A family that believes it descends from the first African American reflects on 400 years of history
His name was William.
He was born in 1624, five years after his parents, Antoney and Isabella, arrived in this port city on a ship with 18 other Africans — the first slaves in the English colonies that would become the United States.
William’s last name is thought to be Tucker, after the white Colonist who bought his parents and put them to work on his tobacco plantation not far from here.
Based on what remains of census records, William Tucker was the first African American born in the Colonies. Nobody knows when he died.
Carolita Jones Cope thinks about him often.
On a recent afternoon, the 60-year-old retired lawyer stepped slowly through the shadows of oak trees, over beds of pine needles and around the 136 graves of her ancestors at the two-acre Tucker family cemetery, just eight miles from where William’s parents landed.
“I believe I am descended from that little boy,” she said. “And I hope he is buried here.”
Most of the graves are unmarked, a fact that both sustains her belief and complicates her efforts to prove it. Despite the uncertainty, the story has gained widespread acceptance in the local area.
This month marks 400 years since the arrival of that first slave ship, the White Lion, an English privateer carrying Africans captured by Portuguese colonists in present-day Angola. The anniversary has received widespread attention in commemorations across the country, elevating awareness of 1619 as a critical juncture in American history.
For Cope and many of her relatives, the moment has come to feel intensely personal.
Cope grew up surrounded by reminders of the history of black people in America. Her grandfather, who owned a dry-cleaning shop in the city of Newport News, would tell her how her ancestors fought for freedom.
He would drive her by Bluebird Gap Farm, a park and petting zoo on land once owned by another William Tucker, the white Colonist who bought the boy’s parents. He said it was once the family home.
Cope was 9 when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. She went to a segregated elementary school, and her seventh-grade class was the first at Jefferson Davis Middle School to be integrated. Kids threw rocks at her bus the first day of school.
The cemetery — a short drive from her childhood home, up a grassy alley at 1 Sharon Court — was always a part of her life.
Her family would gather there for funerals and pray over the graves of great-grandparents and great-aunts and -uncles.
Elders made little mention of William those days. But her mother, Carol Tucker Jones, and her mother’s cousin, Thelma Williams, knew the stories that had been passed down through the generations.
They believed the boy was in the graveyard.
On the 375th anniversary of the White Lion’s landing, Cope’s mother would proudly don a green dress as she stood on a replica ship landing in Jamestown as her cousin watched.
To the younger generation, the history was entertaining but shrugged off as a hobby of little use.
“We were taught to focus on the future, on the good; not on the past, not on the bad,” Cope said.
She went on to graduate from Spelman College, a historically black institution in Atlanta, and then law school at Temple University. She moved to a Washington, D.C., suburb to work for the U.S. Department of Labor.
She married and had a son, who grew up to become a fashion designer and moved to Brooklyn, N.Y.
Meanwhile, the family cemetery went into disarray as those who had long cared for it began to wither.
Cope’s mother struggled with dementia. Thelma died in 2006 at 64. Vines, weeds and litter took over the graveyard.
Sometime around then, somebody placed an etched block of granite at the entrance. It says: “Tucker’s Cemetery: First Black Family.”
Then six years ago, the Hampton mayor called out the Tuckers in the local newspaper, saying the grounds were “deplorable” and needed rescue.
The family hastily arranged cleanup and tried to secure legal ownership of the land. An 1896 deed said a Tucker had joined five friends to buy the land for $100, but no modern-day records documented a living owner.
In 2016, Cope joined seven brothers and cousins to form a nonprofit to take over the cemetery.
They named it the William Tucker 1624 Society. On its website, it declares a goal of “education of the greater public about the first Africans to arrive in Virginia.”
“We wanted to reconnect to our past,” Cope said. “I chose the name because that is the oldest black person that we know to have been born here.”
It was also good for public relations. They needed money to maintain the burial ground.
Not everybody was so interested in the cause or William. There are more than 100 living Tucker family members today on the family tree. The society has 25 members who pay its annual dues of $120.
“People have moved away,” Cope said. “My son has been to one funeral at the cemetery, and didn’t go there growing up.”
But those involved are proud of the local recognition they have received for their declared link to the first African American.
A family photo was once printed in a National Park Service brochure about the place where the White Lion landed, the former Army post of Ft. Monroe, then called Port Comfort.
Last year, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed an easement to protect the burial ground from development, and the family’s nonprofit received a $100,000 grant to clean it up. Most of the grounds are now considered a historic preservation site, closed off for new burials.
Hampton elected officials joined family members Friday at the cemetery, where Cope took part in a libation ceremony — a ritual pouring of water on the grounds — as she recognized the “sacrifices, suffering and pain” of her ancestors. Two prominent black politicians, state Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and U.S. Rep. Robert C. Scott (D-Va.), attended.
Still, Cope and her relatives acknowledge that they cannot prove a connection to William.
They paid for a radar scan of the grounds and found 107 unknown graves, each now marked with an 18-inch white wooden cross. The oldest they point to with certainty is that of Ester Anderson, a distant relative who died on Feb. 5, 1903.
On paper, the family has traced itself back to the early 19th century and Samuel and Millie Tucker, two slaves near Hampton who were Cope’s great-great-great grandparents.
What’s harder is going back another 200 years.
“We know a lot about the place the first Africans came from and how they got here,” said Beth Austin, the registrar of the Hampton History Museum, which has documented the 1619 landing. “But we know so little about them as people and what happened to their families.”
Compared with their European counterparts, English colonists didn’t keep great records. There are vast troves of deeds documenting slave ownership in the Colonies, but the majority were created after a series of court cases and laws began to formally legalize slavery in the 1640s.
“No one over these last 400 years thought to save this information about Antoney and Isabella and their first child,” said Vincent Tucker, 57, Cope’s cousin who runs a moving company near Richmond. “Because we weren’t considered. We were traded for goods. We were property.”
In their graveyard visits, emails and phone calls, the family debates how far to go to prove their links.
Offers have come in to exhume the bodies for study. Some Tuckers entertained the idea. Most rejected it.
For Cope’s brother, Walter Jones, it could be just a matter of time before bones are studied, even without a dig.
“The things we know now, like the unmarked graves we found, we could have not known 100 years ago,” said Jones, 63, a retired information technology specialist who lives in Newport News. “Who knows what [technology] is next?”
“It’s a sacred ground. We can’t disturb it,” said another brother, William Foley Jones, 68, who recently moved back to Virginia from Detroit, where he led a nonprofit that helped underprivileged racial minorities get schooling and jobs.
Vincent Tucker has grappled with whether proof matters at all. “What is it what we have to prove?” he said. “We have oral history from generation to generation.”
Cope said she would love to have that certainty. She keeps a handwritten family tree in a folder of old family photos, newspaper clips and family reunion programs, hoping one day that she can fill in the dotted line between 1619 and today.
But in her heart, she has come to believe that it ultimately doesn’t matter.
“What if we found out we weren’t related to William?” she said.
“It wouldn’t change that my uncles, grand-uncles are buried here. It wouldn’t change that we were slaves. It wouldn’t change that our ancestors built this nation. It wouldn’t stop our pride.”
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