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This Family Believes They Can Trace Their Ancestry To The U.S.'s First Slave Ship


Four hundred years ago this month, the first enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia. Today we're going to meet a family that traces its roots all the way back to that moment in 1619. Gene Demby from NPR's Code Switch podcast traveled to Hampton, Va., to hear their story.

GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: In Hampton, there's a quiet shaded cemetery, and it's tucked behind the backyards of a few dozen homes. If you didn't know to look for it, you'd probably miss a granite sign that reads Tucker Cemetery, first black family, 1619. How y'all doing?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Fine. Fine. Hello. How are you?

DEMBY: I'm meeting up with the Tucker cousins - well, four of them, anyway. There's Carolita, Verrandall, Julia (ph) and Walter.

How many Tuckers are there now?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Oh, my goodness, trying to count all of them.

DEMBY: Many people believe that William Tucker, the first black child born in the colonies, is buried in this cemetery. The cousins say they grew up hearing stories from their elders that William Tucker was their direct ancestor, and whether that's true is kind of murky. There were very few records about the lives of enslaved Africans, especially in the early 1600s. Historians know that William Tucker was born around 1624, and he was born to some of the first Africans who arrived in 1619. But they don't know how long he lived or if he even had children. This cemetery is well-kept now, but the cousins were slow to take it over. It had been in their family for generations. But it wasn't that long ago that this place, which was once called the old colored burial ground, had become a literal dump.

VERRANDALL TUCKER: Nothing but brush and debris, refrigerators that we found back there, washing machines, toilets, basketball goals.

DEMBY: Verrandall said the cemetery had been neglected for 50 years. It was overrun with fallen trees, garbage, even snakes. It was a mess except for a small strip of land where some of the more recent Tucker relatives have been buried. One of those relatives, Thelma Green Williams (ph), is buried here. While the other Tucker cousins heard their family lore, they mostly paid it no mind. But Thelma was fixated on that history and wanted to learn everything about it. She peppered their elders with questions about their parents and their parents' parents. The cousins say she was always carrying bags full of notes and documents that she pulled from archives or old photographs.

CAROLITA TUCKER: She was doing all this hard work. And she kept saying, these stories, you realize, I now know what they're talking about.

DEMBY: She had essentially become the family's unofficial genealogist and historian.

C TUCKER: And a lot of people in our family just kind of let her do her thing. We ignored her. But she was 100% passionate about this.

DEMBY: But Thelma died suddenly in 2006, taking much of what she'd gathered about the Tucker's history with her. And the cemetery lot was in such bad shape, the city thought it had been abandoned. In 2013, Hampton's mayor said in the local paper that she was open to ideas from the public about what to do with the land. The Tucker cousins, many of whom had moved away from the area, said they felt called out. But it stirred them to action.

C TUCKER: And we had to come together as a family. We had to start paying attention. We had to start doing our part. And it takes a lot of energy. It takes a lot of organization. And that was something that we learned as a family to do because we wanted to.

DEMBY: They started holding regular family meetings on just how to manage this land. They got rid of the old trees, the rusted appliances, the weeds. They put up an iron fence around the cemetery lot. And after a long process with lots of volunteers and local press attention and grant money, that unruly, neglected lot started to look like this quiet, solemn garden.

WALTER TUCKER: It's amazing even on these hot days where we are. We have so much shade.

DEMBY: Cousin Carolita says that she wishes Thelma could see it today.

C TUCKER: So I'm just sorry that she's not here because I think she would be so proud of what we've done.

DEMBY: Once that cemetery was cleared, though, it started to give up some more secrets. An X-ray scan found 100 unmarked graves. The family considered digging those remains up, but they'd come to think of the cemetery as hallowed ground. And they don't want to disturb it. Cousin Walter says a historian came to visit and told him that since early Africans did not have headstones, they would plant a seed next to a body as they placed it into the ground.

W TUCKER: And that really just blew me away because, as you can see, there's maybe 60 trees that are out here, not to mention all of the ones that have fallen.

DEMBY: Today, the Tucker cousins are literally tending their family's legacy. It's a legacy that cousin Verrandall says is bigger than the Tuckers.

V TUCKER: This is American history. It's not just about us. It's about everybody. And it has to be told. It has to be told.

DEMBY: He said bits and pieces of that history had been told, but not the beginning - a beginning that stretches back to 1619.

Gene Demby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gene Demby is the co-host and correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team.