WASHINGTON – Angola’s President João Lourenço toured the nation’s premiere museum of African American history on Monday, calling its exhibit on slavery and the Middle Passage “profoundly emotional.’’
“This is history that is part of our common history,’’ Lourenço said through an interpreter after the private tour. “As Africans and Africans in the diaspora, we’ve seen the whole suffering that our ancestors went through in the time of slavery and that was very touching and profoundly emotional.’’
It was Lourenço’s first visit to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and his first to Washington, D.C. as president of the Republic of Angola. In addition to the tour, Lourenço met Monday with Jake Sullivan, President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, participated in a business roundtable at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and spoke at an event hosted by the International Foundation for Conservation of the Environment.
The president is also scheduled to meet Tuesday with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Later in the week, Lourenço will address the United Nations in New York.
Angolan and U.S. officials have been trying to improve relations between the countries since Lourenço became president in 2017. One push by the African nation has been to get more African Americans to visit.
Just before Monday’s tour Lourenço met in the museum’s lobby with members of the Tucker family, who believe they are descendants of the first Africans to arrive in the British colonies in 1619 on a ship that left from Angola.
Vincent A. Tucker, president of the William Tucker 1624 Society, greeted the president in Heritage Hall, an open space in the center of the museum.
1619: Searching for Answers:Hundreds of thousands of Africans were enslaved in America. Wanda Tucker believes her relatives were the first
Lourenço invited the Tuckers to visit Angola to share their story and experiences at universities and other communities. He said there are close connections between African countries and the African diaspora.
“The idea is really to keep connection on both sides,’’ Lourenço said.
The Tuckers welcomed the invitation. Wanda Tucker, who has done extensive family research, said it’s an opportunity to educate people on both continents about the connected histories.
“There’s a joint effort to tell a more … balanced narrative of the histories,” she said.
Tucker said she appreciated Lourenço’s invitation to share the story at universities. While museums are important, that history should also be taught in schools, she said. “To change the lives of people, it has to be in the classroom, in the curriculum,’’ she said.
The United States’ long history with Angola began in 1619 with the landing of the White Lion, a pirate vessel whose cargo was enslaved Africans, at Point Comfort in Hampton, Virginia. The enslaved people had been taken from a Portuguese slave ship, the San Juan Bautista, which originally set sail earlier in 1619 from Luanda, Angola’s capital, and was attacked in the Gulf of Mexico.
Angolan officials have said they hope to encourage more African Americans to visit the country. Village leaders welcomed Wanda Tucker during her visit there with USA TODAY in 2019. The trip was part of USA TODAY’s project: 1619: Searching for Answers.
The Central African country located along the continent’s west coast is rich in natural resources such as diamonds and oil. But the country is still trying to recover from decades of civil war that destroyed much of its infrastructure and economy.
During the hour-long tour Monday, Lourenço walked quietly with his hands behind his back as Mary Elliott, curator of the museum’s Slavery and Freedom exhibit, guided him and his wife, Ana Dias Lourenço, through parts of the museum.
The tour included an exhibit exploring the skills and trades of people on the African continent and the history of Europeans’ appetites for resources there.
“We came with empty hands, but not with empty heads,’’ Elliott told Lourenço and his entourage of mostly Angolan officials.
Elliott took the group through an exhibit on the Middle Passage, showing a wall with the names of ships that brought millions of enslaved Africans to the Americas. She noted how European nations, including Portugal, England and France, and generations of Americans profited from the slave trade.
She also showed the group the image of Queen Njinga Mbandi, revered for fighting to liberate Angolans from slavery during her mid-1600s reign. Her depiction by French illustrator Achille Devéria is the first image visitors see at the start of the museum’s slavery exhibits, centering Angola’s position at the beginning of that part of the American story.
People of African descent “changed the landscape and were changed by the landscape,” Elliott said.
‘We have to continue to tell the story’
The tour came two years after communities in the United States commemorated 1619 and the 400 years since the ship from Angola landed. The year was marked by ceremonies and events, mostly in the Hampton area. Many news organizations wrote about the historical significance. A few, including USA TODAY, traveled to Angola to trace the path of Africans enslaved by the Portuguese and other Europeans.
Carolita Jones Cope, a member of the Tucker family, said it bothered her to think what the Angolan president must have felt about the treatment of his ancestors in America.
“That was a depressing moment, especially knowing that our African (leaders) are here observing now what their ancestors went through,’’ she said.
Vincent Tucker said it’s important not to forget. “We can’t downplay it,” he said. “We have to continue to tell the story, educate the community.”
Contributing: Nichelle Smith