In the blog BitterSweet: Linked Through Slavery, we primarily focus on linked relationships between black and white people connected through US slavery—those descended from enslaved people or slaveholders who are linked by virtue of time, place or genetics. Finding a linked descendant from before the Civil War is powerful and empowering. We place a high value on these links because personal connections can create a compelling and intense desire for healing and reconciliation. But I would suggest that there is another link that joins many black and white people today that is an important yet unexplored piece of our national culture. This link occupies a more recent past, one which can provide another avenue of examination of slavery’s legacy and aftermath.
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.
On 1 March, performer and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte celebrated his 88th birthday. On 8 November last year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presented Belafonte with its Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award … and honored with an Oscar the man’s long pursuit of social justice. Swept into the civil rights movement with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Belafonte eventually shifted most of his energies from entertainment to advocacy: “I’m an activist who also became an actor,” said Belafonte, of his life’s trajectory.
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.”
(Post first written on January 4, 2014)
I am fighting back tears and my stomach is in knots. Most people probably wouldn’t have a physical reaction like this upon learning that 100 boxes of historical documents in Franklin County, North Carolina dating from 1840 were destroyed, but I do. They were incinerated at an Animal Pound no less. Reportedly, it took the whole weekend and a lot of fuel to burn these records. It also took more than $7,000 taxpayer dollars. I have this pained reaction because historical records are a passion of mine. They helped me find many of my enslaved ancestors. As a sort of obsessed family historian, for years I have driven far distances to research in ancestral towns and spent days in the backrooms and basements of courthouses. I’ve combed through fragile 200-year old documents. I even initiated a volunteer project in western Kentucky to try and unfold and better preserve records still folded into small bundles, like these burned in Franklin County. Folds in old documents often wears away the fibers in the paper.