First Family

BackStory travels to Hampton, Virginia to meet with members of the Tucker family. Using oral history and official records, they’ve traced their lineage back to William Tucker, the first African-American born in British North America in 1624.


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Nathan: As far as first families go in American history, there are plenty of amous ones. There’s John Rolfe and Pocahontas, John, Abigail, and John Quincy Adams… But you’ve probably never heard of the Tucker family from Hampton, Virginia. The arrival of the first Africans means something special for them. That’s because they’ve been to trace their lineage back to William Tucker, the first African American born on British North American soil in 1624. He was a child of Isabella and Antonio, two of the first Africans to arrive in 1619.

Nathan: BackStory producer Melissa Gismondi traveled to Hampton to chat with some member of the Tucker family.

Melissa: Excellent, thank you.

Speaker 8: This is Vincent. Vincent, this is Melissa Gismondi.

Vincent: How are you?

Melissa: Hi, nice to meet you.

Nathan: She met them on a leafy, two acre plot. There’s an air force base nearby and planes go by constantly. The plot is surrounded by homes. Walking up to it, it’s easy to think you’re strolling into someone’s backyard, but it’s actually a sacred site for the Tucker Family.

Vincent: We’re standing on the grounds of what was once called the old colored graveyard and it has been in the Tucker family for years.

Nathan: That’s Vincent Tucker. He’s the president of the William Tucker 1624 Society.

Vincent: We purchased it in 1896. It’s a beautiful two acre establishment and we did an x-ray radar scan several years ago that discovered 106 unmarked graves. There’s still an area that we have to complete. Then there are other standing graves that were here way before that time that also consists of our family members and others from the neighborhood.

Nathan: Vincent says the family is still doing research to find out exactly how far the cemetery dates back, but they have some ideas.

Vincent: We do know that Bluebird Gap Farm, which is about a quarter of a mile from here, is where Captain William Tucker Plantation was. Descendants of William Tucker were there; this happened to be the only cemetery within that area, so we believe that it could possibly go back 400 years. He did own a lot of land in this community and we were thinking and through research we hope to prove that this cemetery was indeed part of that plantation.

Nathan: Vincent was joined by some of his cousins: Verandal Tucker and Walter Jones. Melissa asked them if there’s a chance William Tucker’s remains lie in the family plot.

Vincent: That we don’t know. We don’t know for sure.

Walter: Yes there is a chance.

Vincent: There’s a chance.

Walter: But we don’t know.

Vincent: There’s been speculation but we don’t know for sure. There’s no concrete evidence of that.

Walter: We have not gone in and… All of the white crosses that you see are where there were unmarked graves that we uncovered with the ground-penetrating radar. [crosstalk 00:33:58] possible graves.

Nathan: This is Walter. He’s part of the cemetery beautification committee.

Walter: We don’t know and we haven’t done any studies to see what would be the oldest remains that’s out here, if that could be determined. But as my cousin said, it’s very possible it went back 400 years. We were very proud to find and uncover a lot of this history and be able to share it with the country.

Walter: One of the historians that came out a couple years ago was able to share that Africans, when they were buried, they may not have had markers, and one thing that they did was they planted a seed for a tree at the location of where someone was buried. As you can see, this cemetery is spattered with trees everywhere, not to mention the ones that have fallen over and have uncovered different things.

Nathan: Walter explained that one of those discoveries turned out to be quite extraordinary.

Walter: So right now we’re walking to the edge of the cemetery where there were markers and you can see there’s a lot of crosses and a lot of indentgents where there are unmarked graves that we were able to uncover. As I mentioned, there were several trees that were planted where there was Africans buried, it’s believed. As you can see, the one with the cross there represents and area that I was clearing thinking I was doing the right thing, to clear certain areas to make it easier to clean.

Walter: What we uncovered was the remains of a skull right on top of that mound almost. It’s believed that the roots and the trees that have came up pushed the body to the top. After finding that, we took it all to Richmond and had it evaluated to see the age and ethnic background, and it turned out to be an African American female approximately 60 years old. We dedicated this area and re-buried the remains there. We had a ceremony out here and several dignitaries came and everybody honored what we were doing and respected that.

Nathan: To mark the 400th anniversary, the Tuckers are holding a ceremony at the family plot, which is now protected from future development. For them, this anniversary is deeply personal. It’s also garnered the family international attention: the chance to tell people about their family and their family’s place in American history.

Walter: I’d like to start off by saying that this is our birthplace. This is where we came 1619, and this is the cemetery that’s closest to Captain William Tucker’s property that we know of, and we feel like this cemetery is also the resting place for all of our ancestors. We need to understand and respect all of the contributions that our ancestors made. And, I’m sure there’s other [inaudible 00:38:08] as well.

Vincent: So do you mean the contributions of building America with our sweat and blood and tears?

Walter: Yes, I do. [crosstalk 00:38:18]. And starting off here. Building the colonies that were getting started, and then over the years what we’ve done. This is the birthplace; this is the beginning. And the contributions have started right here. That’s significant to me.

Vincent: Right. Because with the arrival of the 1619, back then they didn’t have technology, so a lot of the things… the labor that they put into to it, and even with the thinking process, the entrepreneurship, how they were thinking to invent, because a lot of African Americans invented a lot of things, resources, that we use on a daily basis today. A lot of it has not been recognized like it should have been, but it all started from the arrivals. This is a gateway to let people know that this piece of history is a very significant piece of history that needs to recognized, and the truth needs to be told.

Walter: It’s very real, you know, saying that it wasn’t recognized is very important. It’s never been compensated, and that’s something that should be considered going forward. Who’s going to help tell the story? Who’s going to help fund to tell the story? Who’s going to look even further towards reparations and other things to support and lift us, through the work of our ancestors, to a place where we can stand on even ground.

Vernadal: And this American history that we’d like the country to know. This is not just about us, it’s American history they need to know, that wasn’t talked about in school, and now it needs to be reinforced or told. They need to put more emphasis on this piece of history, because it’s the beginning of the arrival. How significant can something like that be?

Vincent: As the stories are shared, and as we continue to do research into our family, there are a lot of branches to this tree, so to hear different stories of what happened to our family… bits and pieces… makes it real. It’s not just us. We’re all descendants from one family or one branch or anther. So to talk about those stories, to hear those stories, sometimes it will bring tears to your eyes because it’s not just a story that you read in the book: it’s your family and things that we endured over the years of slavery and those who were free and the labor that was put into building America. It’s a lot more there than chains and treated as savages or things of that nature. It’s deep.

Vincent: All of that goes through my mind when I think of others.

Walter: With [inaudible 00:41:28], not only did it inspire us to push through and clean and do the x-ray and to do our own research, but it’s inspiring all African Americans to look at their own roots and paths and find out the connections that are there and how much history they can uncover.

Nathan: That was Walter Jones, Verandal Tucker, and Vincent Tucker with BackStory producer Melissa Gismondi.

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1619 Lesson Set

Download the lesson set.

In 1619, the first Africans were brought against their will across the Atlantic Ocean to the Virginia colony. It marked the beginning of the institution of slavery in the Unites States. Over 400 years later, the United States is still grappling with the legacy of slavery and systemic racism. Generations of African Americans have been subject to untold cruelty. However, it is also true that much of America’s current prosperity can be traced back to the contributions of slaves.

This lesson, and the corresponding BackStory episode, provide a retrospective of the origins of the African slave trade in the U.S. The episode raises difficult questions about how we should commemorate the 400-year anniversary of this dark moment in American history. Using modern perspectives, students will form arguments on how to best approach the legacy of slavery in the United States.