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Musket shots at Fort McHenry on ‘Day of Healing’ commemorate slavery’s beginnings in America

A commemoration of 400th anniversary of the first slave ship's arrival in colonial America is held at Fort McHenry in a National Park Service "Day of Healing."

Four musket volleys — each representing a century — pierced the quiet at Fort McHenry in Baltimore on Sunday afternoon in a National Park Service “Day of Healing" commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the first slave ship’s arrival in colonial America.

The silence while three War of 1812 reenactors reloaded their weapons provided a chance to reflect on the abomination of slavery and the contributions of African Americans to the country over those four centuries, and how both have shaped the U.S. today, Park Ranger Shannon McLucas told a crowd of several dozen visitors near the fort’s ramparts.

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“We don’t always celebrate everything that happened in history, but we do commemorate it,” she said, “and learn from it, ideally.”

The Fort McHenry ceremony took place at 3 p.m. sharp — coordinated with ceremonies at other national parks across the country, including Fort Monroe National Monument in Virginia, which is home to Point Comfort, where the first 20 African slaves arrived on American soil aboard the White Lion in 1619.

Ayana Wooden, who grew up in Baltimore and lives in Mount Washington, enjoyed “the energy, the peace you felt, the acknowledgement of these people” in Sunday’s ceremony.

Wooden and her husband, Saleem Wooden, traveled to “Day of Healing” events at Fort Monroe last week, in addition to the smaller ceremony at Fort McHenry on Sunday.

They said one of the events in Virginia included the story of an African woman preparing for her wedding day, only to be whisked away and enslaved in the New World.

“They had lives. They were doing something before they were put on ships and brought over here,” Ayana Wooden said. “We have come so far, by the grace of God."

After a fife-and-drum version of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Yankee Doodle,” McLucas told the crowd the story of Charles Ball.

Born into slavery around 1781 on the Eastern Shore, Ball served in the War of 1812 as a seaman and cook in the U.S. Navy’s Chesapeake flotilla, defending the country that had enslaved him at the Battle of Bladensburg and later manning the defenses at Fort McHenry.

“We talk a lot about the 'Land of the Free’ and ‘Home of the Brave,’” the park ranger said. “This is a brave man who is not living in the land of the free.”

Saleem Wooden, a self-proclaimed history buff, hadn’t previously heard Ball’s story.

“It’s knowledge that’s there," he said, "but unless you dig to get it, you’ll never know it.”

He thanked the National Park Service for planning the nationwide events: “Hats off to them.”

Salima Marriott Gibbs of Park Heights called Sunday’s ceremony “extraordinary.”

Gibbs is preparing for a speech about the evolution of black feminism she plans to deliver at a meeting of the International Black Women’s Congress in Virginia Beach, Virginia, next month, she said. The convention’s theme this year is “Black Women’s Lives Between the Dash: 1619-2019.”

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“Today," Gibbs said, “begins the fifth century of African presence in America.”

Jeanelle Spencer of Baltimore happened upon the ceremony while visiting Fort McHenry with her friend, Joanna Kouniakis-Hall of London, Ontario.

McLucas’ presentation was the highlight, Spencer said.

“Her words were beautiful, inspiring and hopeful,” she said. “We could use that right now.”

Ayana Wooden was just glad people took the time to remember the anniversary of slavery’s beginnings in America.

“For America to admit it, truthfully, is a wonderful thing," she said.

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