The Family Tree and Slavery

Informally for about twenty years, and more purposefully in the past six, I have researched my genealogy. Most of my ancestors are as common as the yard dogs living in the American South, and like the dogs, pretty much nondescript in pedigree. Most come from the Celtic fringe, with Scots-Irish predominating. No surprise there for someone like me.

Three moments in my research have given me an adrenalin rush—once with the delight of connecting the dots, once with finding a surprise in the family tree, and once, early last week, with a feeling of shock.

Anyone with the surname Smith will soon discover this much in genealogical research: There are so many Smiths, and so little time. That fact actually holds true in most of life, which is why I often use all the names I’ve got. Finding my Smith great-grandfather proved the point. I knew from family lore that my grandfather was born in Lawrence County, Alabama, and that he moved to Texas with the rest of the household, toward the end of the nineteenth century. I knew that the family settled first in Bell County, in Central Texas, very close to what became Fort Hood. They moved again to south Taylor County, in West Texas, and they stayed put. It was there that I was born, and there grew up.

So I had my grandfather’s full name, and I knew that the family had to show up in the three counties, Lawrence, Bell, and Taylor, within a range of about twenty years. That’s all I had to confront a mountain of Smith surnames. I sifted through the data for hours on end. And finally, there the family was, the Smiths who came from Alabama to Texas, living in the three counties that mattered and at the right time. I remember where I was when I made the discovery that I had begun to think was beyond me. And the sweetness of the moment. I found my great-grandfather’s name and learned his story. Six years later, it’s worth noting, I still have not found his father, my second great-grandfather. So many Smiths and so little time.

The second moment came when I discovered, in my maternal lineage, that my fifth great-grandmother was a member of the Creek nation. I had become so accustomed to sorting through my British, mostly Celtic, ancestry that finding someone not of that heritage startled me with pleasure. I have not gone the romantic route with this Native American forebear, not uncommon for people like me in the dominant culture. But there she is, and I am glad to be descended from her.

The third moment, not a happy one, came last week, when I found my fourth great-grandfather in my paternal lineage. He lived around a long life, beginning in the middle of the eighteenth century into the middle of the nineteenth, all of it in South Carolina. I found good documentation about him, including four federal census reports, beginning with the very first one in 1790. I find the reports fascinating, especially the digital images of the census-book pages, almost invariably lined out in perfectly legible Spencerian cursive. The shock came in the 1810 census, which enumerated a household of fourteen people, including three slaves.

There is a slave owner in my family tree. I had never found one before, so I presumed that there wasn’t one—a common fallacy, the notion that the absence of evidence means the evidence of absence. Most of my ancestors came from the Celtic fringe, to set up living on another fringe in the American South. I have taken a sort of pride in their marginalization, whether it was self-imposed or otherwise.

Often it was otherwise. Some few of my forebears arrived in North America under indenture, which was never the benevolent sort of colonial work-study scheme that I learned about in high school, a way of working off the cost of travel to these shores. Indenture was not benevolent. Typically it was imposed as a punishment for crimes of all sorts, and debt was a primary crime behind the sentence. Indenture was exile, and it was servitude. Indenture, once imposed, was involuntary, and it was brutal. Indentures could be bought and sold, or rented out. To live under indenture was on a par with chattel slavery. There is one difference between the two terrible systems, and a crucial one: Indenture was for a time certain, usually between seven and fourteen years, although it could be much longer. Chattel slavery never ended. It was a lifetime.

It is difficult to comprehend the brutality and hopelessness that slavery, this lifetime of bondage, brought with it, especially in the plantation economies of the American South. It is this economy that worked the overwhelming majority of slaves, and it used them up. A single plantation would put hundreds of slaves in the fields, an evil economy of scale. Such a life was usually short, and it was always pitiless. Not many slaves, in aggregate, were in smaller holdings, say, three in a household, like the case of my forebear. Life was still brutal and hopeless for them, although they were mostly not used up like plantation slaves.

I take no comfort in this slight economic distinction, and it does nothing to mitigate my family’s complicity in an evil system. I remember one scholar of early Church history writing that slavery was the electricity of the Mediterranean world. That is to say, slaves did all the heavy lifting and routine jobs that made life bearable, even pleasant, for those who had them. There was no switch to flip, but at least there were slaves.  I imagine that the slaves in my family’s household were hard-used, if not used up. They would have made life bearable, even pleasant, for those who owned them. This part of my family tree, by the way, seems to have been of a more elite sort, educated, with an English surname and just one generation removed from the English midlands.

You will notice that I have left out my fourth great-grandmother in the telling of this story, and there is a reason for that omission. Slavery is a construct of patriarchy. I cannot bring myself to drag her into the narrative.

My life is far more entangled with the institution of slavery than even my family tree would suggest. The financial benefits that had accrued because of slavery are many, but at this point in history, they are mostly invisible. It is thus important to draw them out and to see them. Both the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Missouri, for example, gained wealth from the beneficence of slave holders, and the accrued benefits remain. St. Louis, where I live, grew mighty with economic strength in the nineteenth century, because of slavery. Here’s just one vignette. The Army Corps of Engineers supervised the deepening of the Mississippi River channel at the Port of St. Louis in 1837. Regulating the river channel made the river trade possible, on a large scale, which in turn made St. Louis a wealthy city. A young lieutenant named Robert E. Lee commanded the work, and he invariably gets the historical credit for it. But the laborers were entirely slaves. No soldier with the engineers would engage in hard labor if slaves were available. In St. Louis, slaves were certainly available.

The caustic racism that exists in this country may be nothing but the extension of slavery by other means—especially in the purpose of keeping black people down. For this reason, the history of slavery, including its specifics, need to be known and told. For 150 years, people of European descent have used voter suppression, separate-but-equal, mass incarceration, and intimidation for the sole purpose of keeping black people down, a reiteration of conditions under slavery. These strategies work, and their roots lie in the long history of slavery on this continent. The Pilgrims in Plymouth Colony, those sweet people of American myth, held slaves, for goodness sake!

My first trip to Lui Diocese in South Sudan was in April 2005, and one memory from that trip remains distinct. Some of the other missioners and I were sitting with the senior clergy of the Diocese, after dark, in the guest compound just outside Fraser Cathedral. It was the evening before we left to come back to the USA, and sitting together is a sort of set-piece the night before visitors depart. The clergy were very curious about these eleven white people who had come from half a world away. They wanted to know about life in Missouri, and about the Church. So I opened my up geek-brain and told them many things about Missouri and the Diocese. Then suddenly it occurred to me that I had to speak a hard truth about where I live, even if I did not want to. I took a deep breath and said: It embarrasses me very much to say this among you, but racism continues as a hard fact in Missouri and the whole of the USA. Then the clergy looked at me with a blank silence; apparently they did not understand what I had said. Racism, as it turned out, was not a construct that made sense to them. I still wanted them to know. How to talk about in terms that they might know? So I tried this: In the USA, racism is the bad leftover from the slavery that used to exist. They all nodded in comprehension.

Racism they did not know, but slavery was almost a living memory among the Moru people. The last slaver came to Lui in 1920, the same year that Dr. Kenneth Fraser, missionary and physician, came to Moruland. Dr. Fraser taught that freedom from slavery is part of the good news of Jesus, good news to people who had lived with the institution. Slavery withered at the preaching of the Gospel, as Dr. Fraser told it. (Well, it is a little more complicated than that.) This much is sure. The buying and selling of slaves once took place in the shade of a single distinctive tree in Lui town, a middle-eastern sycamore, fig-bearing and enormous, a tree with a name, the Loru Tree. Dr. Fraser chose to teach the gospel in Loru’s shade, explaining to the people that the place that used to mean bondage and misery is now the place of the Gospel’s freedom. Dr. Fraser is buried in the shade of that same tree. And Fraser Cathedral stands there also. The seal of the Diocese incorporates Loru in its device. Release of the slaves means something vital in that part of South Sudan. It is Good News.

So there is a slaver in my family tree, a shock to my system. I imagine that I am neither more nor less complicit in slavery with this knowledge. Everything appears so entangled with the system already. This much I know: this new knowledge has accentuated my awareness of all the entanglements. And I think that this awareness is a good thing.