Home’s Hard History – A Presentation from the Slave Dwelling Project Conference

Two weeks ago, I had the honor of presenting with Lorenzo Dickerson at the 4th Annual Slave Dwelling Project Conference.  We talked about the places we call “home” and how those landscapes are or are not available to the descendants of the people enslaved there.

Here is my slideshow from that presentation, including images of the Bremo Plantations, where I grew up and where over 250 people were enslaved.

A Word to White Plantation Owners

A Word to White Plantation Owners

Photo by Vanessa von Wieding on Unsplash

Over the years, I have done research on the enslaved communities at a number of plantations here in Central Virginia.  Sometimes, I am hired by the people who own the plantation to do the research; sometimes, I do it on my own.

In every case, my hope is the same – that the owners of the plantations, who are almost always white because of historically-based inequities – will make the information I find available to the public so that the people descended from these communities can find their ancestors.

Sometimes, It’s Great; Sometimes, It’s Heart-Breaking

Most of the time, the owners are quite happy to oblige, eager to know the descendants, aware of the way these relationships to the community of African American people who built their homes come with responsibility.  Often, the descendant communities become involved in the way their ancestors are remembered in that place. Often, they become as connected to that place as they want to be.

Often, but not always.  Sometimes, the white owners become too focused on their own desires, on their own gains for being “the good white person” who does the ancestors and the descendants the favor of remembering them.  Sometimes, white owners become overcome by their own shame or the fear that they will be asked for financial reparation that they shut down the access to the places that African American people created for them.  Sometimes, white owners act as if these people – the ones who literally built the place, who lived on it for generations, who also view it as home, hard as that may be – have no right to the place.  It breaks my heart.

My Strong but Kind Word for White Plantation Owners

You will only be enriched by connecting with the black people who built the places you love. You will find people who love these places, too – differently than you do but just as strongly. You will find stories about your home places that help you understand and appreciate them more. You will make friends. You will understand history. You will know – first-hand and real – the way history has been unfair and unkind to people of color, and you will be better people for that.

I’m not saying this is easy – not suggesting that at all. It will take a humility that has not yet been required of you in this life. It will require that you take ownership of the privilege you inhabit because of your skin color and because of this place you own. It will require that you acknowledge racism as real and systemic and meritocracy as a myth perpetuated by elite, white people. It will not be easy, but it will be so worth it. 

A Few First Steps if You Own a Place where People Were Enslaved

So if you own a historic home where people were enslaved, do research about the people who were enslaved there. Here a few first steps:

  • Contact your local historical society and see what they know about enslaved communities in your area.
  • Visit sites like Our Black Ancestry to see if anyone is looking for the owners who enslaved their ancestors.
  • Share anything you know about the history of your place and the people who owned it before 1865 as publicly as you can. (You are welcome to use this space for that work if you’d like)
  • Invite the descendants of the enslaved community to your place and let them walk the land of their ancestors. You’ll find them – as I always have – to be gracious and respectful of your privacy.

Imagine what it would mean to ALL of us if we had these stories, these lineages, these places in common. Imagine if we weren’t afraid. Imagine we shared our history truthfully and fearlessly.  Oh, imagine, friends, the road we could walk together.

If you’ve worked with plantations owners to learn more about your ancestors, what has your experience been like? Or if you are a white plantation owners, what are your experiences or fears or hesitations about connecting with the descendants of enslaved people?  

Slave-Breeding, Truth-Telling, and Fiction – Margaret Wrinkle’s Wash

Slave-Breeding, Truth-Telling, and Fiction - Margaret Wrinkle's WashI met Margaret Wrinkle a few years ago when she was speaking at the Festival of the Book in Charlottesville.  (Even for me, who knows the city, it’s name carries more weight now.)  I introduced myself after her talk, telling her about a mutual friend and that I was so excited to read her book because it is fact told in fiction.

Wrinkle wrote her novel Wash after hearing a rumor that an ancestor of hers might have been involvedin the practice of slave-breeding.  The novel explores that horrific but all too common practice, where men and women were used to build the “people wealth” of their owners.  Men were sent out to “stud,” women to “be bred.”  The practice was not at all unlike the way livestock was bred, and it was abominable.

Wrinkle’s novel explores the story of Wash, a man who is used as a stud for his master.  She does so with great respect for Wash and the other people whose lives his path crosses, and her prose is beautiful.

Today, Margaret has given me two copies of her novel to share with you, so if you’d like to enter to win one, please just leave a comment below about why you’d like to read this book, and I’ll randomly choose two winners on Friday, August 25 and contact them by email for shipping information.

This isn’t an easy book to read, but then, it shouldn’t be. It’s well-worth your time.

 

You can learn more about Margaret Wrinkle’s work as an author and a filmmaker at her website.

The Color of Love – A Guest Post by Sharon Leslie Morgan

The Color of Love - By Sharon Leslie Morgan

Photo by JORGE LOPEZ on Unsplash

I’ve known Sharon for several years now after we were introduced by a mutual friend. Sharon and I both love history and genealogy, and she teaches me all the time about how to speaking the truth with love does not need to be either unkind or timid.  She is the creator of Our Black Ancestry, an AMAZING community of people looking for the stories of their black ancestors. It’s just $25 to become a member, so I hope you’ll consider doing that today. Now, enjoy Sharon’s powerful story. 

Just like everyone else, my family tree includes an assortment of characters from the unsavory to the sublime. The two I want to talk about are my grandmothers. Both were white women who married black men in the 1920s.

My father’s parents, Dora Federico and Bob Leslie, tied the knot in 1922. My mother’s parents, Jennie Waymoth and Louie Nicholson, followed suit in 1926. When they did so, miscegenation was illegal in 38 states. A “Racial Integrity Act” was on the books, which made it illegal for white people to marry anyone with “a single drop of Negro blood.” The Ku Klux Klan was on a rampage to protect white women from the “savage” lust of black men. The Red Summer of 1919 (a wave of race riots in dozens of cities throughout the North and South) was a recent memory and black people were being lynched in record numbers. It was not until 1967 that interracial marriages were allowed in all states.

Dora’s parents were Italian immigrants. Her father arrived in America in 1878. The proudest moment of his life was when he was granted citizenship in Mount Vernon, New York in 1897. The family moved to Chicago sometime before 1910 and he was dead when his daughter married my grandfather, a widower with three children. The Federico family thought Bob was a “dark Dago” because of his light brown skin and straight hair. When they found out differently, it didn’t stop them from helping the newlyweds get established in the bootlegging business, under the stewardship of Al Capone.

Dora, with whom I spent most of my summers, spent her later years working as a domestic for rich white people in Rockford, Illinois. Although she loved her employers (and I resented them for taking her away from me every day), she was not fond of white people in general. Later, when I read the history of Italians in America, it was easy to see why. Italians suffered extreme prejudice and violence at the hands of white, Anglo Saxon Protestants. They were restricted to low-income, low-class jobs and attacked for their Catholicism by the Ku Klux Klan. In 1891, eleven Italians were killed in New Orleans in one of the largest mass lynchings in American history.  During World War II, Italians thought to be loyal to their homeland were incarcerated in internment camps, just like the Japanese.

When Dora died in 1983, I was so distraught I spent three days locked in her bedroom, crying inconsolably. I met her Italian family for the first time at her funeral, when I was thirty-two years old.

Jennie Waymoth, on the other hand, was born into a family of Scots-Irish who came to America at an unknown date. She grew up in the small farming community of Sidell, Illinois and met Louie Nicholson in the Illinois Central train station in Chicago. He worked on a train. She waited tables in the station restaurant. After their marriage, her family pleaded with her to come home — for four years, through the births of her first two children, who looked white. When her third child emerged with a skin that matched his father’s , they declared her dead. In 1932, she went to visit her sister Sylvia (who also lived in Chicago) with all three of her young children in tow. Inseparable growing up, Jennie was stunned when her favored sibling derided her with “You better get away from my door. You know (my husband) doesn’t want any niggers in his house.”

When I found Jennie’s relatives online, we had many pleasant conversations as I shared the details of my grandmother’s life. My correspondent was happy to know she hadn’t died and agreed that I should visit. There was, however, a catch. I was informed: “My mother lives with us and still keeps the old ways. She would not want a black person sleeping in our house.” I felt what my grandmother must have felt that day on her sister’s stoop.

It takes a long time and a lot of lessons to learn what it means to be black and how one should relate to people who despise you. I am still on the learning curve. I once had a friend who described seeing a “colored” water fountain as a child. He really wanted to drink the water because he thought the spigot would spew a rainbow. Then there was my time in South Africa, a country that had recently been emancipated from the chains of apartheid. Many newly enfranchised people derided the dream of a “Rainbow Nation,” noting that rainbows do not have a band of black.

I was twelve years old in May 1963 when my grandmother Jennie dropped dead in front of me. I remember standing in the kitchen doorway watching her drink a glass of water. Gazing out of the window over the sink, she quenched her thirst, remarked “What a beautiful day,” and collapsed onto the floor – dead from massive heart attack. I was too stunned to even cry over the loss of one of my primary care givers.

That was the same year (six months later) when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated for reasons black people surmised had much to do with his championing of civil rights. In 1968, riots erupted after Rev. Martin Luther King was murdered by a white supremacist. I was a college student, trapped in the student administration building at the University of Illinois. When I heard the mayor announce a “shoot to kill” order, there was no doubt who it applied to: Me. A year later, I was an unwed mother, wondering how to raise a child in a world embittered by rancor and fear. There was a period in the 1970s when I could barely have a relationship with my surviving Mama Dora, having become profoundly and painfully aware of her whiteness. I am now ashamed of my reaction, but when all was said and done, I was totally turned off by white people – all of them. I did not want to acknowledge them as part of my family. I did not want to be friends with them. And I certainly would not have crossed the color bar to marry one. I could not comprehend how my grandfathers made that leap, coming as they did from birthplaces in Alabama and Mississippi.

Until recently, the story of my grandmothers was not part of my conversation; at least not within the context of race relations. As a child, I didn’t consciously think about what race they were; they were just my grandmothers. The segregated black community in which I grew up and into which my grandmothers were seamlessly adopted wrapped its arms around everyone. I eventually came to terms with the fact that I loved them both – dearly and unconditionally.

These days, my grandmothers are top of mind — maybe because I am now a grandmother myself, one with a burning desire to leave the world a better place. Resolution of the racial conundrum lies at the heart of that aspiration. That is why I embarked on a journey with a white man whose ancestors were the largest slave traders in US history and co-authored a book with him* to document an approach to racial healing.

My grandmothers left me with two cherished mementos. On my ring finger, I wear Dora’s diamonds. Some years after Dora’s death, Aunt Lottie climbed onto a step stool, dug into the deep recesses of a closet shelf, and handed me a wadded up ball of Kleenex. Inside were seven loose diamonds belonging to Mama Dora that I had set into a ring. Around my neck, I wear Jennie’s ivory cameo; one that has passed through many generations over 150 years. Both pieces of jewelry are reminders of a past I must deal with in order to embrace a future in which the paradox of love and acrimony has been resolved.

In an ideal world, race would be a mere descriptive, not a pejorative. As it stands, it informs a global construct that keeps one group of people (white) in power and another group (people of color) in submission. It is disproportionately destructive because it lies at the core of many other isms; influencing how people deal with gender, religious belief, and ability.

In thinking of my grandmothers, the classic Bill Withers song “Grandma’s Hands” comes to mind. I love this song that describes through metaphor the essence of one of the most dearly beloved in every family. Neither of my grandmothers “clapped in church on Sunday morning,” although both were believers in God. They didn’t play tambourines, though one cut a mean step on the dance floor. If their hands “use to ache sometime and swell,” I didn’t notice as they worked tirelessly, without complaint.

When I get to heaven, it will be those hands I seek, fully expecting Dora and Jennie to greet me in their loving arms for what will surely be a grand reunion.

 

 

Sharon Leslie Morgan is the founder, webmaster, and historian for OurBlackAncestry.com, a website devoted to African American genealogy. She is an expert in African American consumer marketing as well as a writer. A native of Chicago, she lived abroad for many years in the Caribbean, Europe, and Africa. She is the co-author, with Thomas DeWolf of Gather at the Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade*. Her first book, My Daddy Is A Cool Dude, was published in 1975 by The Dial Press and nominated for a Caldecott Medal. She is also the co-author of Real Women Cook: Building Healthy Communities with Recipes that Stir the Soul and of Paris in a Pot: Living a Dream in the City of Light*.

 

*These links are affiliate links, which means if you buy something after clicking on them, I get a small commission, which helps me pay the bills for hosting this site. So thank you.

3 Experiences that Have Taught Me about Us

3 Experiences that Have Taught Me about Us

I’ve been much quieter here than I had intended when I began this journey several months ago, and I apologize for that. My husband and I have been fighting a battle with infertility, and that battle took most of my energy.  Now, I’m still pretty low energy, but it’s for a glorious reason – I am pregnant.

So for now, my activities are a bit curtailed and involve a lot more things close to home and close to my couch.  I miss research trips and speaking, but I’m trying to take advantage of this quiet time to learn more, to educate myself, to let myself be broken open over the history and legacy of slavery.

How I’ve Been Learning

Today, then, I want to share three experiences that have taught me a great deal in these quiet days.

  1. First, I attended the opening of the new exhibit at Montpelier Plantation, “The Mere Distinction of Colour.” This exhibit focuses on the stories and experiences of people who were enslaved at President James Madison’s family plantation, and it is truly beautiful.  The exhibit includes stories of descendants, artifacts from where enslaved people lived and worked, and a great deal of research about the individuals and families that were enslaved.  It’s WELL WORTH a visit to Virginia to see it.
  2. Secondly, I watched the powerful documentary Traces of the Trade, which tells the story of 10 members of the DeWolfe family, the largest slave trading family in U.S. history, as they trace the route of their family’s business in buying and selling human beings.  The film is powerfully-honest, and not everyone in the film is “enlightened” all the time – but I particularly appreciated seeing each individual’s journey. Plus, Tom DeWolf, the executive director of Coming to the Table, is one of the travelers, and I take great joy in knowing that this experience was a great part of his important work of healing the legacy of slavery.
  3. Finally, I am absolutely committed to W. Kamau Bell’s AMAZING CNN series United Shades of America. In the series, Bell visits places in the U.S. that he doesn’t understand or wants to know more about – from the KKK (a BRAVE act for an African American man) to gentrifying Portland to, most recently, Puerto Rico.  He asks hard questions and listens so well to everyone he speaks with, and since he’s a stand-up comedian, he brings truth to light with humor.

Sometimes, our days of activism and direct action have to be limited, and sometimes, that’s a very good thing because it means we do our own work in ourselves, which – of course – has to be the first work anyway.

Have you seen any of these? If so, what are your thoughts about the work that they do? 

 

I’m finishing up a book with two other authors about racism in the Christian church, and I’m very excited about the possibility that a publisher will pick that up. I’ll share more as soon as I can.  

Slave vs Enslaved: The Way We Use Words to Hold People in Their Place

Slave vs Enslaved: The Way We Use Words to Hold People in their PlaceWhen I moved to the Bremo Plantations when I was 14, I met my friend Anna.  She and her sister rode the school bus with my brother and I, and because we were the last four people on the bus, we became fast friends – two hours together a day will do that to people.  Anna and I talked about most everything – from the boys we liked to the teachers we didn’t to the town we lived in. She taught me what it meant for someone’s skin to be “ashy,” and I suspect I taught her nothing about being white because, as a black girl, she already knew the lingo there.

After we’d gotten to know each other a bit, Anna told me about her friend Coffee, who had worked as the cook on the plantation that I lived on (the one my dad managed.)  He was a black man, she said, and the owners at the time hadn’t treated him very well. He’d lived in the apartment over the garden room, and he was expected to be on hand whenever the owners needed him to be, even when he had family obligations of his own. He had left by the time we moved there.

But Claudine hadn’t. Claudine was the housekeeper, and her face lit up with joy every time I walked in the room, her almost toothless smile a beam of light.  Claudine, too, was expected to be on hand for her regular hours and then also for any special occasions, holidays, and weekends when the family wanted to visit the 9 bedroom, 4.5 bath house.

Somewhere along the way, I realized that the owners thought they were “helping Claudine out” by giving her work, and along that same way, I realized that they thought Claudine and Coffee were “in their place” as black people working in domestic situations.

The owners were not terrible people – they loved my family, and I loved them like grandparents – but they were acting out of the racism and upbringing that was true (is still true) for many wealthy and middle class whites in the South. (You’ve read The Help, right?) Their behavior was wrong and hurtful.

So this week, when I read “The Enslaved Woman They Called Lola,” I went back to those days just 28 years ago and thought of Coffee and Claudine.  Lola is Claudine is every other black women who was expected to nanny, nurse, clean, and cook for white people because “that’s just the way it’s done” or, perhaps even more menacingly because “those good white people” are helping black people by giving them work, as if it’s a favor to their employees rather than to them.

Slave vs Enslaved

I am a huge proponent of using the term enslaved person to refer to an individual who lived and toiled under the institution of slavery because, as the article suggests, it places the emphasis on the person and something done to them and separates the person’s identity from their societal status.  But since I wrote the piece that is quoted in The Atlantic article, I’ve also come to understand that sometimes we have to take the terminology of the oppressor and use it to break down the oppression. Hence, the title of my book The Slaves Have Names.  I’m trying to make a point there – about identity, about the power of words to dehumanize. I’m trying to co-opt a word for a purpose.

I don’t know if I do that well.

I do know, though, that we can get all caught up in language and miss the people. . . we do it all the time. Back in the day, we did it by calling enslaved people “servants,” as if they chose their work and their home. Now, we do it by calling people “thugs” or “criminals” as code for our own racism about black people.

So when I talk about individual human beings that I know – Ben and Minerva, Lucy and Nelson – I say they were enslaved – a system was placed on them that held them in bondage, but that system did not make them become what it hoped it could – slaves.  No, these were strong, talented, courageous, perseverant people. PEOPLE.  Always, in every way.

The Legacy

A few years into our friendship, I invited Anna and her family to revival at our church. Her dad was a Baptist minister, and I went to a Baptist church . . . it seemed right.

I sat with them, and after the service, I was all excited to introduce them to the pastor. We all went to the front of the sanctuary to shake my pastor’s hand.  He looked at Anna’s father, scanned his eyes over the rest of the family, and then turned away to shake the next white person’s hand.

His gaze – as much as any other action or word – told me all I needed to know: he thought Anna and her family were out of place, they were not worth seeing, they were not people.

Sometimes, we don’t even need words to oppress.

 

Great Grandmother’s Legacy by Charles F. Holman III

Great Grandmother's Legacy by Charles F. Holman III

Charles’ great grandmother, Lucille Holman.

Today, I am thrilled to welcome Charles Holman as he tells the powerful story of his great grandmother’s name and the way finding our stories is a communal endeavor.

Some ancestors gift you with a bequest when they pass on. We often think of this kind of thing as money, property, a cherished item, etc. But my Great Grandmother Lucille (Robertson/Robinson) Holman (1863 – 1932) left my family a hidden, valuable legacy which again revealed itself to me just yesterday afternoon.

More than 40 years ago I began to research my family tree. Like many African Americans I wanted to know where in Africa some of my ancestors originated. The late Alex Haley taught me to seek out any African words or names that might have been associated with ancestors for clues.

So my Dad and I approached my paternal grandfather, Charles Holman Sr., (1898 – 1987) and asked him what he knew. Initially unwilling to talk about the past, with some prodding Grandpa began to provide some details. He told us his mother, Lucille (Robertson) Holman had African ancestors and he thought her father had an African name which he pronounced as “Da-dash- shoe-wah”

Soon my Dad and I began to share what Grandpa had told us. A few years passed and in the summer of 1978 I mentioned this to my double cousin, the late Geneve (Holman) Jackson (1924 – 2014). Geneve told me flat out that we were wrong. Geneve told me in no uncertain terms that“Da-dash- shoe-wah” was actually my grandfather’s mother’s name.

What Geneve told me didn’t make sense to me at the time. I had heard my grandfather’s mother’s name was Lucy or Lucille Holman. How then could her name be “Da-dash- shoe-wah,” especially when we knew Grandpa's mother was not African but South Carolinian?

Although Geneve’s message didn’t make sense to me, I made a mental note and filed it away. A few years later in late 1986, I wrote to a linguist at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria to see if they could tell me about the name “Da-dash- shoe-wah.” Much to my delight, a reply arrived in January 1987. They told me they thought the name was a name given to girl children. They also told me the name was characteristic to an area in Nigeria in or near the northern part of its Bendel State.

Decades passed after I received this letter, and I never heard more until just yesterday on Facebook. Facebook has a series called “American Slavery,” and if you don’t subscribe to it, you definitely should. Anyway, yesterday the topic at “American Slavery” was naming customs during slavery. They stated that during slavery it was sometimes customary to give a child two names, one name that the slaveholder and everyone would know and a second “given name the child’s family selected and kept secret.”

When I saw this, what cousin Geneve had told me all those decades ago finally made sense, i.e. Lucy or Lucille was great grandmother’s public name, and “Da-dash- shoe-wah” was her secret African name known only to family members. Immediately, I wrote and thanked the authors of “American Slavery” for sharing this insight with me. But little did I expect that it would get evenbetter just a very short while later.

An African lady saw my note to American Slavery and responded the same day. The lady said the name “Da-dash- shoe-wah” was a popular one and actually spelled “Adeshuwa”. The lady also independently confirmed that the name was given to girl children. Even more importantly, the lady told me the significance of the name:

That means you hail from the Yoruba. They are in Western Nigeria. Adeshewa in Yoruba means the beauty of royalty. I am Igbo by the way, I just happen to be able to speak Yoruba. It could also mean she (Great Grandmother) was from Benin. They are also a mid-western tribe in Nigeria. The Yorubas originated from the Benin tribe. So she definitely hailed from Nigeria either way. God bless you.

So it turns out all these decades later, Geneve must have been right – in fact two independent African sources confirm what Geneve said. But even more important than simply proving Geneve right, by her very name, Great Grandmother has left me a legacy, and all of her descendants, the priceless knowledge, unknown to most African Americans, that we share a bondwith Nigeria because it is one of our ancestral homelands.

Great Grandmother’s legacy is also corroborated by DNA analyses indicating that approximately 15% of my ancestry comes from Nigeria and the Yoruba tribe, both mentioned by the lady at Facebook just yesterday afternoon. Indeed, even science acknowledges that Great Grandmother’s legacy rings true for me and all of her descendants today and down through the generations yet to come.

 

Because Enslaved People Were Not Immigrants

Because Enslaved People Were Not Immigrants

Brick Walls Often Carry the Fingerprints of the Enslaved People Who Built Them. Joe McGill of The Slave Dwelling Project Taught Me That.

In light of Ben Carson’s offensive and harmful remarks – as we all know, enslaved people were not immigrants – the need for a full accounting of slavery’s history and it’s continuing harmful legacy is reinforced in a mighty way. One of the institutions that is – belatedly but with true commitment – reckoning with this history is the University of Virginia, THE University as people in this area of the U.S. call it.  They have created a President’s Commission on Slavery, and as part of this work, they are holding a Symposium on Slavery in partnership with the Slave Dwelling Project on October 18-21 of this year.

As part of this gathering, the University has put forth a call for papers on the Symposium’s theme “Universities, Slavery, Public Memory, and the Built Landscape.”  It’s my hope that many people will put together papers and panels that present this history not only from an academic perspective but from the perspective of descendants, community residents, and homeowners who live and move around these landscapes of slavery in their daily lives.  Maybe you’d like to put in a proposal?

It’s crucial that we all participate in these conversations, that we share our personal stories, our family’s attachments, our deep ties to not only the stories of slavery but to the people about whom those stories were told and the places that carry their memories.

My Invitation To You

To that end, please use this space as a place to tell your stories, share your photos, ask your questions. If you’d like to write a post to share here – either to tell us about your family or the place that you live or to ask questions to gather more information – I invite you to do so. Reach out to me through the contact page, and we’ll find a date that works for you. 

After all, as along as our country’s leadership is belying the horrors of slavery, we know we have a great deal of work to do.

 

When the Struggle is Exhausting

When the Struggle is Exhausting

Oh, my friends, I am tired today. Tired of hard conversations. Tired of white supremacy lived out in words and bodies. Tired of reading hundreds of pages to find only the tiniest shread – like a hem of a dress ripped free – about someone’s life.

I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired. – Fannie Lou Hamer

Today, I’ve been in a hard conversation about systematic injustice with a well-intentioned person who wants kindness and compassion to be enough to make change.  I’ve encouraged him to see systems. I’ve asked him to look inward. I’ve pushed him – as gently but firmly as I could – to understand that his personal action may not be enough. . . and he chose to list off all the oppression he has witnessed and then attack me.  That’s not okay . . . and I’m okay. Or I will be.

Do these encounters throw you off-balance, too?

Tomorrow, I will spend hours and hours entering the scant data I have about one enslaved community in Louisa, Virginia. I will build a database and all the while know it is will be insufficient – however important – in every single way.

The research into ancestors and history is wearying. For you, too?

So today, my friends, I just speak power and hope to you. I speak of genealogical goldmines and those tiny tidbits of names that give us so much richness. I speak of one more day with one more set of steps and one more afternoon of tears.  I speak of strength you take in retreat and in speaking up.  I speak of anger that is most than justified and of the wisdom that knows that justified does not equal accepted.

Be strong my friends, be strong.  Take care of yourselves. Take breaks when you need them. Let someone grab hold and hug you tight.  

Tomorrow, we’ll be back to fight another day.

Now let me say as I move to my conclusion that we’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. — Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” is my favorite of Dr. King’s speeches.  You can read the full transcript of the speech here. 

We Know More about the Civil War than about Enslavement

We Know More about the Civil War than about EnslavementLast week, I had the pleasure of riding along while a Civil War expert gave me a tour of a local battlefield. I bolstered myself to hear about the beauty of the Confederacy and was pleasantly surprised to hear no lauding of the Confederate cause, no erroneous and racist talk about “States’ rights” as a mask for slavery, and no celebration of loss of life.

In fact, I learned just the kind of history that I most love – the stories of the people who occupied a space, whose houses became hospitals, and whose pastures became battlegrounds. I learned names of individuals, and I traveled roadbeds that had been carved by wagons 300 years earlier.  It was a great afternoon.  Really.

But on my drive home after hearing 4.5hours of detail about where Hampton’s troops camped and the trails that Sherman’s troops traveled, I felt hollowed out, deeply sad.  I had expected to be angry or sorrowful because I spent the day looking at Confederate battles, but instead, I am mourning the fact that we could track where three horses rode abreast on two days in 1864; yet we can’t locate the names of more than 250 people who were enslaved for more than 140 years on the plantation I call home.

When we can identify troop movements down to the tiniest detail, when we spend hours and hours scouring pastures with metal detectors to find bullets and spent munitions, when we have the names of all the major generals of a war memorized but cannot barely begin to visualize, document, or detail the experiences of enslaved people, something is massively wrong. 

(Rant commencing. You have been warned.)

I can drive anywhere here in Virginia and see signage to tell me where every battle (no matter how small) of the Civil War was fought. Our roads are named after Confederate Generals, and every tiny town has a display of munitions from a battle in their local museum.  If I want to find where a soldier is buried, I can do that in a matter of minutes, even if I might not know that soldier’s name.

Cross the Mason-Dixon to Gettysburg, and you can find a memorial to every moment of that brutal battle. You have stores that sell replica guns and attire. You have scores and scores and scores of books about the battles, the maneuvers, and the people, so many books that you can – as our guide mentioned – pass by any book that does not mention the battle you know best.  In short, the Civil War is so well-documented that it only takes a modicum of desire to understand a great depth of information about it. 

Contrast that to the history of slavery, which lasted over 200 years, involved 10s of millions of people, and was ubiquitous as to simply be a part of every day life through the colonies and the United States.  Still, over 150 years after it has ended (the same period of time, not incidentally, that has passed since the Civil War ended), we know very, very little about the lived experience of enslaved people. We don’t know where most enslaved people are buried. We can’t tell you the routes that these people walked in their daily work. We don’t know, in most cases,  where they lived. We don’t know specifically how many people were enslaved in the U.S or on any given plantation. And we don’t know, with rare exceptions, the names of enslaved people.

Some of this non-knowing, of course, is because of how slavery was perpetrated. The laws about educating enslaved people meant that very few of them could record their own stories, and the people who “owned” them thought of them as economic forces, not as people whose stories warranted much more than a mention if their illnesses, deaths, travels, or births changed the economic forecast of the plantation.

However, if we blame the institution of slavery for all of this, we are mistaken.  We could know much more than we do about enslaved people. We could know more about where they lived and how they worked and the horror of their experiences. We would have artifacts in local museums (if handled responsibly and without the reinflictment of trauma), and we could have books and books and books written about enslaved communities.  We could say their names.

But we don’t want to.

As a society, we have decided that the memorialization of a war – a war over the rights of human beings to claim ownership of other human beings – deserves more attention than those human beings themselves. That is shameful. 

We Can Do Better

I want to see museums dedicated to the history of slavery. The Whitney Plantation is a good start, but we need many, many more.

I want to see scores of books that talk about the families enslaved on particular plantations, that tell the stories we can find and help us imagine what we cannot know.

I want to go on tours through the countrysides of rural places and talk about how wives and husbands would walk these trails to visit each other on Sundays.

I want to see lists and lists of names carved into stones that look out over beautiful places.

I don’t think these things are impossible, but they are going to take a massive cultural shift to make them happen. I’m honored to have a tiny part in that shift through projects I’m involved in, and I’m thrilled to see that shift happening at places like Monticello and Montpelier.  But we need far more of us on board to make this happen.

So who’s with me in lobbying, advocating, researching, writing, telling so that we can walk down a country road and say, “Here, here Charlotte would have gathered water.  I think she may have hummed as she walked?”