Black students took a field trip to the birthplace of American slavery and walked away feeling empowered

 Justice Alexander, a senior at Granby High School in Norfolk, Virginia, felt something come over him as the bus carrying 21 of his classmates entered the grounds of Fort Monroe on the Chesapeake Bay.

Sure, Alexander knew the facts of the place: Four centuries ago, in 1619, a ship called the White Lion crossed the Atlantic Ocean from central Africa with “twenty and odd” souls. Aboard that ship were the first enslaved Africans torn from their homes arriving in what was then called Point Comfort, in the Virginia colony.

But Alexander’s feelings were overwhelming, even if only briefly.

When the bus rolled onto the property, Alexander, 18, said, “it was like …” He made a sound that intimated discomfort. “I felt it. I felt it. It was just a little off. It was kind of surreal, knowing enslaved people got off boats here. It hit me.”

Alexander and his bus full of Advanced Placement African American studies classmates embarked on a field trip that, by its very nature, would be controversial in many high schools across the country. Visiting the site that signifies the beginning of generations of chattel slavery in the U.S., and talking about the impacts of systematic enslavement could even violate some states’ educational policies. But that is why Edwin Allison, the teacher behind this trip, knows taking his students to this site is crucial to their education.  “When your school is 20 minutes from this historic place, it makes sense to take them there so they can see it and feel it. It makes a big difference,” Allison said.

Alexander walked along the expansive bay, looking out across the water at Norfolk to his right, Virginia Beach on the left. The dark grayish waves were quiet on this brilliantly sunny but cold day. The breeze was strong, forcing people to wrap up and pushing Alexander’s ‘70s-style Afro about.