Terry E. Brown, Superintendent of the Fort Monroe National Monument poses next to a historical marker that signifies the spot of the first landing of Africans in America 400 years ago at Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia, Thursday, Aug. 15, 2019. Credit: Steve Helber | AP

HAMPTON, Virginia – They faced the sunrise to the rhythm of drums and waves on a windswept beach, dozens wearing white, near the spot where the first enslaved Africans arrived at the English colony of Virginia in 1619. On Saturday morning, they would release those spirits.

The cleansing and naming ritual, presided over by visiting chiefs from Cameroon, kicked off a weekend of events marking the 400th anniversary of the Africans’ arrival and the dawn of American slavery.

“The water was warm and salty,” said Tiffini Mason Johnson, who lives in Cockeysville, Maryland, emerging after a ceremony with Queen Mothers of Africa. “They told me to just release myself, that I am released of anger and fear, and my grandmothers through me.”

The question of release hung over a day that walked a fine line: commemorating the nation’s fundamental sin of slavery but also celebrating the African descendants who survived its brutality and helped build America.

“Our perseverance, making it through 400 years, is something that should be honored,” said Terry E. Brown, who is both African American and the National Park Service superintendent for Fort Monroe, the site of the first landing.

He started the day a few miles up the beach at Buckroe, watching the African ritual, standing out in his green uniform. He took off his hat, bobbed his head to the drums. “It’s honorable, it’s reflective and just connects me back to 400 years. I’m on a journey right now,” he said.

In 1619, an English pirate ship, the White Lion, arrived at Point Comfort, near Hampton. It was carrying what colonist John Rolfe described as “20 and odd Negroes.” The captain of the White Lion traded the enslaved people for food, bringing slavery to Jamestown and what would become Virginia.

Saturday’s speeches and songs are an emotional contrast to the celebration last month of 400 years of representative democracy in Jamestown. That event, designed as a pageant of pride in government, wound up revolving around the divisive presence of President Donald Trump. Yet the protests that accompanied Trump’s appearance set the stage for Saturday’s event, highlighting the unfinished business of racial reconciliation in America.

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said he struggled to find the words to describe the conflicting themes of a day and a country embodying the roots of both freedom and slavery. The “dualism (of) high-minded principle and indescribable cruelty has defined us,” he said to hundreds of people gathered under a shelter on the shores of Hampton Roads at Fort Monroe.

“The trans-Atlantic slave trade was one of the most cruel atrocities,” Kaine said, growing emotional. “And yet how fortunate we are as a country that the descendants of that cruel institution are part of our country.”

It was a day when Hampton Mayor Donnie Tuck, who is African American, could draw hoots of pride by crowing that the first documented Africans arrived “in Hampton, not Jamestown!” But in the next breath, he noted the “indignities, dehumanization and atrocities” of the Middle Passage, which he said his own ancestors survived.

The slavery commemoration began Friday. Young people staged a play about a slave girl in a theater at Fort Monroe. Scholars debated the impact of African culture at Hampton University. And panel of African American politicians talked about what it was like to blaze a trail in public representation.

Former Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder, the first African American elected to govern a state, questioned the 1619 events.

“It’s more celebratory than educating,” Wilder said in an interview. “There is nothing that we need to celebrate, there is nothing that we need to say, ‘Oh my God, we’re lucky that we’re no longer slaves.’ I mean that’s just silly.”