SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Because pouring rain moved what was supposed to be an outdoor vigil indoors, the Community Coalition on Race's observance of the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery was warm and dry inside the First Baptist Church of South Orange.

The October 16 event opened with a spirited performance by Columbia High School’s a capella group, The Unaccompanied Minors. Robert Marchman, CCR chair, in his opening comments, said the weather was appropriate for the somber occasion. The community needs to remember the event, he said. “Only when we can understand this tragic history can we heal this nation.”

South Orange Village President Sheena Collum said, “I’m here to learn… The saying is ‘you don’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been’…and that is so significant for tonight.” She acknowledged that community groups such as CCR and SOMA Action “make us better leaders.”

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Guest speaker Rev. Forrest Pritchett, Ph.D., director of special programs in freshman studies at Seton Hall University, looked to his own family to understand the impact slavery handed down through multiple generations. He was born during World War II. For his mother, the trauma of living through the post-plantation period in the south was so intense he could never get her to speak about it on tape.

He reminded the crowd of about 100 that the first ship to carry enslaved people from Angola, Africa, was a British ship which had raided a Spanish ship, then landed at Jamestown and traded some 20 human beings for provisions.

During his research and time teaching, he said, he’s heard the argument “we are all immigrants. Why can’t you all just pull yourselves up by your bootstraps?” He noted that slavery ran from 1619 to 1863, and then by the time of the Emancipation Proclamation “there were 10,000 colonial laws to retard the progress” of the newly freed. Laws have continued to be stacked against people of color in this country, he said, noting the Jim Crow laws of the mid-20thcentury.

Pastor Terry Richardson of First Baptist Church noted the long history of the church in the community. It started in 1895 as a small prayer group in people’s homes, then “became known as the ‘prayer band’" and built the current building in 1930. “Today we have four generations of people who grew up in this church.” He was proud that “we are part of the fabric of this community and our story needs to be told.”

When the mic was open to public comment, 11 year old Noah from Maplewood magnetized the crowd. Barely reaching the microphone in height, he stood tall to tell the assembly about visiting his aunt in Virginia and going to see the landing site of Jamestown. On the water in the distance, surrounded by fog, a replica slave ship was going by. “It moved me” said Noah, “to know that this was the beginning of us being discriminated against.” He said remembering it moved him even more. “That moment was a turning point.”

Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLuca said the evening “was a teaching moment. Sixty years ago I was sitting in an elementary school being mis-educated about the stain of slavery.” Events like this are important, he said, and “we [still] have big challenges ahead of us.”