ST. HELENA — The stained-glass window was to be a Napa Valley church member’s gift to his congregation of more than two decades. But the day chosen for its dedication made the artwork something more – a fitting symbol for one of America’s most somber anniversaries.
“I brought you up out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery,” proclaims the lettering of “Justice,” the glasswork created by Whitney J. LeBlanc. If the Biblical message from the Old Testament prophet Micah is not clear enough, a pair of black hands forms the window’s heart – tied by a chain with the center links broken away.
LeBlanc, a stained-glass artist since retiring to St. Helena in 1996, had spent eight months at his Angwin studio crafting his visual tribute to emancipation, but had no idea until the last minute that the decorative window would be introduced to his fellow worshipers on Sunday — the same day that churches across the U.S. would ring their bells to mark the 400 years since the first African slaves were taken onto what would become American soil.
“It was coincidental that the dedication was to be held on the same day that commemorates the arrival of the slaves in this country,” said the 88-year-old LeBlanc, who first apprenticed as a stained-glass artist nearly six decades ago and has created more than a dozen windows for his adopted church since leaving behind a long career as a television director in Los Angeles.
“My wife always tells me there are no coincidences, and it just (speaks) to my belief that all of this was divinely led. … I feel this celebration today is part of whatever plan God has for me to be a part of it.”
The remembrance of America’s original sin – captured in decorative glass as well as a pealing bell – was one of numerous such ceremonies to play out across the U.S. and in Napa County, including at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Calistoga.
Four hundred years after American slavery was born in what became the Commonwealth of Virginia, ceremonies marked the arrival of enslaved Africans in the mid-Atlantic colony and sought healing from the legacy of bondage that still haunts the nation.
The commemoration included a “Healing Day” on the Chesapeake Bay where two ships traded men and women from present-day Angola for food and supplies from English colonists in August 1619. Starting at 3 p.m. Eastern time (noon Pacific), a bell rang for four minutes – one minute for each century since the ships’ landing – as churches across the country were invited to join in.
Though little noted at the time, the arrival of the enslaved Africans in England’s first successful colony is now considered a pivotal moment in American history.
The Englishman John Rolfe documented the landing of the first ship, the White Lion, at what was then called Point Comfort. He wrote that leaders of the colony traded provisions to buy the slaves.
From the White Lion and a second ship, English colonists took more than 30 Africans to properties along the James River, including Jamestown.
By that time, more than 500,000 enslaved Africans had already crossed the Atlantic to European colonies, but the Africans in Virginia are widely considered the first in English-controlled North America. They came 12 years after the founding of Jamestown, England’s first permanent colony, and weeks after the first English-style legislature was convened there.
The question of release hung over a weekend of remembrance – including a beachside cleansing ceremony Saturday morning led by chiefs from Cameroon – that walked a fine line: commemorating the nation’s fundamental sin of slavery but also celebrating the African descendants who survived its brutality and helped build America.
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“Our perseverance, making it through 400 years, is something that should be honored,” said Terry Brown, who is both African American and the National Park Service superintendent for Fort Monroe, site of the 1619 landing.
In St. Helena, the artist’s wife, Diane LeBlanc, also chose to focus on the persistence her ancestors.
“I can trace my family back to 1685, and we consider being so close to the inception to be a proud heritage – a troubled heritage, yes, but a proud one for sure,” she said before the bell ringing. “We each have our own thoughts, but when we meld them and cluster them together it becomes powerful. At a time when it feels like we’re going backward socially and politically, it’s nice to know we can ring some bells and say, ‘Pay attention!’”
Noon arrived at Grace Episcopal, and many of those who had left the day’s main service half an hour earlier returned for the second ceremony.
A teenage boy gripped a white rope dangling from the church bell and gave it several vigorous tugs, then handed it to a second member and then a third, as the brassy gongs reverberated through the sanctuary and down Spring Street in downtown St. Helena.
After the worshipers headed back into the sanctuary, Rev. Amy Denney Zuniga led them in a prayer seeking forgiveness for generations of servitude, segregation and racism – and for the Episcopal church’s past failures to denounce slavery and defend the disenfranchised.
“We lament the death-dealing institution of slavery which began and persisted from that moment for 244 years in this country,” she said before proclaiming the blessings brought by a once-enslaved people.
“Lord, we also celebrate and give you thanks for 400 years of African-American history, culture and faith in North America. We praise you for the beauty of the diversity of your people, and we give you thanks in particular for people of African heritage who have lived with tremendous courage and dignity despite overwhelming oppression.”
Then, one by one, the worshipers filed out of the sanctuary – Diane and Whitney LeBlanc in the lead, then Zuniga, then the rest of the congregation – up a staircase and onto a balcony landing, toward the window that gleamed blue and yellow and red in the afternoon sun. As they formed a tight half-circle around the brightly hued glass, their voices carried the honeyed notes of the spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”:
If you get there before I do,
Coming for to carry me home,
Tell all my friends I’m coming too,
Coming for to carry me home!