I am a filmmaker, historic preservationist, amateur historian, researcher and genealogist, poet and art collector—and a descendant of slave owners from South Carolina on both sides of my family. I have lived in Boulder, CO now for thirty years. In response to research I did about my ancestors on my mother’s side and African Americans linked to us through slavery, I produced and directed the PBS documentary film, Shared History. The magnitude of knowing my family owned African Americans or African people is too despicable to dwell on without the help of others; so I work though Coming to the Table to grieve my family’s role in devastating lives—devastation that continues today—and little by little face my responsibility to acknowledge my past and take action with others to address the wrongs. My hope is by active example and encouragement, other descendants of slave owners will step forward, open their archives to the descendants of people who their families owned and find the power to offer love and healing toward reconciliation.
When I was 12, my sister was exposed to tuberculosis, which meant that everyone in our household, including “the help,” had to be tested. Luvenia Duckett, who cooked for my family, didn’t have a doctor, so she went with us to our appointment. When we got out of the car, my mother pointed to the side door. Luvenia started walking in that direction but I took her hand and said, “No, the [front] door is this way.” My mother said that Luvenia had to go in the side door. I bowed my head and began to cry. When it was my turn to see the nurse, I passed Luvenia sitting in one of the patient rooms. I felt a wave of humiliation come over me when I looked at her and realized that Luvenia, who cooked our food and was my friend, was being treated differently—second class—because she was black. This incident changed my life forever.
I had always known we owned slaves. When I was a child, each summer and fall, my grandmother took me, my sisters, and all of my first cousins to Woodlands, the plantation we still owned that had been nearly burned to the ground during Sherman’s march inland through South Carolina. When we arrived, a dignified black man named Jim Rumph was waiting for us. He wore a suit and hat. He had opened the house, laid the fires and removed the cobwebs. Jim was the caretaker of Woodlands and the grandson of the first Jim Rumph who was the slave foreman at Woodlands. Jim Rumph’s father, also named Jim Rumph, had been the caretaker of Woodlands in the first part of the 20th century.
My grandmother treated Jim Rumph with a respect that she did not show to other blacks, except her housekeeper, Llewellyn, who had been “sent up” from the plantation to work in my grandmother’s home 300 miles away.
Other African Americans came over to the place to cook, clean and take care of us. They were all descended from the enslaved people at Woodlands, which numbered about 40 people at the end of the Civil War. Through reconstruction, Jim Crow, sharecropping, migration and the Civil Rights movement, we continued to know and depend on each other through a paternalistic system that I still seem to participate in today.
In an earlier time, my grandmother and other family members would drive the many miles from where they lived to attend the funerals of these descendants. My family was always seated in the first row. My grandmother, a writer and historian, would stand and speak eloquently about the deceased—how our family suffered the loss as much as the black family did and how our families had always been “together.”
When I was forty, I realized I knew nothing about African American experience so I took a class called African American Family at the University of Colorado. It was then that I realized that it was probably remarkable that I still had contact with the descendants of people my family had owned in the 18th and 19th century. As I studied more about African American history and slavery, I became transfixed and transformed by the realities of this long-term relationship forged through generations of slavery. I realized that the relationship would probably end soon—its members scattered too far and wide, the old people dying, and perhaps because the young people do not want its archaic presence in their lives.
Soon after the class was over, I called Dorothy Manigault, the daughter of Mudd, who had taken care of us as children when we were visiting Woodlands, and asked her if she would help me document our history. I traveled to SC, bought a video camera, and began shooting oral histories of members of both our families. Charles Orr and Rhonda Kearse, descendants of two different families from Woodlands, found Shared History on the web, and we joined forces to explore this history together. I gathered genealogical information about the black families. Most only knew their grandparents’ names. In looking through my grandmother’s files, I found photographs of their ancestors that they had never seen before, along with plantation documents and a series of letters between my family and theirs—from 1915 to 1980. The stories and interviews eventually became a film—Shared History—a website, and a blog. Oddly, whether I like it or not, I have now become the keeper of their families’ history.
Like my long ago deceased grandmother, I sit on the front row when I attend their church, make donations for memorials, and provide other support to certain people. Before the film was broadcast, my family endowed a college scholarship fund for the descendants of the enslaved of Woodlands Plantation. (“Hey, let’s quickly make amends!”
I am particularly close with Dorothy Manigault who made it possible for me to connect with people in her family and help me gain their trust. She has recently had a debilitating stroke. She and I may be the last to care about our linked family relationship, that now has the seeds for equality, but she can no longer speak.
Recently, I have begun researching the other side of my family. They were Baptist ministers who wrote about the benefits of slavery and founded Furman University in Greenville, SC, my hometown. I will write an article exposing my family’s and the university’s relationship with slavery. It’s time for them to own-up. One more little step.