Nichelle Smith, an investigations team editor at USA TODAY, recalls attending a lecture at the Library of Congress in early 2018 where she listened to scholars discuss the landing 400 years ago of enslaved Africans at the British colony of Virginia.
A name soon caught her attention: "Angela," among the first Africans brought to Virginia in 1619. Angela survived the first leg from Angola on a slave ship, was taken hostage by British pirates and eventually sold to the commander of Jamestown Island.
Her age and the date of her death remain unknown.
“Angela was my original inspiration,” said Smith, who is writing “Searching for Angela,” a profile that will publish later in this series.
Smith, along with Deborah Barfield Berry, Kelley Benham French, Rick Hampson and Jarrad Henderson, spent months meticulously reporting and preparing our ambitious series. They were supported by dozens of USA TODAY colleagues – writers, editors, designers, producers, developers, visual specialists – who produced 1619: Searching for Answers, remembering the first enslaved Africans to be brought to the English-speaking colonies that became America.
It's a continuation of reporting first begun in our annual Black History Month special section, Exodus, published last February.
The 1619 series, 1619.usatoday.com, overseen by Managing Editor Kristen Go, is an exhaustively researched examination of the journey, the protagonists who defined that moment of history and the pain and repercussions that continue today.
Our journalists traveled from Virginia to Angola and beyond to produce a vivid, multi-part series that includes the Tucker family’s quest to connect with its past.
Wanda Tucker, who traces her family roots to the 1800s in Virginia, has been trying to connect her family history back to William – the first recorded African baby baptized in Virginia, a child born to Anthony and Isabella, survivors of the White Lion, a privateer that anchored at Point Comfort, where its captain traded human beings for supplies.
We traveled with Wanda Tucker to Angola; USA TODAY underwrote her journey so we could be alongside her to document her quest, starting at the port city of Luanda and moving deep into the interior to the point of origin of the Portuguese trade, the historic Ndongo Kingdom. Portuguese slave ships, one even named San Juan Bautista – Saint John the Baptist – would sail from Luanda with innocents below deck, never to see their homeland again.
Today, we humbly start this series, to honor lives lost and the spirit to survive. Our journalists have been deeply affected by their work.
“I have found myself searching for my own history,” said USA TODAY reporter Berry, who traveled to Angola. “I, too, have done the same. My grandmother’s last name is Tucker, and she was from Virginia.”
Berry recently learned of her own ancestry results while reporting from Angola. She'll tell her compelling family story in coming installments.
"The landing of the first enslaved Africans in 1619 is one of the most important events and dates in our history, but it hasn't been treated as such," said USA TODAY Editor-in-Chief Nicole Carroll. "We set out to correct that. Our goal is to educate and inform Americans about the history that continues to shape and influence the country we are today.”
Carroll also used the project as an opportunity to further educate our newsroom.
Carroll and Smith led a tour of USA TODAY colleagues to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture, a true public trust.
Engraved on a wall inside the museum, in the Slavery and Freedom exhibition under low light, are the names of slave ships, countries of origin, departure dates, enslaved boarded, survivors:
• The Good Intent, United Kingdom, 12-24-1785, 51/40
• Buen Jesus, Portugal, 12-23-1638, 216/153
• Cap Vert, France, 2-8-1770, 100/36
Diagrams of the ships showed how captors wedged men, women and children into suffocating cargo holds. Disease, lack of food, water, sanitation, storms and pirate raids killed millions.
The next day, a group from USA TODAY traveled to Hampton, Virginia. Terry E. Brown, superintendent of the Fort Monroe National Monument, escorted us to Point Comfort, the spot where the first Africans landed. Brown reminded us that American Indians originally inhabited "God's green earth" before the British "dislocated the Native Americans," he said.
We walked the Tucker family cemetery in Aberdeen Gardens with two Tucker brothers, Vincent and Verrandall, who are dedicated to preserving their family history. Their father, Alexander Tucker Jr., died in 2017 and is buried here. We questioned experts and historians at the Hampton History Museum and Hampton University Museum.
We invited our journalists to these research outings, but also members of our company's African American Employee Resource Group, including George Jones III, an Information Technology Manager for Gannett, our parent company.
“Watching the unpacking of history on the tour provided a profound context, respect and dignity for a culture which is often stripped of those qualities," Jones said.
Henderson, a Senior Multimedia Producer at USA TODAY, visually documented Wanda Tucker’s personal journey, following her from Arizona to Virginia and to Angola.
He said that one evening, he took a boat out on the bay in Luanda, cut the motor and looked back toward shore as the sun set: “To feel the waves, the fear, and uncertainty of these families, removed from their homes. It was important for us to capture all the emotions in our pictures, videos, the sound.”
USA TODAY Designer Sheldon Sneed created the striking illustration of a resilient man and woman looking away from a slave ship for the online presentation.
Sneed said he and his family traveled this summer to Colonial Williamsburg and visited the Hampton University Museum. Sneed said he was moved by the collections and exhibitions - and much to his joy: colleagues asked him to design the illustration.
"I wanted to show how you are living a happy, healthy life in your village, and suddenly you are taken away from your land," Sneed said. "It's the trauma, anger and loss."
For our augmented reality piece, also launching today, the team felt it was essential for the story to be told through the African American experience, so we asked New York Times best-selling author Dolen Perkins-Valdez to write the piece, had it narrated by storyteller Tamara Winfrey-Harris and are showcasing a painting by noted Hampton artist Richard Press Sr.
The interactive, augmented reality experience can be found within the Augmented Reality section of the USA TODAY app. Download the latest version of the app on your AR-capable device.
Our 1619 series continues for the rest of this year.
We want you to be part of the journey and to hear from you.
Call us at (202) 524-0992 and succinctly tell us: What is an oral history, or the oldest story, that has been passed down in your family? We will be contacting some who call with the hopes of sharing your stories.
On behalf of our 1619 team, and everyone at USA TODAY, thank you for your time and trust.
Manny Garcia is Standards & Ethics Editor for the USA TODAY Network. You can reach him at email@example.com or 1-800-872-7073.
Meet the team behind this project
Reporting and research: Deborah Barfield Berry, Nichelle Smith, Rick Hampson, Kelley Benham French, Nicquel Terry Ellis
Editing: Kristen Go, Kelley Benham French
Photography and videography: Jarrad Henderson
Visual editing: Christopher Powers, Andrew P. Scott
Graphics and illustrations: George Petras, Ramon Padilla, Shuai Hao, Sheldon Sneed, Jim Sergent, Shawn Sullivan, Mitchell Thorson, Javier Zarracina and Mark Nichols.
Digital production and development: Andrea Brunty, Spencer Holladay, Craig Johnson, Ryan Marx, Annette Meade, Mike Varano, Stan Wilson
Copy editing: Robert Abitbol, Michael B. Smith, Lauren Olsen
Social media, engagement and promotion: Julie Burton, Dana Mitchell, Alex Ptachick, Cara Richardson, Elizabeth Shell
Communications: Chrissy Terrell, Hayley Hoefer, Stephanie Tackach
Augmented reality: Ray Soto, Will Austin, Alan Davies, Alex Daley-Montgomery, Mykal McEldowney (studio recording)
We wish to thank the following contributors:
Tamara Winfrey Harris (augmented reality narrator), Dolen Perkins-Valdez (augmented reality script), Richard Press (augmented reality painting)
Linda Heywood and John Thornton, professors specializing in Central African history, Boston University
Gloria Browne-Marshall, associate professor, John Jay College of Criminal Justice (CUNY)
Yuri Milligan and Katie Franklin, American Evolution
Tracy Perkins, media relations specialist, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation
Kris Peters, Hampton History Museum
Vanessa Thaxton-Ward, director, Hampton University Museum and Archives
Jose Lima and William Spring, partners, News Travels Fast
Fleur Paysour, media relations manager, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
Mary Elliott, curator, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
Hollis Gentry, genealogist, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
Deborah Heard, former executive director, Hurston/Wright Foundation
Deborah Paule Morton, City of Hampton, Va.
Mayor Donnie Tuck, City of Hampton, Va.
Chadra Pittman, The Sankofa Projects
James Horn, president, Jamestown Rediscovery
David Givens, director of archaeology, Jamestown Rediscovery
Willie Balderson, director of education, Jamestown Rediscovery
Fr. Gabriele Bortolami, professor, Agostinho Neto University, Luanda, Angola
Vlademiro Fortuna, director of the Museum of Slavery. Luanda
Custodio Armando, spokesman for the Malanje Province, Angola
Edgar Marcolino, historian/teacher at Massangano; Dondo, Angola
Deneyse Kirkpatrick, press, culture and education attaché, U.S. Embassy in Luanda
Herculano Coroado, journalist, Luanda
Yolanda Manuel, translator, Luanda
Vincent and Verrandall Tucker
Lakeisha Brown-Renfro, Tanecia Willis, Nzinga Teule-Hekima and the staff of Mango Mangeaux, Hampton, Va.
Gina Paige, co-founder. AfricanAncestry.com
Nichole Taylor, publicist, AfricanAncestry.com
Jasmin Jimenez, Ancestry.com
Marissa Moorman, Department of History, Indiana University, Bloomington
Hariana Veras, journalist, US Permanent Correspondent for TPA
Monica Rhor, The Houston Chronicle
Explore more 1619 stories
Were Wanda Tucker's ancestors America's first slaves? A difficult search for answers in far-away Angola
The founding family you've never heard of: The black Tuckers of Hampton, Virginia
America's original sin: How an accidental encounter brought slavery to the United States
Slavery's explosive growth, in charts: How '20 and odd' became millions
Black history 1619 project: Call our Google number, share your story
Special edition: 2019 Black History Month section
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Slavery in America: Behind USA TODAY’s 1619 series on black history