I was not quite eight years old when Roots, the miniseries based on Alex Haley’s’ book, aired on television in 1977. Even then I had enough awareness of African American history to at least know that at some point many African Americans (if not most) had been slaves. I didn’t necessarily know what slavery was, except that it meant people had to work without getting paid, couldn’t do what they wanted to do, and were treated very badly.
But I didn’t really make the connection between that history and myself or anyone in my family. I’m not sure I even realized, intellectually, on some level that most likely some distant relatives of mine had been slaves; had been owned.
I remember, that I was very curious about Roots, and wanted very much to see it when it first aired. But I couldn’t. My parents watched it together, alone, and forbade my sister and I from watching it with them. They said it was because they wanted to make sure it was appropriate viewing for us. But at the time I thought they were protecting us from something, and I wondered what that something was.
It wasn’t until later, many years later when I was in college, that I found out. And I thought about it when I read the news this week that Al Sharpton discovered his ancestors were owned by Strom Thurmond’s family.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, the prominent civil rights activist, is descended from a slave owned by relatives of the late senator and one-time segregationist Strom Thurmond, a genealogical study released Sunday reported.
“It was probably the most shocking thing of my life,” Sharpton said of learning the findings, which were requested and published Sunday by the New York Daily News. He called a news conference to respond publicly to the report. “I couldn’t describe to you the emotions I have had . . . everything from anger to outrage to reflection to some pride and glory.”
Sharpton, 52, said he had suspected that his forebears may have been slaves but had never attempted to confirm that or find out any details.
“I had never really traced my family history, particularly on my father’s side, since my parents separated when I was going on 10 years old,” he said.
The newfound knowledge that his great-grandfather was a slave, Sharpton added, gave him a new perspective on his life.
“You think about the distance that you’ve come, you think about how brutal it was, you think about how life must have been like for him. And then you start wondering whether or not he would be proud or disappointed in what we have done,” Sharpton said, with his eldest daughter, Dominique, 20, at his side.
It reminded me of a story I saw in the New York Times about an NFL star’s link to enslaved ancestors.
One hundred and fifty years ago, a white farmer named James K. Tomlinson rode through central Texas in a covered wagon and settled 15 acres of pasture land.
Today, the legacy of that land is carried on by a 27-year-old profootball player in San Diego whose ancestors were Tomlinson’s slaves.
LaDainian Tomlinson, the San Diego Chargers’ running back and the most valuable player in the National Football League, may not be related to James Tomlinson, but they are linked by the hill that bears their name.
Tomlinson Hill belongs to both of them. After Emancipation, LaDainian Tomlinson’s ancestors kept the name and stayed on the hill. They wanted to make the place their own.
It also reminded me of my own journey into my lineage, which I related in an earlier post about the Thurmond family’s colorful history.
My own foray into genealogy stemmed from hearing the story of my grandfather’s birth. As the story goes, my grandfather was born to very dark-skinned parents, with the surname Lockhart. But when he was born, my grandfather was light-skinned and had straight, black hair. Mr.Lockhart declared the child was not his, and wanted it out of his house. Mrs. Lockhart found a family, a black family named Heath, to adopt him. The family legend is that my grandfather was the product of a liaison between Mrs Lockhart, who worked as a domestic, and her white employer. Whether it was a consensual affair, or a matter of rape, no one can confirm at this point.
Starting with that story, and census records, I found my grandfather’s adoptive family. A quick call back home to my dad confirmed that I had all the right names, in the right town. I also tracked down my grandfather’s birthmother via the census records. However, she was not listed with her husband. She was listed as a domestic in the home of a white farmer by the name of Jesse McCrary. (I forget the correct spelling at this point); the man who was likely my grandfather’s birthfather.
At that point, I returned to my grandfather’s adoptive family, intending to get back to the Lockhart and McCrary lines later. Through census records and slave schedules, I traced them all the way back to an ancestor born around 1847, who was a slave on the plantation of John Burge Heath (thus the source of my own surname), a Virginia farmer who had moved to Georgia. I even managed to find information confirming that the plantation house of John Burge Heath was still standing as late as 1985, and across the street from it was a cemetery in which many of the family’s slaves were buried.
Unfortunately, in the slave schedules—literally an inventory of the slave owner’s human property, taken along with the census—slaves are not listed with their families, but simply by age and gender. So while I was able to locate my ancestor, Henry Heath, I wasn’t able to locate his parents. However, that the plantation house was still standing, and thus survived the Civil War without being burned, there remains the possibility that somewhere plantation records exist that might yet take me back another generation or two.
But that’s as far as I got. It was during my college years, and so I was busy with other things and never got back to it. Still, the possibility always remains that I may resume my genealogical search, and uncover some of the other lines in my family. At the time of the last slave schedule, John Burge Heath had a 100 year old slave on his plantation, named Dolly. I’ve always thought that if I could find some connection to her, it would take me back a far leap in my research.
By then, I was in the middle of my career as a college student. I was no longer eight years old. I’d seen Roots. I’d read the book too. At my dad’s suggestion, I also read Jubilee, Margaret Walker’s fictional account of her grandmother’s stories of her mother, Vyry, a slave. That slavery was a part of American history, as well as my own personal history was no longer abstract. Growing up African American in the south made that pretty clear.
Up to that point, even though I’d yet to identify a slave ancestor, the whole subject became personal for me. I’d seen enough pictures like this one and read enough accounts of how wounds like this were inflicted that they were real enough to me, even if I’d never felt the sting of the whip or known for sure an ancestor of mine had. It was no longer entertaining to me to hear Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara quip to Prissy ” I’ll sell you South I will, I swear I will! I’ll sell you South!” or threaten “I’ll whip the hide off you!” Because I knew that, in those times, it was not an idle threat. Seeing Gone with the Wind again after reading Jubilee, I realized that there a whole other drama that wasn’t portrayed on camera.
At the time I was involved in my genealogical research, I was attending the University of Georgia. When I walked to downtown Athens or back to my dorm, I usually walked up S. Lumpkin St., which meant walking past the house of UGA’s chapter of the Kappa Alpha Order (known around campus as the “KA’s”). Most days, at least when the weather was nice, a huge Confederate battle flag flew from the porch of the KA house. I often paused to look at it, and wonder where they found one that big.
Depending on time of year, I might also be treated to the site of KA brothers striding around the front yard of their house in Confederate military uniforms, while their girlfriends sat on the porch bedecked in hoop skirts and southern belle regalia, I happened to wander by during their Old South formal.
For many chapters, Kappa Alpha Order’s largest social event is the Old South formal. It is designed to celebrate the fraternity’s southern history and to honor the southern ideals of hospitality, courtesy, and chivalry. The event has its roots at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. The brothers of Kappa chapter at Mercer were inspired by the release of Gone with the Wind (film) in 1939 to hold the “Dixie Ball”, a celebration of Southern pride. The event quickly spread to other chapters across the country and evolved into the modern Old South formal. Though traditions vary by chapter, many have chosen to make the event a “trip back in time” to the Antebellum South, prior to and during the American Civil War. A common feature is for brothers to dress in Civil War uniforms, and for their dates to wear antebellum dresses. Occasionally, invitations to the event will be delivered by brothers on horseback, or in a manner similar to what was customary in the 19th century. At many chapters, Old South has been expanded to comprise a full week of social events, culminating with the traditional Old South ball.
I’d stop an watch for a moment, admiring some of the dresses and some of the KA brothers (some of whom were quite handsome, despite the cognitive dissonance the moment caused in me). Aside from wondering where they found those outfits, a part of me also wondered what they were celebrating, with that flag, those costumes, and that gathering. And given the history I knew then, I wondered by anybody would want to take a “a trip back in time” to the “Antebellum South.”
I understood the desire to perhaps “celebrate the better aspects” of that time, but it seemed easier said than done. What if the edge of the lawn had actually been a portal back into that time, and stepping over it would transport me back to that time, and the station in life I would likely have held in that time, or for that matter, my ancestor’s station in life back then. And let’s say that I did step off the sidewalk, into the yard, and back into that time.
Would I be likely to experience its “better aspects”? Grace? Dignity? Gentility? Respect? Or anything close to what their “spiritual founder” described in his definition of a gentleman?
The forbearing use of power does not only form a touchstone, but the manner in which an individual enjoys certain advantages over others is a test of a true gentleman.
The power which the strong have over the weak, the employer over the employed, the educated over the unlettered, the experienced over the confiding, even the clever over the silly–the forbearing or inoffensive use of all this power or authority, or a total abstinence from it when the case admits it, will show the gentleman in a plain light
The gentleman does not needlessly and unnecessarily remind an offender of a wrong he may have committed against him. He cannot only forgive, he can forget; and he strives for that nobleness of self and mildness of character which impart sufficient strength to let the past be but the past. A true man of honor feels humbled himself when he cannot help humbling others.
Maybe, if I was lucky. But if not, there wouldn’t be much I could do about it. Whether I was owned by a “gentleman” or not, I’d still be owned. But I wasn’t, I’m not, and nobody has stepped back into that history.
We don’t need to. As William Faulkner said, “The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past.” Just ask the Thurmond family. First Essie Mae Washington-Williams — Thurmond’s daughter, whose mother was a teenage black maid who worked for the then 22-year-old Thurmond’s family — and now this? And speaking of gentlemen, while reading Robert E. Lee’s words above I was reminded of what I posted about Strom Thurmond’s liaison with his black maid.
However, the same question arises here as did in the Hemming’s/Jefferson debate. Could this have been, in any sense, a consensual relationship? Consider first the imbalance of power – for, if you ask me, it is key to understanding the nature of such liaisons whether categorized as rapes or relationships. Was consent even possible? Facing the ardor of a powerful white man, could a black woman honestly refuse consent, without bringing dire consequences upon herself and her family? Whether she fought or simply acquiesced, could Washington-Williams’ mother have rejected the Thurmond’s advances – remember he was the son of a powerful white family in the area & state – without it bringing down consequences on her and her loved ones? Remember also that she was about 16 at the time, and he was 22.
… For my money, there can’t be much in the way of consent when the balance of power between the two is so unequal, and particularly when one is ultimately in a position of authority over the other; whether as owner or employer. So, to me, it boils down to Thurmond taking full advantage of the power his race and his gender afforded him in his society, and the lack of power Washington-Williams mother had because of her race and gender, to get what he wanted at the time. It makes Thurmond no different from any number of “southern gentlemen” of the time, who didn’t want to sit at a lunch counter with blacks, but would bed down with one in the context of the power afforded them by their race and their gender in their soceity.
So Thurmond did no more than other gentlemen of his time did, or than gentlemen before him did. (In fact, it’s likely that Sharpton has a genetic link to the Thurmond family, too, given the frequency with which slave owners availed themselves of the bodies of their female slaves. And they went right on being gentlemen, even as their family and friends when right on believing those gentlemen were “above that,” as Thurmond’s family believed he was “above that.”
Mary T. Thompkins Freeman, a niece of the late senator, who died at 100 in June, said Ms. Washington-Williams’s announcement “was like a blight on the family.”
Like others, Ms. Freeman heard rumors for years that her uncle, a legendary politician in the South who rose to fame as a fiery segregationist, had fathered a child with a black maid. But she never had to confront the truth, not like this.
“I went to a church meeting the other day and all these people came up to me and you could tell they didn’t know what to say,” Ms. Freeman said. “For the first time in my life, I felt shame.”
… “Strom rose to such stature, you just wonder how in the world this could have gone on,” said Ms. Freeman, 64, a retired teacher in Lugoff, S.C. “My family always had help around the house. But it just seems Strom would have been above that.”
Just ignore the slave children running around yard that look so much like your husband, your father, your own children, or even you.
It’s tempting, and easy, to almost feel sorry for the Thurmond family, as they seem forever standing at the intersection of race, power and history, getting mowed down every time somebody gets a DNA test or researches a family tree or makes a speech that dredges up Strom’s presidential run as the segregationist nominee of the Dixiecrats.
But, in truth, we’re all stuck in that intersection. And many of us occasionally get mowed down by history; black and white. Bruce at Crablaw describes pretty well what happens at the point of impact, when abstract and intellectual knowing morphs into a human face and voice.
The concept that one’s ancestors were legally owned by the ancestors of one’s neighbors is a difficult for a lot of white people to process experientially. While it may be true that educated white people know the basic history of slavery in this country, whites tend to learn it either from a fairly academic standpoint in many cases, comparable to the way that people study quarks or integral calculus.
I can’t speak for what its like to come to grips with the reality of “having owned,” or with your ancestors having owned. But I remembered, when I read about Sharpton’s discovery, my own experience as I sat in the basement of the University of Georgia Library, looking at the microfiche display and the name on the slave schedule that took me back as far into my own history as I’d ever gone. And confirming a connection to history I’d only assumed existed before.
… Stripped of the anonymity of history, the slave masters of the Rev. Al Sharpton’s ancestors now have entered his life, reminding him of their existence even when he signs his name.
“So now, you have to, every time you write your name, think about the only reason you have that name is somebody owned your forefathers,” Sharpton said Monday on CNN.
Sharpton has joined a small subset of African Americans who know the identity of a slave ancestor and the identity of that person’s owner. Such knowledge is relatively rare (though genealogists say it need not be) and it runs counter to the traditional reticence with which African Americans have treated slavery. Yes, the broad narrative is known: that during roughly 250 years of slavery, a new people was born from the blending of Africa and America. But often, little more than that is clear, but for family legends and oral traditions.
I wasn’t intending to find Henry Heath, when I set out to track down some family legends, but once I started, the road led at least as far back as him. I didn’t know anything more about Henry Heath than his name, that he was another man’s property from birth until he was freed after the civil war, and that after he was freed he kept the name of the man who had owned him. I know that much, because I still have that name. Only now I know where it came from.
That knowledge sits as well with me as it probably would with someone who discovers their family owned slaves, and then comes across a Black person who bears their family name. And in that case we’d each have the same question in our minds. A couple of years before I graduated from college, I became friends with another student, a gay white male from southern Georgia with whom I shared the same last name. We probably had the same question in our minds. When we met, we both acknowledged somewhat nervously how “funny” it was that one of us was Black and one of us what white (and we were both Georgians, too) but we had the same last name. But beyond that, we never talked about it, probably due to some of the same feelings described by Al Sharpton and by Strom Thurmond’s niece.
The irony today is that we still don’t really talk about it. Oh, it comes up. Virginia recently expressed profound regret over slavery, and even the delegate who earlier said blacks should “get over” slavery ended up voting for the resolution expressing regret. (Some conservatives seem to have a penchant for defending slavery, justifying it, or at least re-framing it.) Meanwhile Hillary Clinton criticized the Confederate flag flying at South Carolina’s statehouse. Michael Richard’s racist rant rocketed around the internet, and now southern college are hosting conferences about the “n-word.” At the same time, college students at Tarleton State University in Texas, Clemson University, the University of Arizona, and the University of Connecticut Law School are partying in blackface, and it’s been necessary to launch a protest against an actual modern-day minstrel show.
Those events make the Kappa Alpha’s Confederate uniforms and hoop skirts at my school look mild by comparison. I’d heard rumors that the KA’s or some similar group on campus held a similar party, at which they even tossed cotton balls in the yard and then paid some local black kids to pick them up. I’ve never seen evidence that something like that actually took place. Then again that was before there were sites like Smoking Gun to expose these events, or Facebook for the participants to incriminate themselves.
But while researching this post, I discovered the Kappa Alpha’s aren’t entirely unscathed. They’ve had their own problems with blackface over the years.
The Kappa Alpha Order, which describes Robert E. Lee as its spiritual leader and is fond of displaying the Confederate battle flag, has been implicated in racial incidents for at least a decade.
The Louisiana Tech University chapter was placed on probation after a confrontation with black football players in which frat members made racist remarks. In 1994 at Millsaps College in Mississippi, Kappa Alpha pledges dressed in Afro wigs and blackface. And the chapter at Marshall University in West Virginia was sanctioned after members yelled racial slurs at a woman at a party.
Atlanta 10/98 At Emory University, a white male wore blackface to a Kappa Alpha Halloween party as part of his John Shaft costume. The incident came to light when a group photograph from the party appeared in the 1999 college yearbook. The Student Conduct Council determined the incident did not have “the purpose or reasonably foreseeable effect of creating an offensive, demeaning, intimidating or hostile environment.” The university’s president concurred.
Carrolton 05/15/97 Some members of Kappa Alpha at the State University of West Georgia wore wigs and painted their hands and faces black to perform as the Jackson 5 during a campus video competition. The fraternity was reprimanded and ordered to attend a sensitivity seminar.
Denton 02/01 Kappa Alpha fraternity was suspended for five years after members allegedly yelled racist slurs and waved a Confederate flag at a group of mostly black football recruits.
Of course, the KA boys were not alone in any this back then, and they certainly aren’t now. And at my alma mater their move into a black neighborhood met with opposition from the neighbors. (Via. Google cache.)
To the young men of Kappa Alpha, the annual Old South Parade down South Lumpkin Street represents chivalry, honor and all the other gentlemanly virtues of a bygone era.
To many black Athenians, the parade is a reminder of the slavery, poverty, disrespect and humiliation that marred the antebellum South.
This year, the University of Georgia fraternity canceled the parade to try to make peace with the long-time black homeowners around West Hancock Avenue who are fighting to keep out a new Kappa Alpha house. Neighborhood residents fear that next year, though, they’ll see white college students clad in Confederate gray marching down their street, a prospect the chapter’s adviser says he can’t foresee but won’t entirely rule out.
The parade is just one point of contention between two 140-year-old institutions with deep roots in the community, and an example of ongoing hand-wringing across Clarke County about UGA’s gradual expansion and the effect of students on traditional single-family neighborhoods.
… Though the residents fighting Kappa Alpha aren’t all black, race complicates this town-gown conflict. Hancock is the oldest predominately black neighborhood in Athens, and Kappa Alpha is known for its reverence for the antebellum South.
Kappa Alpha members say they’re making changes so their new neighbors will feel comfortable, but they have a long way to go to win them over. Many of the current residents say they’ll never accept a fraternity next door, least of all one with a history of using what they call racist symbols like the Confederate flag or outfits.
“There’s some boiling of the blood,” Bertha Troutman-Rambeau said. “The blood begins to boil. You have to know the history. They believe the South will rise again. It will not.
“To stand there and watch a parade like that is to believe they want you to get mad,” she said. “They want to see what they can get away with.”
I can only imagine my own reaction to watching a parade of men in Confederate uniforms marching down my street. Even if I knew I had not stepped backwards in time any more than those gray-clad young men had marched backwards into time. Even though I’ve never been a slave, and not one them every owned a slave. Something—anger, shame, fear, or some combination of them—would inevitably rise in me.
As is so often pointed out when the subject is raised, none of us today have owned or been owned, and the owned and the owners are no longer with us. But they’ve left us a a history that’s impossible to avoid, as we’re inextricably bound up in it. And as difficult as it is, it may just be that either we have to find a way to live with each and own our history together, or we’ll just continue to be owned by it.