NORFOLK, Va. — As ships fill Town Point Park this weekend, people start to get very excited about Norfolk’s Harborfest.
But for years, some have chosen not to attend because of a belief that it celebrates the slave trade in our area.
But is that true? We decided to get to the bottom of it by speaking to some local historians and those who know the true history of Harborfest best.
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“It’s always been a maritime sailing boating festival,” said Troy Valos, a Special Collections Librarian, Sargent Memorial Collection Slover Library.
Troy Valos is a historian and Special Collections Librarian with the Slover Library’s Sargent Memorial Collection.
He gave me a look into Harborfest’s origins in Norfolk-the nation’s largest, longest-running free maritime event.
“It actually started in 1976 with the Bicentennial celebrations, all ships going up and down the harbor of the coast.”
He showed us some pics from the very first and early days of Harborfest and how the festival helped the waterfront become the city attraction it is today.
“That’s the primary reason for our library, for this collection, is that we want our purpose to be the caretakers of the information, our heritage.”
“Downtown in general on the waterfront was a very different place. It was almost a barren wasteland,” said Bruce Bishop, one of the early organizers of Harborfest who is still currently on the board.
“In 1976, the Christian Radich, which was a sail training ship from Norway, visited Norfolk. They couldn’t come to the waterfront here in downtown because there was no place to dock the vessels, so they went to NOAA, which is near Brambleton Avenue. And it in during a weekend, 13,000 folks came downtown to visit the ship.”
Mr. Bishop says that event sparked renewed interest in the waterfront, helping spur the development of sites such as the Waterside District and Town Point Park.
“I think it’s an event that brings us together as a community.”
But some have avoided attending the festival because they believe its location on the harbor connects it to the city’s slave trade.
“Norfolk, its role in the domestic slave trade was enormous. And because the waterways have been associated with slavery, it’s not surprising that a celebration about ships coming in and trading would be associated with slavery and the slave trade,” said Dr. Cassandra Newby-Alexander, Endowed Professor of Virginia Black History and Culture at Norfolk State University
Dr. Cassandra Newby-Alexander along with Mr. Valos have spearheaded countless hours of research discovering that more than 20,000 enslaved people were sold from Norfolk.
This happening at the same downtown waterfront where modern day Harborfest takes place.
“What is surprising to me is that the organizers did not see. And, and did not try to get ahead of that story, by really clarifying the history.”
The festival itself does not celebrate this sordid part of our past – nor did it ever.
“A lot of people really don’t even understand that the transatlantic slave trade really had very little to do with the City of Norfolk. Most of the people who were brought in into this country, and specifically into the Commonwealth of Virginia, were brought in along the York River,” said Dr. Newby-Alexander. “And, and even that shift more towards other areas, such as Richmond, after, you know, by the time you got to the period of the American Revolution, so you didn’t have the transatlantic slave trade really operating in this area. But the tall ships were not a part of that. And that’s what people don’t know.”
But that also doesn’t mean that African Americans had no part in the area’s maritime industry-quite the opposite.
“What has been missing though from Harborfest is the inclusion of African Americans in the history of the maritime industry, for much of, of this nation’s history, blacks made up in this area anywhere between 40 and 60% of the people who were involved in the maritime industry,” she said.
In the 19th century, a significant amount of them served as seamen and Oystermen — nicknamed “Black Jacks” on vessels throughout the many waterways of the Chesapeake region.
Sailing was one of the few rare occupations that a formerly enslaved person could have at the time that allowed them economic independence.
“And this thing goes to my original point about how it is so important that Norfolk starts telling us our history. And, and, and I think that can help provide not just information, but also clarity about who we have been, as a society, and culture. What has happened in this area, and who played a role in these various things that have happened in our area.”
Dr. Newby-Alexander saying that by being more inclusive we can celebrate all of the different people that make up our maritime history.
“I hope that the organizers will begin to see perhaps a different way that they can approach that in the years to come.”