I recently had the privilege of being interviewed for the Extreme Genes podcast to discuss one of my previous posts, Southern Heritage- It’s Complicated, where I deliberate the complexities of having slave owning ancestors. The episode aired this week, but both the post and interview occurred before the horrible events in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Prior to the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, I started working on a project to identify an African American woman in a old family photo from around 1885. In the course of researching her identity, I recognized that I know so little about the true nature of slavery. Yes, I know it was atrocious. But what does that really mean? Despite my years of historical study, I know only very basic information of the day to day misery of the institution, or the pervasive dependence on slavery in the development of our national economic infrastructure.
This revelation occurred when looking at a page from the 1850 slave schedule for York County, South Carolina, I have not one ancestor listed with their enslaved, but three. Peter Garrison, his father Josina Garrison, and his father in law, Major Temple Hall. Between the three ancestors, 35 men, women and children were enslaved.
Curious as to what the 1860 slave schedule would reveal, I looked for Peter Garrison, as both his father and father in law had passed away by then. I was shocked at the information I found, and had to confirm it with some of my wonderful subject matter/genealogy experts. You’ll note that in the far column, there is a number indicating how many slave dwellings there were per property. In the case of Peter Garrison’s 16 enslaved, there were only four houses to accommodate them.
Looking at the other slave owners on the page, I recognized his brother Arthur Garrison, as well as other names of prominent members of the community, many of whom are also Garrison kin. Henry Killian, whose daughter I wrote about in a previous post, had 24 enslaved souls and also only four dwellings to share between them.
These are the types of details that often fail to get disclosed in classroom history lessons or in general public discourse. A false narrative has been created to intentionally cover up our most shameful moments and to romanticize a history that never really occurred. That is not acceptable. It is not enough to know on a basic level that the slavery was horrible. We should feel compelled to delve deeper into this institution so we can believe how offensive it truly was. The exploitation of a race of people is as much part of our American history as the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
In the tearful and angry shadow of Charlottesville, and so many tragic events that preceded it, white Americans have to learn to discuss the brutal nature of this history and the part our forefathers played if we are ever to move forward as a society. As genealogists, as citizens, when we know that we have ancestors that contributed to the “peculiar institution,” as it has often been called, we should not be afraid to expose their roles. We should not put them up on pedestals of honor, but recognize they were flawed humans just as we are today.
I feel that many Americans do not want to know or discuss this past for fear of being judged or held accountable for something they had no control over. They are perhaps afraid of how it may change the way they think about themselves, as this requires us to stare our very real privilege in the face.
This apprehension is understandable to some degree; it makes many uncomfortable to face the hard things. Human nature unfortunately often overrides moral obligation. However, it is way past the time we stop putting our comfort above truth and the expense of others. Perhaps events like Charleston and Charlottesville would not happen if we had open and honest dialogues about our real history. Those on the vulnerable fringes of society would not fall victim as easily to those who preach hate. Our seemingly unassuming next door neighbor may not fall back as quickly on stereotypes and biases. Our past has been sanitized for so long to the benefit of white Americans, that shedding light on this deep and gaping wound may help to educate a nation that is lacking in factual knowledge and empathy.
I am currently reading White Trash: The 400-Year Untold Story of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg. A scholarly but exceedingly readable book, it contends that from the inception of this nation, class and race has been used to manipulate and benefit a select few, the original 1% if you will. It is astounding how it mirrors our current political and social climate. Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise me so, given that the fabric of our nation was woven upon this framework.
Upon the recommendation from my friend/cousin Erin at Reclaimed Ancestors, I will next read The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry, by Ned and Constantine Sublette. Their book coins the term “the capitalized womb,” and explores how the perpetuation of slavery powered the global economy and was essential to the expansion of our country. I have been advised that it will be a hard read, and may have to take breaks between chapters to recover. I will review both books on the blog.
I am thankful to be part of a growing personal community of historians and genealogists that are a sounding board and safe space to explore these things. Several have graciously answered questions as I work through family documents and records. These questions may become harder in my attempt to learn not just about my slave owning ancestors, but also the individuals they enslaved.
Ultimately, it will say more about the character of our nation if we continue to minimalize the severity of our past transgressions. It won’t solve all of the current challenges our nation is currently facing, but it may be a start.
Copyright © 2015-2017 Beth Wylie and Life in the Past Lane. All rights reserved.