“You owe me what was always mine” is the title of Briayna Cuffie’s latest blog post on reparations4slavery.com. She is speaking to enslavers whose family records, letters, journals, photos, plantation accounts, etc. contain valuable information about the men, women, and children they enslaved.
While drafting the post Half-white Slaves of Aristocratic Masters at my blog, I acknowledged that Edward Ball, in his text, The Sweet Hell Inside: The Rise of an Elite Black Family in the Segregated South, employs the term ‘concubines’ to describe intimate, long-term relationships between master and female slaves. It was a theme I followed up, at the post These Negroes Reveal A Curious Superiority, where cultural critic H. L. Menken observed in 1920 that the practice carried on, in 20th century society: “The more slightly yellow girls of the region, with improving economic opportunities, have gained self-respect, and so they are no longer as willing to enter into concubinage as their grand-dams were.”
This is the first of three posts about my initial efforts to identify linked descendants connected to my slave-owning ancestors on my father’s side of the family in South Carolina. These ancestors are Wood Furman (1712 – 1783), Richard Furman (1755 – 1825) and James C. Furman (1809 – 1891). On my mother’s side, I have a rich history of on-going relationships with the descendants of enslaved people at a plantation in South Carolina (see Shared History) that my cousins and I still own today—the remnants of what Sherman left behind. Several African American families stayed on the place after the Civil War and maintained relationships with my family that continue to this day.
I must begin this blog by acknowledging the tremendous advantage I have as a white person from a privileged family in undertaking this research—an advantage I recognize is not generally shared by black people or, for that matter, the majority of white people. Because of this family legacy, I have access to historical records and documents from the early 18th century right up to the present concerning my father’s family. For African Americans, the census records do not even record names until 1870, and most whites descended from slave owners do not necessarily have ancestors who were in this country during colonial and Revolutionary War periods.
Using these documents, these three posts will describe my journey to find ancestral links to specific descendants of enslaved people and as well as document my paternal connection to slavery.
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I’m looking for the descendants of Sirrah, Glasgow and Jinny, three people owned by my 7th great grandfather, Wood Furman, whose descendants, sadly, I will probably never find. An additional person, Moll, is listed as collateral with Glasgow, on a mortgage to purchase additional land by Furman in St. Thomas Parish, South Carolina (Mortgage Book AAA p. 413, no date from secondary resource provided). These two enslaved people were surely worth a considerable amount of money to be accepted as collateral for this debt. Just knowing the names of these four people, I can at least begin to acknowledge them and their plight. I can perhaps imagine their lives as enslaved humans and attempt to remember and honor them.
(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.
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.