You Discovered a Slave Owner in Your Family Tree? What Does That Mean to You?

A few years back, when I first met some of my African American linked descendants, I was excited and enthusiastic, ready to embrace them warmly. They opened their arms to me, and the renewal of our family connection has remained a positive part of our lives. For a while, I assumed that every African American with whom I had a family connection would be as glad to meet me as I would be to meet them. Fortunately, one of my linked cousins has kindly and frankly made it clear that she does not want to be hugged and called cousin by every new white relative she discovers in her family history research. I believe that she wants the warmth and friendship to grow out of time-tested relationship and candid dialogue.

I was reminded of her as I listened to the stories I’m sharing here. They come from a symposium I attended recently, where five African American women panelists talked about their experiences in researching their family histories and their perspectives on finding out about their connections to slave-owning families. What I found particularly valuable for my own learning was the variety of points of view, from curious to excited to matter of fact. Since I have a great many linked family members descended from people my forebears owned or had as hired servants, and I am actively involved in seeking out our connections, it is essential for me to be aware of the various reactions the people I find might have to our shared heritage in slavery.

One panelist, Virginia, described her family research journey as being like solving a mystery, with answers to some questions opening up new unknowns. She became curious when her children became teenagers, and she recollected how often in her teen years she and her siblings and cousins teased one another: “Which cousin did Granny make you kiss today?” And she wondered about the deeper question: ”Why did everyone Granny knew call us cousin?” As Virginia described her research journey and the revelation of family connections, it was evident how proud she was to find the link to a well-respected nineteenth century African American preacher. But the subsequent findings that this preacher was descended from a plantation owner who had lived in a more distant county, seemed much less central to her sense of her family’s story. What I recognized was that Virginia’s family identity was nurtured by its ancestor whose life demonstrated commitment and accomplishment related to the family’s faith tradition, not at all by its connection to a European whose story had little to do with the family’s current day values. Although Virginia’s ancestors and mine are linked, her story made me see clearly that she might not even be interested in our connection.

In contrast, Caroline’s story described the first stages of research into family history. Caroline has been told that her family is descended from a famous slave-owner, but all she has to work with is an assortment of names and partial stories. She is very excited about finding more definitive proof that her family has such a famous connection, and very curious to find the answer to a question she touched on several time: “Who is my grandfather’s grandfather?” I smiled about her enthusiasm, and hoped she would find linked family members who receive her inquiries and discoveries with an answering warmth.

Discovering family roots brought Cheryl home to the people who cherish her. The connection to European heritage was only tangential, as the source of a feature that had originally brought her pain but later brought her reconciliation. Cheryl’s story told of how, as a child of immigrants to the U.S. from the Caribbean, she was the darker-skinned child among three siblings, and always “came second” to the others. The only comfort was the reassurance of her aunties that one day she would understand more about her heritage and would “come first.” Through a series of coincidences, Cheryl discovered the whereabouts, in the islands, of her aunts, uncles and cousins, and she ventured “home,” to be greeted with warmth and joy. As she stood in the circle of family, someone exclaimed, “Oh, Cheryl, you are olive-colored and we are deep chocolate! How beautiful you are!” Later, an important government official came to meet her and told her everything he knew about her family’s past and its connections to a former sugar-plantation-owning family. Through her research, Cheryl’s aunties’ words were proven true: she understood her heritage and she was indeed “first” in the hearts of her family. Cheryl’s story engaged my heart in the desire of the child to find love and acceptance. But the insight it gave me was that, although Cheryl is linked to a European ancestor, the power and sweetness of connection for her was in finding her links to her African Caribbean family. My desire to focus on families linked across racial lines could easily have led me to miss the point.

Two stories expressed the speakers’ mixed views of what they learned about their families’ heritages. In one case, Sandra was aware of the shame her parents and grandparents had felt about the circumstances of their connection to a well-known and influential white family, a story of unequal power and advantage and possible rape and sexual abuse. But Sandra herself was also proud to be among the descendants of a signer of the Declaration of Independence. She seems to be able to balance the paradox of her linked connection to people of great accomplishments and ugly personal behavior. Sandra’s story reminded me of my own struggles to see all the sides of my slave-owning ancestors, to admire what they did well and look with clear eyes at the evils of the oppression they benefited from and perpetuated when they had the choice to do otherwise.

In the other case, Donna expressed pride in her paternal ancestor and reservations about her maternal family. Her paternal ancestor had left the Confederate Army after his slave master was killed at Vicksburg, and joined the Union Army. “Bernie helped us to get the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments.” On the maternal side, the story was more complicated. Donna’s ancestors were known to be the descendants of a well-to-do white landowning man and an African American woman, and the landowner had cared enough about his children to leave them land. But they had never been able to claim the land in the confusion that resulted at the end of the Civil War and the scattering of family members from the local area. Donna is still wondering whether her European American kin cheated her family out of its inheritance or if it was lost by accident and oversight. Donna told her stories matter-of-factly, with pride in Bernie but without anger about the lost land. It seemed to me that her linked ancestry was a fact, a piece of her family’s past, but not its defining feature.

As much as I loved hearing these women’s family stories of linked ancestry, what turned out to be even more valuable is the reminder to myself that not all linked connections between African and European heritage families are experienced as important, positive or affirming. They encourage me to go gently into the inquiry, to wait patiently for others to reveal their stories of family heritage, and to listen with an open heart for the clear statements and the subtle details that will show me how each storyteller sees her or his linked heritage.

5 thoughts on “You Discovered a Slave Owner in Your Family Tree? What Does That Mean to You?”

  1. Thank you, Prinny, for this most thoughtful article. I have recently been contacted by my first linked ancestor cousin, and while we are both excited, it helps to be reminded not to assume anything, and to tread gently with open ears as well as an open heart as we proceed in our relationship.

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