The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

All in the Family

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After going silent for a couple of days, while I was busy with work & family, I started to wonder if anybody would still be reading here when I finally got back to blogging. Turns out, someone at the Washington Post Express has been reading, and picked up on the post about Strom Thurmond’s family owning Al Sharpton’s ancestors. Nice, especially since that was one of those posts I didn’t think many people would be that interested in.

It seems, though, that there’s still some interest in the subject. Just this morning (and probably late, as I didn’t read my news & blog feeds over the weekend) I came across news that Barrack Obama’s ancestors owned slaves.

Many people know that Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama’s father was from Kenya and his mother from Kansas.

But an intriguing sliver of his family history has received almost no attention until now: It appears that forebears of his white mother owned slaves, according to genealogical research and census records.


The records – which had never been addressed publicly by the Illinois senator or his relatives – were first noted in an ancestry report compiled by William Addams Reitwiesner, who works at the Library of Congress and practices genealogy in his spare time. The report, on Reitwiesner’s Web site, carries a disclaimer that it is a “first draft” – one likely to be examined more closely if Obama is nominated.

It may very well be that Obama’s “slave ties” will be examined more closely if he’s nominated. But my initial response to the whole thing is: So what? It doesn’t make Obama any different than an awful lot of African Americans. Chances are, a great many of us would discover slave owners on our family trees if we traced our bloodlines back far enough.

As I pointed out in the previous post, male slave owners regularly reproduced with their female slaves. Generally speaking, I’m pretty sure this was the general pattern, as a black woman having a child by a white man was far less scandalous than a white woman having a child by a black man at that time. The latter would usually end in the woman being disgraced and the man being hung, and probably castrated before or after. The former did little more than increase the slave owner’s inventory, as children inherited the slave status of their mothers. Thus, they were owned by their fathers.

You can look at just about any African American in this country as evidence of that, as you will find very few with a “pure” African bloodline. The practice mentioned above started, after all, before our ancestors were even taken from Africa — in the slave factories where they were held before embarking for “the New World” — continued through the Middle Passage, inevitably took root on American soil, and flourished during slavery and after emancipation.

After all, the story that led me to investigate my own genealogy was one that took place long after emancipation, as did Thurmond’s liaison with his family’s black teenage maid, because even after slavery southern whites retained a great deal of control over the lives over blacks in their employ — whether as domestics, sharecroppers, or in some other capacity. The right to say “no” was nearly as nonexistent as it was during slavery.

Of course, it all depends on who you consider an “ancestor.” Do you count someone as an ancestor who very likely raped his way on to your family tree, or entered by means of his power over his slave, even though his blood — like it or not — flows through your veins? As Thomas Jefferson’s black and white descendants know, DNA don’t lie.

What’s different about Obama is that his particular tie to the history of slavery in America, at least the one noted in the article, is a lot more recent than most black Americans, and had its origins in his parents’ marriage. In other words, his connection to slave-owning ancestors doesn’t actually originate from the institution of slavery itself.

But, other than that, he’s no different from a lot of other black or white Americans who all have slave owners (and probably slave ancestors) in the family.


  1. What I never understood is how pre-modern racists* could simultaneously argue that blacks were “not really human” or “inferior beings” but were perfectly willing to have sex with them. Sounds rather Rick Santorum to me.

    (*Is there any other kind?)

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