Remembering Our Enslaver Ancestors: Which Facts Define Them? A Look at the Differing Viewpoints of the Descendants

In December 2020, Eric Kolenich of the Richmond Times-Dispatch interviewed several descendants of President John Tyler. He was prompted to write about them and their ancestor when John Tyler Community College began to consider changing its name, and his conversations with members of the Tyler family highlight the issue of how descendants of Confederate enslavers choose to regard their ancestor.

What are the salient facts? Tyler stepped into the position of tenth president of the United States for a single term, but later betrayed his country when he was elected to the Confederate Congress in 1862. When he died shortly thereafter, he was buried with a Confederate flag draped across his coffin. Although Tyler led a country founded on the principle of human equality, he was a plantation owner whose wealth was gained from the exploitation of an enslaved workforce. His great-great-granddaughter’s recent research has discovered 46 enslaved people listed in the 1850 census. During his presidential career, Tyler stood up for his own principles and values, and vetoed much legislation. As a result he was thrown out of his political party, was the first president to have a veto overridden, and was the first president to go through an impeachment vote.  

Frances Tyler, age 23, the youngest Tyler descendant interviewed, considers her ancestor a dishonorable person and calls out her great-great-grandmother’s racist comments in family letters. She spent months of her online college experience going through documents, getting information from historians, and connecting with a linked descendant, someone descended from the enslaved community of Sherwood Forest. Frances’ mother agrees with her daughter unequivocally, “because there’s an ugly truth in Tyler’s story, that he was a slave owner.”

While Frances’ father, William Tyler, “believes his daughter’s opinion is more important than his own, because her generation is the future,” he would rather focus on his ancestor’s political career. Mr. Tyler’s cousins believe the tenth president should be remembered for more than his involvement with the Confederacy or his ownership of slaves. 

Read more about President Tyler and how some of the contemporary Tylers prefer to remember their ugly and complicated family heritage.  

Story sources

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Posted in History & culture: people, places & events, Linked Descendants

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