JAMESTOWN, Va. - President Donald Trump marked the 400th anniversary of the birth of democracy in America on Tuesday, making a ceremonial appearance at a historic site that turned into a test for Democrats who accuse the president of inflaming racial division in the country.
Trump called the gathering of the country's first legislature in 1619 "the greatest accomplishment in the history of the world, and I congratulate you, it started right here."
He spoke of "Our shared great, great, great American destiny. America always gets the job done, America always wins. That is why, after 400 years of glorious American democracy, we have returned here to this place to declare to all the world that the United States of America and the great Commonwealth of Virginia are just getting started. Our future is bigger, bolder, better and brighter than ever before."
Del. Ibraheem Samirah, D-Fairfax, briefly interrupted Trump's remarks, standing in the center aisle holding a sign saying "Deport hate" and "go back to your corrupted home." Trump paused his speech and some in the crowd started changing "USA" and "Trump! Trump! Trump!"
Police officers led Samirah out and Trump resumed speaking.
The state's legislative black caucus and other Democratic lawmakers boycotted the event and the caucus accused those who chose to attend and remain silent of being complicit in Trump's racism.
While Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring appeared at an early ceremony in Jamestown and left hours before Trump arrived, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax stayed. Northam, Herring and Fairfax are Democrats.
The the second African American to hold statewide office and a descendant of a slave, Fairfax said he stayed because the event was bigger than any one person. In a post last week, he said he aimed to "proudly show to all in attendance that no national leader can diminish Virginia's continuing efforts to cast aside its racist past and move forward as a state built on the blended contributions of Native Americans, enslaved Africans, settlers from Europe, and later immigrants from across the globe."
Fairfax shared the dais with House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, and Senate Majority Leader Thomas Norment, R-James City. As Trump entered, Cox and Norment applauded, Fairfax did not.
Trump's appearance in Jamestown injected turmoil into an event that had been planned for years and which Virginia officials had hoped would showcase their state's rich role in American history.
At a morning ceremony on the site of the original English colony at Jamestown Island along the James River, Northam told the crowd that Virginia's history needs to be remembered for its complexity.
"We have to remember who it included and who it did not. That's the paradox of Virginia and America and our representative democracy," Northam said, referring to the women, enslaved Africans and displaced Native Americans who were not part of that original government.
Tuesday's events began at a small ceremony at the ruins of a brick church at Jamestown Island. That ruin is atop the site of the original church and adjacent to the archaeological remains of the first fort at Jamestown, begun in 1607.
None of the morning speakers made direct reference to the divisive presence of Trump, who arrived after 11 a.m. to deliver the keynote address.
But Northam spoke pointedly about immigration and inclusiveness. "No matter who you are, no matter who you love, no matter where you came from, you are welcome in Virginia," he said. "There is nothing - nothing - more American than that."
Three former Republican governors arrived for Trump's speech: George Allen, Robert McDonnell and Jim Gilmore as well as a group of mostly Republican state lawmakers. Former Democratic governor Gerald Baliles also joined them, as well as Democratic congresswomen Elaine Luria and Jennifer Wexton.
In Richmond, the black lawmakers hastily arranged alternative events on Tuesday, including a wreath-laying at the state Capitol and a visit to the site of a notorious slave jail.
Gathering shortly after 9 a.m. inside the Capitol, 14 black and white lawmakers laid the wreath below marble plaques listing the black lawmakers who served in the General Assembly during Reconstruction, before poll taxes and other Jim Crow-era restrictions disenfranchised black voters.
"We wanted to reflect this morning, this week, this year on the good, the bad and certainly not forget the ugly," said Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, chairman of the caucus. Noting the black legislators who served from 1869 to 1890, he said, "That is the passion that has drawn us to this space instead of Jamestown today."
The group then walked three blocks to the site of a notorious slave jail known as "Devil's half acre" and were joined by a few more legislators, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, U.S. Rep. Donald McEachin and Herring.
"We are at the right place at the right time," Stoney told the crowd. "Today, sons and daughters of enslaved Africans stand united, not bound by shackles, but bound by common cause - to ensure that the hopes and dreams and desires of our ancestors come to fruition."
Democrats stressed that they were objecting not to policy differences with Trump but what they called a pattern of racist behavior.
"I'm just appalled that he's chosen race as the fundamental basis for his campaign for re-election," said Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax, who praised how some Republicans had pushed back against anti-Muslim prejudice, including former president George W. Bush after the 9/11 attacks and the late Sen. John McCain of Arizona during his 2008 presidential campaign. "This is not a dog whistle, it's a foghorn. This is plain, out-and-out racism."
Tuesday's event comes after Trump unleashed a torrent of incendiary attacks against Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., and his majority black district that includes Baltimore, which he called "rat and rodent infested" where "no human being would want to live."
That came after Trump urged four women of color, all elected to Congress and three born in the U.S., to "go back" to where they came from.
Trump has long been unpopular in Virginia, the only Southern state not to vote for him in 2016. With all 140 seats in the state legislature on the ballot this fall, Virginia Democrats believe taking a stand against Trump will inspire voters to show up in November and help them make gains in the General Assembly. Republicans are nursing wafer-thin majorities - 20-19 in the Senate and 51-48 in the House, with a vacancy in each chamber.
But several lawmakers said the boycott transcends election year politics.
"The reasons not to go continue to snowball," Bagby said in an interview Monday. "This is a clear illustration of why we have a black caucus. This is not about Democrats or Republicans."
The boycott deprived the event of one of the most powerful signs of change since the original General Assembly - the presence of black lawmakers. Of the 25 minority members of the House and Senate, 20 are the black caucus.
The session being commemorated convened July 30, 1619, at a time when the Virginia colony was struggling to survive. Its corporate owners in England had empowered the colonists to pick two representatives from each of the 11 primary settlement areas, all white men.
The weather was so hot that one burgess died on the third day. Meeting with the governor, Sir George Yeardley, and his appointed Council of State, the burgesses passed laws against idleness, gaming, drunkenness and "excesse in apparell." They forbade giving Indians "any English dog of quality," set prices for tobacco, requested funds to start a college and settled a few disputes - including punishing a "lewde and trecherous" servant for wantonness with a widow by having him spend four days with his ears nailed to the pillory.
The assembly broke up after six days because of "extream heat."
Minutes from the session were sent to England later in the year via a ship called the White Lion - the same ship that, in August, had delivered some of the first Africans brought to the colonies in servitude.
Those minutes are back in Jamestown for the first time in 400 years. Obtaining them on loan from British archives is one of the coups of American Evolution, created by the General Assembly in 2013 to oversee the anniversary events.
Written in looping ink on gray parchment, the record of the first General Assembly session anchors a display in the museum at Jamestown Settlement, the reconstructed colony and "living history" attraction just over a mile from the ruins of the real thing.
The chief of the Chickahominy Tribe gave a benediction - the only official role for the native people who also were profoundly affected by historical events at Jamestown.
Sir David Natzler, former clerk of the British House of Commons, told the officials gathered at the curch that Jamestown set the course for the spread of democracy in modern times.
Trump appeared in a massive white air-conditioned tent, where members of the General Assembly held a commemorative session .
Across the street from the Jamestown Settlement, a line of protesters formed by 8:30 a.m., with anti-Trump chants and signs calling for impeachment.
Historian Jon Meacham, who has said Trump joins Andrew Johnson as the country's most racist presidents, also addressed the lawmakers. "We don't tend to build monuments to people who build walls. We build monuments to people who open doors," Meacham said.
In an interview before his remarks, Meacham was asked if he changed his speech in light of Trump's attacks Cummings.
"I didn't need to," he said.
"One lives in hope that the president will learn from history," Meacham said. "That may be the triumph of hope over experience . . . He's weaponized the worst forces in American history . . . He punches down when he's in the one job in the world, arguably, where you have a moral obligation not to do it."
Organizers said the furor over Trump's appearance fits with the flawed experiment in representation launched there four centuries ago.
"It's our democracy and where we are today," said Kathy Spangler, executive director of American Evolution. "It encourages us all to look back, learn, understand and really have a healthy conversation about where we go from here."