plantation records and ship manifests, but often African people are listed as property or cargo. The few known details about Angela – her name, home and country of origin – and her place at the beginning of the American story make her stand out among the millions of enslaved people who were often nameless and faceless. She is a symbolic holy mother for generations of African Americans searching for their heritage.
“There is something about having a name and a real person to connect to,” says historian Linda Heywood, who specializes in Central African history. “She is one of the earliest Africans for whom we know something.”
Bringing Angela’s story to life has become personal for Valarie, who has worked at Colonial Williamsburg and other historic sites for 25 years as an actress. She is a New Jersey native living in Virginia whose parents passed away several years ago.
At 63, Valarie could imagine Angela’s longing for her family and homeland in the same way that she often thinks about her own younger days. But she admits that researching Angela’s life and writing the script for the role was a challenge since much of what she knew about Africa came from Tarzan movies.
So she taught herself the history of Central Africa by reading books by Boston University professors Heywood and John Thornton, chatting with the archaeologists and even watching an online animated Canadian feature about Njinga Mbande, Angola’s most revered queen. Horn’s books helped her understand Jamestown, and she relied on the 1611 King James Bible and an 1828 Webster’s Dictionary for language Angela would have known.
But there was still one big writer’s block.
“I realized I wasn’t able to tell the story of Angela in Jamestown because she wasn’t there,” Valarie said. “She was in Angola.”
The young woman called Angela was a citizen of one of the largest and most influential kingdoms in Central Africa, the Ndongo. Since the mid-1400s, the Portuguese had established trade with the Ndongo kings and queens, whose title Ngola gave the country its name.
“From the time they (the Portuguese) got here, they were in contact with the Ndongo,” said Edgar Marcolino, 36, a historian in Angola.
Missionaries were in Ndongo as well, recording the history of the people as they converted them to Roman Catholicism. A famous late-17th century watercolor painting by Italian Capuchin priest/historian Giovanni Antonio Cavazzi da Montecuccolo shows the king of Ndongo forging tools in a demonstration of the metal-working prowess for which the Ndongo were renowned.
Slavery had been a concept and condition all over Africa for millennia; enslaved people were currency. Slavery already existed in the social order of Kabasa, a sophisticated city of its day rivaling Lisbon or Rome in influence.
But by 1617, the Portuguese greed for highly skilled slaves who could mine their metals and grow their food in the New World clashed head-on with the Ndongo, whose rulers pushed back against the Portuguese as they moved farther into Angola and started taking people and resources without their sanction. The Portuguese enlisted a tribal adversary feared for its violence and witchcraft, the Imbangala, to wage war, enslave everyone they could and wipe out the rest.
The Imbangala scoured Kabasa, some 130 miles east of Portugal’s Luanda colony on the Atlantic coast, rounding up thousands of men, women and children.
Angela was one of them.
Young women like Angela were valuable to slave traders. They could be worked as hard as the men but also be made to bear child after child, ensuring even more slaves.
The Portuguese knew the women who came from densely populated towns and villages around Kabasa had versatile skills. They grew the family’s vegetable gardens and raised pigs, cattle and fowl. They cooked the meals, cared for the children and washed their hand-sewn clothes in the rivers. The Portuguese knew these women bartered, bargained and sold their goods at the crowded local markets, speaking in at least two languages: their native Kimbundu and Portuguese. Angela had all the skills necessary to keep a home in the New World.
The Imbangala knew this too.
As a prisoner, Angela was was marched more than 70 miles to the Fortaleza de Massangano on the Kwanza River. One of the oldest Portuguese forts in Angola, its primary function was to channel enslaved Africans to Luanda.
Because of poor Portuguese record keeping and oral-only Kimbundu traditions, “we don’t have a lot of sources to tell numbers” of enslaved people who moved through Massangano, but it was in the thousands, says Marcolino, who teaches middle schoolers just yards from the fort. According to Thornton, about 50,000 slaves were exported from Angola between 1617 and 1621. The countryside between Ndalatando and Luanda remains sparse and silent today, having never recovered from the population drain.
In full view of the Ndongo citizens of Massangano, Angela and other prisoners were marched past the fort up a narrow, winding path to the praça de escravos, the “Slave Garden,” which overlooks the river.
Prisoners were bathed, baptized and branded before being displayed for sale. Once sold, the Africans were marched to the fort where they would sometimes wait weeks before being forced to go through a tunnel and onto canoes that would take them down the Kwanza River to the courtyards of the merchants who now owned them. After waiting days or weeks in Luanda, Angela would have joined the other captives in being rowed out to the slave ships anchored in the harbor.
Even if Angela was a Christian before her capture, she would have gone through another baptism: the sprinkling of water on her head, the administering of salt under her tongue for wisdom, the receipt of a blessing and a Christian name to replace her Kimbundu name.
This ritual of enslavement happened over and over just steps from the Church of Nossa Senhora da Victoria, where the Portuguese worshiped.
But Christian blessings would have been little comfort in a place that felt nothing like home.
The uncultivated land around Jamestown, with its red clay soil, was similar to the land near Kabasa, but even the oldest oak and cypress trees were younger than the Angolan savanna’s imbondeiro trees.
The night sky in Jamestown, on the other side of the world from Kabasa, was a constant reminder that she was in a strange land. Even the stars were different here.
“I would think that would be the scariest thing imaginable because of your sense of vulnerability. You are removed from everybody that you know and everything that you know,” said Cassandra Newby-Alexander, a professor of history at Norfolk State University.
All Angela had was her work. And that was invaluable, as evidenced by her mention by name in the 1625 Virginia Colony muster as one of the four servants living in the Pierce household, the only one black.
According to Horn, she was likely enslaved, not indentured. Unlike white servants from Europe, the Africans lacked signed contracts specifying their terms of service and thus could be kept in servitude indefinitely.
In the Pierce’s city home, Angela worked alongside her mistress, Joan Pierce. Joan was admired for her resourcefulness and will – while her husband was stranded on Bermuda after a hurricane wrecked his ship, she survived the colony’s Starving Time in 1609. She worked and became known for her fig preserves.
Angela likely grew the figs and raised the hogs, keeping house the way she had done in Kabasa. The fact that this enslaved African woman was listed in the muster alongside the other servants as if she were equal indicates the Pierces’ must have had high regard for her.
“To take someone’s humanity away, the first thing you do is take their name – you make them nameless and faceless,” says Kym Hall, the NPS superintendent at Colonial National Historic Park, which oversees Historic Jamestowne, Jamestown Island and other nearby sites. “When you give her name back, it changes the way you think about (her). It brings her back to life in some small way.”
Archaeologist Lee McBee, whose team was charged with finding physical evidence of her world, understands Angela’s value like few others.
On a recent 95-degree day that felt more like 105, he wiped his forehead with a rag, stuffed it in a back pocket of his khaki shorts and leaned against his shovel, taking as deep a breath as he could in the stifling summer heat. His team reminded him to re-hydrate before he resumed scraping the red clay earth, removing hundreds of years of soil one layer at a time. Wheelbarrows and buckets around the square patch of ground held dirt waiting to be sifted through a fine colander.
Lee’s connections to Jamestown are strong. Though he grew up in middle Tennessee, he had been coming to Jamestown since the fifth grade. His history teacher father would take the family on vacations to plantations and battlefields. Lee, 62, earned degrees in education and history and over the years has collected graduate hours toward a doctorate. He made a hobby of joining Revolutionary War re-enactments.
Life kept leading him back to Jamestown. His townhouse is not five minutes from his workplace and is filled with 17th- and 18th-century antiques and replicas. During slow stints in archaeology he taught and coached football in the Charles City County public schools, where he met his wife, Christine, a self-described history nerd. They got married at Jamestown last year.
The empty-nesters have come to think of Angela as their daughter.
“We have a purpose,” Christine said, nearly in tears, while sitting in the couple’s kitchen. The purpose is to educate others about Angela’s life and remind them that she was not a commodity.
“She’s a person,” Lee said. “You want them to respect her. She’s not a product or a thing.”
After a few years of digging in 10-by-10-foot squares around what used to be Capt. Pierce’s home, Lee’s crew knew the typical yield: oyster shells, tiny pieces of roofing slate, broken bricks, and lots and lots of colonial square-headed nails.
But good days yield treasures such as a small white pipe bowl dating to the late 17th century; nearly intact amber bottles; pieces of European-made ceramic dishes, vessels that Angela and the other servants might have handled. Another find included a small gold ring, its crystal intact, which would have adorned the hand of a well-to-do woman.
One of the most cherished finds: four cowrie shells.
Angelina Towery-Tomasura, 23, has been searching for Angela at Jamestown ever since graduating in 2017 from Washington College. She remembers the day they found the first shell early this year. It was uncovered after only a few shovelfuls in a new area. Ironically, they had just spoken with a visitor at the dig site. Her name: Angela.
“It was just sitting there, on top of the dirt,” Angelina said. “After we found it, everyone was real quiet all day.”
The dime-sized oval shells are ivory and smooth but for the jagged teeth of the opening down the center. Their origin is the Indian Ocean. In Africa they were used as currency and because of their rounded shape, revered as a symbol of fertility.
They establish an African presence in Virginia like nothing else Lee’s team had found. And the fact that these shells had holes opened at the back indicated they were altered to attach to clothing, jewelry or hair.
The thought that they might have been Angela’s only reminders of home sobers the team.
They keep a photocopy of Angela taped to a wall in their shed, an artist’s rendering in graphite, to remind them why they’re here.
Angela disappears from official records after 1625. It’s unknown if she ever married or had children. It’s possible she could have been sold or sent to live among other enslaved Africans on Pierce’s Mulberry Island plantation 20 miles south. Some historians and archaeologists like to fantasize that she escaped to freedom.
Or perhaps at long last, after everything she’d endured, Angela died.
If her grave is identified as one of three near the Angela site, it would give closure to her story, Newby-Alexander said, because testing would reveal whether she gave birth, what her health was like, how long she lived and how she died.
Hall says the parks service is studying other areas on Jamestown Island where African people were known to have lived and skeletal remains have been found. Although the grant money for the Angela site expired in September, other grants may be found to uncover more untold African stories.
“I think what you will see is an evolution of the story, not a cessation,” Hall says.
Lee and Christine vow to create a nonprofit in Angela’s name, to teach more children about archaeology and the importance of the First Africans. One of the cowrie shells his crew found is in the Archaearium at Historic Jamestowne. The others will be examined and cataloged by NPS with the other artifacts, then tucked away in a storage facility, available only to scholars and museums for the time being.
Lee has already returned to the classroom. “I’m in a perfect place to continue the story,” he says.
Valarie, who has performed Angela at Jamestown since March, is on the schedule for the rest of the fall. She will keep interpreting Angela’s life as long as Historic Jamestowne needs her. Like Lee and Christine, she is invested. She has come to need Angela, too.
“When I think of Angela, I think of a powerhouse,” Valarie says. “A survivor.”
Angela’s long and impossible journey, her fortitude and her survival, has a lesson for everyone. Valarie believes it is a lesson in hope and healing that supersedes the ways Americans continue to divide themselves.
“I have seen so much interest, so much bonding between races, between religions because of the First Africans and specifically Angela,” Valarie says.
“There is peace that I feel for her. … Maybe we have all learned how far this young woman has taken us.”
For such a time as this.