Repairing the Breach of Slavery

What Linked Descendants Say About Making Connections Across the Divide

Reflections provided by participants of the December 2015 Coming to the Table conference call. Post co-authored by Sharon Morgan, Our Black Ancestry, and Prinny Anderson, Linked Descendants.

If you could have a conversation with a descendant of the people who owned your ancestors, or with a descendant of someone your ancestors owned, what would you want to say? What would you like to ask?

CTTT tree This was the starting point for a conversation when ten people recently gathered on a conference call sponsored by Coming to the Table — Bittersweet: Linked Through Slavery. The themes from what people shared on the call are presented below. Feelings – strong and uncomfortable — came up for everyone.

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BLEAK HOUSE – LINKED FIRST BY PLACE, THEN BY HEART (1)

Part 1 – Finding the House, Looking for the People   

At the Telling the History of Slavery conference, the woman I sat next to looked to be about my age, and like most of the attendees, not someone I knew. We introduced ourselves before the speakers began, and at the first break, shared more information. Something about the same way we each dealt with the question “where are you from?” alerted me to listen more carefully. As my neighbor listed the countries she had lived in as a child, “Burma” rang all the bells. “Alice! Alice Cannon! Are you Alice Purnell who lived next door to me in Rangoon?” She is. Our families were next door neighbors when Alice’s and my fathers worked for the American Embassy in Rangoon, Burma, in the early ‘50’s. We were very small then, but we could remember our cats who were siblings, our shared disaster with the bees in the hedge, and our study partnership in Miss Gevney’s one-room American school.   Alice is an only child, but she remembered my little brother, too.

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A Rainbow Family

A Rainbow Family

It’s been 20 years since I found my first “linked descendants.” Coming to the Table was not yet born and I’d never heard that phrase. I didn’t even know for certain that Betty and Tommy Williams were descended from people my Uncle Britt Williams enslaved in Harris County, Georgia, but I had a hunch.

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You Discovered a Slave Owner in Your Family Tree? What Does That Mean to You?

A few years back, when I first met some of my African American linked descendants, I was excited and enthusiastic, ready to embrace them warmly. They opened their arms to me, and the renewal of our family connection has remained a positive part of our lives. For a while, I assumed that every African American with whom I had a family connection would be as glad to meet me as I would be to meet them. Fortunately, one of my linked cousins has kindly and frankly made it clear that she does not want to be hugged and called cousin by every new white relative she discovers in her family history research. I believe that she wants the warmth and friendship to grow out of time-tested relationship and candid dialogue.

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Being Linked Through Slavery Means …

Being a “linked descendant” puts racism and white privilege in a harsh light for me.  It makes speaking out honestly about the legacy of slavery a personal and family imperative.

I always knew that my mother’s ancestral roots went back to at least one plantation-owning Virginia family, but not until well into adulthood did I realize that being directly descended from one plantation family actually means being descended from many such families, and related by marriage to as many as 50 others.  Furthermore, this heritage for “first families of Virginia”  turns out to endow me with an extended family of European American cousins, but an equally large or larger extended family of African American cousins.  And the longer I studied my family tree, the more I realized how large, extended and “linked” it is.

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