End of the list

The Leffingwell House in Norwich, Connecticut

A blessing of tracing genealogy back to colonial America is that so much of its documentary history has been so richly excerpted in published histories or reproduced in full in a variety of formats that it’s not always necessary to seek out the original sources. And of course, the internet has opened the doors to these documentary resources even wider.

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I Can’t Hide Mine, Please Don’t Hide Yours: An Open Letter to Ben Affleck

“We need formerly slaveholding families to come to the fore, not hide.” Amen, my brother Michael.


Dear Ben,

Its unfortunate because of a massive internet hack we are in this particular place discussing your ancestral past. It’s horrible that your private matters were exposed because of something beyond your control. That’s untenable in any situation, but we need to address something right quick…this slavery thing.  You were embarassed, and that’s reasonable given the situation and the circumstances that produced it. But Ben Affleck, take it from a Black guy; with a platform like yours, don’t you dare be embarrassed to come from an ancestor who held enslaved people. Because….We need to know.

I don’t think many Black people really understand the profound guilt, shame or embarassment some white descendants of slave holding families feel. It’s not just that many assume personal responsibility for the past or that they grasp that their privilege or power is not just based on perceptions based on skin color.  Clearly these…

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Amazing grace

Glenda Menzies, née Strawser (1938-2012)
Glenda Menzies, née Strawser (1938-2012)

People ask what drew me to write a biography of Lillian Carter, mother of President Jimmy Carter (Lillian Carter: A Compassionate Life, McFarland & Company, 2014)

Aside from the obvious—who wouldn’t want to write about the life of America’s sassiest First Mother, who lived compassion as a daily act of faith?—there is something Lillian once said to her presidential son. “I wish I had been born a black woman,” Lillian told him. She qualified this by saying felt she’d have been a more effective human being in the fight for civil rights. The statement is startling and even challenging, and certainly ironic coming from a white Southern woman of slave-owning ancestry, or indeed from any white person. How many people of African American ancestry would agree that being black had helped them in any special way in the fight for equality?

This statement stuck in my mind for another reason. My mother, also a white woman descended from enslavers, had said much the same thing to me often during my childhood. In fact, she said it to me again shortly before her death in 2012. “I wish,” she told me, echoing Miss Lillian, “that I could have been born a black woman.”

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Cleaning House

1651 Peter Lely (English artist, 1618-1680) Elizabeth Murray, Lady Tollemache
1651 Peter Lely (English artist, 1618-1680) Elizabeth Murray, Lady Tollemache

I was never taught that slavery existed in the north. I was taught that it was a southern phenomenon, and this was reinforced by what my maternal grandmother remembered about her family’s past. She knew that before the Civil War, her southern ancestors had owned slaves in South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, and she deplored this.

In fact, of all my grandmother’s ancestors, I was certain, even proud, that at least her Connecticut and Massachusetts forebears, people from the heart of future Abolitionist territory, were free of contact with the “peculiar institution”. Yet a little digging unearthed a fact of which I had long been ignorant: even people from New England, from the heart of the future Abolitionist movement, owned slaves. As I was to find, my New England ancestors actually owned more slaves than my southern ones, and for a longer period of time, in a chain of enslavement forged a little over sixty years after Columbus “discovered” America in 1492.

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Remembering their names

When I joined Coming To The Table over two years ago, I began a journey—a journey into the lives and times of my slave-holding ancestors and, most important for me, into the lives of the people they had enslaved. Taken together, we call ourselves linked descendants.

Along the way, I have participated in discussions with other descendants of enslaved and enslaver, and learned from what they have said to me.  In March 2012, I had the opportunity to spend a night in slave quarters with Joseph McGill, founder of the Slave Dwelling Project (http://www.lowcountryafricana.com/2012/04/10/descendants-of-slaveholders-descendants-of-slaves-share-overnight-stay-at-bush-holley-house-greenwich-ct/ ), and other Coming To The Table members, in Connecticut, the last place any of us might associate with slavery.

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