Betty Kilby was nine years old when the Supreme Court handed down the Brown versus Board of Education decision that declared segregation in schools illegal in 1954. Four years later, her father and the NAACP filed suit against the school board of Warren County, Virginia to allow Betty and other black plaintiffs the right to attend Warren County High School in their home town of Front Royal. At the time, WCHS was the only high school in the county. Only white children were allowed to attend. When a federal judge ordered the school board to comply with federal law, they responded by closing the school. Under Virginia law at that time, “the assignment or enrollment of any Negro pupil to a white school automatically forces that school to close.” Warren County High was the first of Virginia’s public schools to close during the “Massive Resistance” era.
As our car turns down the lane, I flash back to Mom in the driver’s seat, the blue Nissan van idling beneath us as we wait for the yellow behemoth of a school bus to mount the hill in the sunrise hour. It’s too far to walk to catch the bus, so Mom drops us off and picks us up each day.
Then, we drive past the entrance to the first plantation house, I think of my cousin Lauren and Dad trimming the boxwoods there. I see the carriage pulling up front, a woman in long skirts stepping out, dismay at her isolation etched into the corners of her mouth. She is white. Behind her, six people step out of the back of a wagon, pulling down trunks and flour, much more than dismay in their eyes. They are black.
“We need formerly slaveholding families to come to the fore, not hide.” Amen, my brother Michael.
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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By Joyceann Gray, Sarah Brown and Monique Hopkins
Joyceann Gray, Monique Crippen-Hopkins and Sarah Brown are “linked through slavery”. Joyceann and Monique’s ancestors were enslaved by Sarah’s ancestors, the Washington family. When Sarah published her most recent post, about her connection with Monique’s family, Joyceann spoke out about her feelings about the piece. The three of them decided that the Facebook dialogue that followed was important, and would be valuable as a post of its own.
Read Joyeann’s blog for her full story: http://jgraydiscovery.com/
Read Monique’s blog for her full story: http://genealogybreakingdownthewalls.blogspot.com/
Part One of this series is titled “Paper”. It explains my family background, and how I was launched on this journey. Many thanks to the members of Bittersweet, for your stories and your support.
PART TWO – “PEOPLE – THE THOMPSONS”
My family sold their plantation, Claymont (or Claymont Court) in Jefferson County, West Virginia in the wake of the Civil War, and headed west around 1905 to start over. An archive of wills, inventories and letters remained with them. I tell the story of these papers and how they initiated my search for linked descendants in Part One of this post. From these papers I made a spreadsheet to help me visualize the slave population on my family’s plantations, and used it to explore the many answers to the one enormous question that arose; who were the individuals my ancestors regarded as property, visible only as shadows on inherited sheets of paper?
My great grandfather, Jeremiah Turner (1840-1917), was born in slavery. Our family history explained ‘Jery’ was the slave son of Squire Turner (1793-1871), of Richmond, Kentucky. Jeremiah Turner was assuredly Squire Turner’s property when, in 1864, he made a bid for freedom, by joining the 12th Heavy Artillery Regiment of the United States Colored Troops. Even following his discharge at war’s end, his depositor’s record in the Freedman’s bank (right), listed his master.
A couple of weeks ago, Sharon Morgan emailed me to let me know that someone had posted information on her Our Black Ancestry website that linked my slave owning Furman ancestors to the writer’s enslaved ancestors. This was totally out of the blue except that Sharon has been working hard for many years to make these connections happen. In her email to me, my ancestral link, Michelle Hammett-Ross, says, “Wow I am so excited to hear from you! This is like coming full circle to allow healing from the ‘bittersweet’ past.”
But this is not the first time Our Black Ancestry (OBA) has linked me to someone looking for their ancestors. A couple of months ago, Trina Roach, who lives in Germany, found me through posts about my family I had written for BitterSweet: Linked Through Slavery that she found referenced in OBA. She had irrefutable proof that my ancestors had owned hers!
OBA helps people explore and appreciate African American family history and culture. Believing that we “empower our future by honoring our past,” OBA contributes to an African American genealogical legacy that goes beyond the recording of names, dates and places into the realm of elevating genealogy to promote positive community and family values.
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.”
In 2010, an archive of rare documents passed down in my family for over 250 years arrived at my home in Austin. Reading them I came face to face with my family’s role in both creating democracy and denying freedom.
I’m the 5x great-granddaughter of George Washington’s brother John Augustine Washington. Although the President freed his slaves in his will, his brothers and heirs continued using slave labor to maintain their lives of privilege until the Emancipation Proclamation became law.
My own life has followed a different cultural current of American history. I’ve been a professional blues musician for over 40 years. I launched my career playing with blues legends, learning authentic styles from those who grew up in the Jim Crow era.
I’ve been looking for linked descendants, and specifically those who share a life in music. Soon after I began my search I found Coming To The Table. Susan Hutchison, one the founders, helped me to come to terms with my family’s legacy. I’m forever in her debt – thank you, Susan!
I’m outlining my search – so far! – In three parts, as a Bittersweet blog post – “Redrawing a Community”.
Part One, “Paper” deals with the impact of learning about my family’s past as slave-owners.
Part Two “People”, tells the story of connecting to the living descendants of Solomon Thompson and Reuben Hatter.
Part Three “Music”, talks about the impact of African-American music on my life, and my search for linked descendant musicians.
I’m telling the whole story in my upcoming book “The Washingtons and The Blues”.
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.