Ideally, Michael Coard envisions 400 black children wearing white T-shirts lined up along Market Street and carrying posters counting each year between 1619 and 2019.
That it be a perfect, organized display (Have you ever tried to line up 40 children, let alone 400?) is less important than making a profound statement to mark the 400th anniversary of Africans being brought to Fort Monroe, in Hampton, Va., to be enslaved.
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“They don’t have to rehearse, they don’t need to practice,” Coard said. “They just need to show up."
Coard, a lawyer, activist and founding member of Philadelphia’s Avenging the Ancestors Coalition, said centering children as part of this Aug. 25 ceremony highlights a particular atrocity of slavery.
“About 25% of the people kidnapped from Africa in the Middle Passage were children,” he said. “About 25% of the people enslaved in the 13 colonies and the United States were children. Many children, especially male children, were considered such a valuable commodity that they were bred like cattle."
At the same time, Coard wants to signal hope: Children "are the future of genuine black liberation.”
The nation and world will take note of ceremonies from Aug. 23 to Aug. 25 at the site known as Point Comfort, where the first of two ships transporting human cargo to a British colony in North America landed in late August 1619.
Last month, Coard wrote a Philadelphia Tribune column that issued a call to parents to have their kids between the ages of 4 and 14 participate.
“Your children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews can play an important role,” Coard wrote.
He also reached out to the largest black churches, mosques, and temples in the Philadelphia area. As of Monday, Coard said, about 300 children were enlisted.
Amun Sen Hotep Re, a community organizer and owner of an event production company, said his 10-year-old son, Qahhaaru Re-Imhotep, a rising fifth grader at the Mathematics, Civics and Sciences Charter School on Broad Street, will take part.
“It’s important to teach our children to know who and what they are,” Re said. “We’re teaching them to name and define themselves and create for themselves. If you don’t know the history of what took place, you won’t know where you’re going, and these things are destined to be repeated.”
The plan is to first line everyone up along Market Street, after which each child will walk across a stage set up on Independence Mall, adjacent to the President’s House at Sixth and Market Streets. It was Coard and his coalition that led a lobbying campaign to incorporate a memorial to enslaved African Americans within the design of the President’s House, where George Washington skirted Pennsylvania’s anti-slavery laws by rotating at least nine enslaved people between the Philadelphia capital and his Mount Vernon estate.
Most of the children will walk silently. But for about 75 of those 400 years, there will be additional posters that include artwork or an image of significant events, which narrators — likely teenagers among the bunch — will note.
For instance, the year the American colonists signed the Declaration of Independence, some of the founding fathers held captive slaves. Or they may mention that in 1865, when the 13th Amendment was ratified, abolishing slavery, “It included an exception where if you were convicted of a crime, you could still be enslaved,” Coard said. “The 13th Amendment opened the door to mass incarceration."
Other examples: 1865 was the year the first of the Southern states, Mississippi and South Carolina, enacted laws known as the “black codes” that set up restrictions on newly freed African Americans, including having to sign yearly contracts agreeing to work for white people, or risk being arrested. But in 1954, the Brown v. Board of Education decision determined that segregated schools were unconstitutional.
Coard said he insists on acknowledging the legacy of enslavement because it is important to repair the harm that’s been done.
“Other groups have suffered,” he said. “But [black people were] brought here in shackles, lost their names, their culture, their language. Everything that made them human was stripped from them. No other group has had laws enacted against them just because they were black. I’m talking about the black codes, the peonage laws, and Jim Crow. Some of these laws didn’t end until 1965."