If you’re a white Southerner and you think your ancestors owned no slaves, you should probably dig a little deeper

EDITOR’S NOTE: Here’s a correction that proves the point of this post. While I knew I had quite a few ancestors who owned slaves, just for contrast I mentioned one great-great grandfather (Henry Waller) who I said did NOT. I was wrong. A first cousin has written to let me know Henry owned at least one slave, whom he mentioned in letters home. I hope to get copies of those letters soon. So even I am guilty of falsely believing that one ancestor owned no slaves…

Last week, Catherine Templeton used the standard cliche rationalization for why she’s proud of her Confederate heritage:

“It’s important to note that my family didn’t fight because we had slaves,” Templeton said to a room mostly filled with university students. “My family fought because the federal government was trying to tell us how to live.”

We won’t get into the fact that the one thing white Southerners — the ones in charge — were afraid the federal government would make them do was stop owning slaves. And I’ll point out only in passing that if your ancestors owned no slaves and took up arms for the Confederacy, then they were victims of a major con job. Some of my own ancestors were duped in the same manner.

But not all of them. I’ve long known that some of my ancestors were slaveowners. But it wasn’t until I started seriously building out my family tree that I realized how many of them fit that description.

As much as I love talking genealogy — as y’all know, to your sorrow — I hesitated to post this. But my tree is the only one I know this well, and I think what I have found argues against the claims that all too many white Southerners make. And I think people should know that. So here goes…

Patrick Henry Bradley

Patrick Henry Bradley

At first, I had thought that slaveholding was limited to my paternal grandmother’s people, the Bradleys (for whom I’m named). Patrick Henry Bradley, her grandfather, was one of the leading citizens in his part of Abbeville County. When the War came, he raised his own company and led it in the field, but soon returned home to serve out the rest of the war in the Legislature. His eldest son stayed at the front, and was killed at Trevillian Station in 1864.

I would have assumed that the Bradleys were slaveholders just because of Patrick Henry’s service in the Legislature, which was largely made up of the slaveholding class. But I don’t have to assume; I have documentary and anecdotal evidence to that effect. I don’t know whether he had a lot of slaves, but he had some.

James Chesnut Jr.

James Chesnut Jr.

I had accepted this as fact long ago, but I had assumed that my ancestors in other branches of the family were generally innocent of having owned other humans. Not based on anything, really, beyond the fact that none of them were quite as upscale as the Bradleys. Of course, when I say “Bradleys,” I’m lumping in a lot of folks who bore different surnames — pretty much that whole quarter of my tree. For instance, James Chesnut — husband of famous diarist Mary Boykin and one of the leading men in Confederate South Carolina — is a 3rd cousin four times removed. (That means my 6th-great grandfather, Alexander Samuel Chesnut, was his great-great grandfather.) He was in that Bradley fourth.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: The following paragraph is dead wrong. Henry Waller DID own at least one slave, I am reliably informed. I hope to have evidence of that soon…)

But I had liked to think that another great-great grandfather, William Henry Waller, was more typical of the rest of my tree — just an ordinary soldier who got caught up in forces bigger than he was. I’ve never seen or heard anything to indicate Henry owned slaves, or money or much else. But admittedly, I don’t know a lot about him. He went AWOL to visit the family farm in Marion County when his unit was marching north toward Virginia. My great-grandmother — who died when I was 4 years old (yep, that’s how recent that war was: someone who lived then overlapped with my life) — was born nine months later. She, my mother’s father’s mother, never knew her father, because Henry died of disease at the siege of Petersburg. Consequently, I know practically nothing about him. I don’t even know who his parents were, or whether he had siblings. That line is the shortest on my tree, because of that break.

The old lady is the daughter of Henry Waller. The big-headed kid on her lap is me.

The old lady is my great-grandmother, the daughter of Henry Waller, who died at Petersburg. The big-headed kid on her lap, grooving on the apples, is me. This was 1957.

I picture Henry as being one of those guys like Virgil Caine in “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” A sympathetic character caught up in events and trying to get by the best he could. And I tended to lump others from the non-Bradley portions of the family into that category.

But I was wrong, as I learned from early census records after I finally paid to join Ancestry and gained access to that site’s documentary “hints” about my forebears. Later census records name everyone in a household (although their names are often spelled wrong). But in the early decades of the 19th century, the records would just name the “head of household,” and then give a demographic breakdown of the rest of the household — X number of “Free White Persons – Males – 16 thru 25,” and Y number of “Free White Persons – Under 16.”

But the really revelatory data comes under such headings as “Slaves – Males – 26 thru 44.” I assume the records were kept that way so each slave could be counted as three-fifths of a person for the sake of electoral apportionment.

Perusing these records can be a real eye-opener. While Henry Waller may not have owned slaves, others on my mother’s side did. Take, for instance, my 4th-great grandfather Henry C. Foxworth, also of Marion County: There were six slaves in his household in 1820. This sort of thing will pop up again and again in a white Southern family. However humble and righteous you may think your ancestors were, a family tree is likely far more diverse — here I mean economically diverse in particular — than you give it credit for being. And the people who bore your surname are only a tiny fraction of the people from whom you are descended who lived during the centuries of slavery. Until I really got into building my tree, I had no idea I was descended from anyone named “Foxworth.”

Wesley Samuel Foxworth marker(By the way, like Patrick Henry Bradley, Henry Foxworth also lost a son in the war. My great-great-great grandfather Wesley Samuel Foxworth was also killed during that Petersburg campaign. Fortunately for me, his daughter from whom I am descended had been born 12 years earlier.)

I am three-fourths South Carolinian, but hey, at least I won’t find any of that slavery stuff among the Warthens up in Maryland, right? So I thought — somewhat irrationally, since Maryland (although it stayed in the Union) was a slave state.

My great-grandmother Rebecca Jane Rabbitt — who married my great-grandfather Warthen — died in 1898, two days after the birth of her sixth child. She was 35. But I’ve been a lot luckier tracing her tree than poor Henry Waller’s, taking it back to the Middle Ages. (Through her, I’m a Tudor, making Henry VIII a cousin.)

But one of the more interesting things I’ve found on that line is much more recent — it involves her grandfather, John Thomas Rabbitt Jr., 1779-1863. It’s an indenture contract. One William Frumfree, described as “a colored man,” owed $40 to the state of Maryland, and was in jail in 1829 because he couldn’t pay it. My ancestor paid it for him, in exchange for which… well, here’s a quote from the document Mr. Frumfree signed:

… I do hereby bind myself to the service of said Rabbitt in any manner in which he may chose to use me for and during the term of one year from the date hereof to be considered and treated as the slave of said Rabbitt during my term of service as contracted by this paper…

Oh, and just in case you thought that would be lighter service than being a permanent slave, there’s this language:

… the said Rabbitt is to be subject to no liability for his treatment or chastisement of me which he would not own in the case of one of his own slaves for life…

But hey, don’t think the only thing Mr. Frumfree got was out of the jail. He was also paid “the sum of one cent.” No, really. It’s all in the document signed on May 13, 1829.

About all I can say for John Thomas is that as of the 1820 and the 1840 censuses, he didn’t own any slaves. So, there’s that.

Why do I tell you all of this? To shame myself, or to perversely brag about what wheeler-dealers my ancestors were? No. Of course I’m uncomfortable with this topic and these details, but my point is that I highly doubt that my tree is unusual. Note that these slaveowners I’ve mentioned had nothing to do with each other. They never met. They were from very different families living in different places under different circumstances. In other words, these incidences of slaveholding were independent of each other.

And it crops up often enough that I can’t believe I’m anywhere near alone in this. Almost half of white South Carolina families (46 percent) owned slaves. What do you think the chances are that none of the many families that led to you owned human property?

If other white Southerners really knew who their ancestors were, you’d seldom hear a proud neoConfederate say, ever-so-self-righteously, that his (or her) ancestors didn’t own slaves. The odds are against it being a fact.

It is a wise child that knows his own father, and a wiser one who knows even more of his forebears, and faces up to reality.

26 thoughts on “If you’re a white Southerner and you think your ancestors owned no slaves, you should probably dig a little deeper

  1. Claus2

    Well since most of my family didn’t come over here until the late 1880’s, I’m going to say I’m safe from worrying about my white privilege. If any did own slaves I’m not going to lose any sleep over it, it was 200 years ago and that’s how things were done. Centuries from now our descendants will be pouting over what horrible things we did that we consider normal.

    As far as I’m concerned, family history beyond your grandparents or great-grandparents are all strangers… I’ve got uncles and aunts that I’ve only seen once or twice in my life, one uncle was a pretty big deal in the aerospace industry but he wouldn’t know me if I bumped into him on the street. I’ve got cousins I’ve never met… what they do in their life is no concern of mine.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I’m not asking you to lose sleep over anything. I’m asking everyone, including Catherine Templeton, to stop going around bragging about their ancestors not owning slaves, when they almost certainly don’t know what they’re talking about.

      I think I spelled that out pretty clearly, and backed up my point fairly well….

      1. Richard

        But if you’re a true South Carolinian blueblood, you pride yourself in the fact that your family owned slaves.

    2. Wheeler Hill

      I can say only this. Yes we owned slaves but it wasn’t for the desire of human bondage it was for economical purposes. It seems people would have the world think that all slave owning landowners were cruel masters that used whips to drive the labor but in reality most worked right beside them. I agree there were abuses but if you depicted a situation where slaves were taken care of and not mistreated you would be classified as a racist. Something to think about, if you look at the ancestors of the slaves and the ancestors of the Africans that were not sold to slave traders it may be a blessing in disguise. It sees people are going out of their way to paint a one sided view of life during slavery. The large plantation owner with a whip and a joy of seeing humans tortured. When the south went to war it wasn’t for the right to enslave people it was for the money.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Wheeler, for a long time people DID go out of their way to paint a one-sided view of life during slavery — the happy “Gone With the Wind” view, the happy folk singing spirituals in the magnolia-scented evening.

        There’s been a quite natural, and just, reaction against that.

        Anyone who wants to paint slaveholders — or slaves — as 100 percent bad or good is missing the truth of the complexity of human beings.

        But you don’t have to condemn people to hell to say that the thing, slavery, was completely evil — in ancient times, and in the antebellum South….

      2. Mr. Smith

        Historians have done precisely what you asked, Wheeler: presented a multi-faceted, nuanced collage of slave experiences. All you have to do is seek them out.

        But at the core, it doesn’t matter how well the master treated his slaves. It wouldn’t matter if he kissed them and tucked them into bed at night. That can’t obscure the fact that he owned their lives. He robbed them of their human dignity and personal autonomy. They had little to no control over their own individual destinies or the integrity of their families – except by escaping bondage, with all the risk that entailed. They couldn’t simply walk away. That’s the essential and irrefutable sin at the core of slavery.

  2. Brad Warthen Post author

    OK, this is interesting…

    One of my daughters pointed out that technically, Catherine Templeton didn’t actually SAY her family didn’t own slaves. She said that’s not why they fought:

    “It’s important to note that my family didn’t fight because we had slaves,” Templeton said to a room mostly filled with university students. “My family fought because the federal government was trying to tell us how to live.”

    Now personally, I’d be really shocked if she didn’t MEAN to say that her family didn’t own slaves, just because that’s the standard bogus excuse we get from people who say “I am proud of the Confederacy.”

    My daughter, having inherited a certain facility at parsing words (ahem!), is right.

    But if that’s NOT what she meant… if she really meant that they did own slaves but that’s not why they fought; they merely didn’t want Washington telling them how to live (which was, of course, to live without slaves), then the situation is much, much worse I thought. That would be astoundingly cynical and manipulative.

    So I prefer to stick with my initial impression, which was that she was just offering the usual irrelevant, vapid, ignorant, and almost certainly inaccurate excuse.

    In any case, whatever she meant, I thought it was high time to point out how bogus the “my ancestors didn’t own slaves” excuse is…

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I’ve sent a Tweet to Ms. Templeton’s campaign seeking clarification on what she said.

      If she didn’t mean that they didn’t have slaves, I’ll feel a little silly that I used her as my example.

      But Catherine Templeton aside, I’ve been meaning to write this post for several months. The more I researched my tree, the more I realized that white Southerners who claim their ancestors didn’t own slaves are almost certainly wrong about that.

      But I waited for a news peg to write it, and her statement seemed to give me that. But whether it did or not, my post stands as a refutation of all those people who DO say that about their ancestors….

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        I keep saying “white Southerners.” It’s also true that many black Southerners had ancestors who owned slaves — specifically, they owned some of their OTHER ancestors.

        But black Southerners don’t generally go around trying to make excuses for the Confederacy…

        Anyway, this consideration offers another reason why people shouldn’t go around basing their self-esteem on who their ancestors were or what they did (as I generally say, one way or another, when I bring up genealogy).

        Learning about those who went before is endlessly fascinating — to me, anyway. It’s the most fun hobby I’ve ever had (actually, it’s sort of the only hobby I’ve ever had, as an adult anyway).

        But I’m not going to feel better or worse about myself because of who my forebears were…

  3. Mr. Smith

    “I’ll point out only in passing that if your ancestors owned no slaves and took up arms for the Confederacy, then they were victims of a major con job.”

    It’s a useful point to make. But it doesn’t go far enough. You and especially Ms. Templeton as well as a lot of other South Carolinians need to read Lacy Ford’s Origins of Radicalism: The South Carolina Upcountry, 1800 – 1860. In it, Ford, who is Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences right there in Columbia at USC, demonstrates in great (sometimes excruciating) detail how even non-slave-holding whites (in that part of the state with the least number of slaves, the Upcountry) eventually bought into the slaveocracy view. But they weren’t conned, they backed it because they felt it reflected their interests – on economic, political, social, racial and even religious grounds.

    1. JesseS

      Stephen West’s “From Yeoman to Redneck in the South Carolina Upcountry” is another good book on it. He essentially boiled it down to: Yeah, your white, direct ancestor in South Carolina might not have owned slaves. He might have been a day laborer in the census, but his brother probably did, his oldest sister had at least one, and their oldest brother got most of them when Pappy died. So in 1860 your ancestor probably got jealous and thought he’d win the economic lottery with the potential of re-opening the Atlantic Slave Trade so he sided up with the fire eaters in favor of the war so he could show his eldest brother that he wasn’t a total failure who was no better than a field hand.

  4. Brad Warthen Post author

    Well, I was hoping for more comment on this subject, since I had been thinking about this post for some time and I think it makes a point that needs making in South Carolina.

    But whether you comment or not, I hope y’all not only read it but pass it on. There are many, many people out there who need to realize that, not only is “My ancestors didn’t own slaves” a lousy excuse to celebrate the Confederacy, but it almost certainly is not true…

  5. Karen Pearson

    My reply to those who claim that their ancestors didn’t own slaves is “so?” If their parents/grandparents weren’t out there protesting the use of confederate flag by the KKK and others who were lynching and terrifying people in the community, then they have nothing to be proud of.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Absolutely. It’s a bogus “justification.”

      But what I’m saying — and I’ve never really seen such claims challenged before — is that such statements are almost certainly false as well…

  6. JesseS

    I must be a pessimist. I just assumed they all owned slaves, their kids and grand kids must have been in the KKK, and they all said things that were only a little more racist than the things you might hear today. That’s how things were, right? It was something that seemed obvious when roll was taken in school and there was an African-American girl with the same name. Not just the last name, but the first. Something about that made it strike home. She was handed a surname that wasn’t even hers and here is some dumb, gap toothed cracker who keeps showing up at the office whenever her mom had to pick her up when a relative died. I must have always been a bad sign for her.

    There had to be a 50/50 chance that my ancestors owned her ancestors, since there were two plantations in that county owned by people who had our last name. I never found out. I really didn’t want to know. The insinuation was bad enough. What if we actually shared an ancestor? There is no hugging, smiles and knowing we are “family”, just the obvious answer: Rape.

    Then with the usual genealogy stuff I found out my paternal ancestors were at the Hamburg Massacre. I’ve read a bit on it. Contemporary accounts. Tillman’s racist “Spirit of ’76” (1876) rewrite of it. Modern rewrites. Rewrites of those revisions. Honestly, all of it makes me wish I didn’t even know about it. Ignorance is bliss. Now on moonlit nights I have to see them peering over the hill with rifles and lynching men who only wanted to live their lives.

    As much as I try it’s difficult for me to crawl into my ancestor’s heads on that one. Usually it isn’t that difficult. I get the fear they must have felt. I even get their apprehension of African-American agency. I get the feeling that the entire world was turned upside down and how easy it was to imagine themselves powerless. I get the feeling that they must have imagined that they had everything and the next day they “had nothing”. I get the cognitive dissonance in ignoring that those African-Americans literally had nothing. I get the endless rationalizations. I get that. Those are all very real and very human faults.

    What I can’t fathom is the rage. I’ve never hated someone enough to want to peer into their window and take pot shots at their wife or run her out into the cold night while she clutched her child and hid in a marsh until the sun came up. I only hope that didn’t cross their minds at the time. I’m sure it did. I’m sure they had a good laugh about it. “Boy, look at her run! Let me see if I can take her head off, fellas! Well I missed! Too bad, but they ain’t gonna come back here no more!” And that is the “nice” version of it that runs through my head. Ugliness is a human tendency.

    It’s also why I feel a little sick to the stomach when I see reenactor types having “galas” with women in hoop skirts and men in red shirts. Every time I see those red shirts, I can only imagine my ancestors burning and crackling in Hell. Why would you want to smile and post a pic of it on Facebook of it? What did Mama say? “Don’t be ugly.”

    I haven’t even bothered reading up too much on the plantation they owned. Having gone around a few burned out or run down plantations and seeing whipping posts in the basement and remnants of shacks, I’m not sure I want to know any more about my own. It’s bad enough knowing what you know. It’s worse when your imagination wanders and you start assuming what even those people would have thought was beyond the pale. And worse, what if it wasn’t beyond the pale for them?

    Like I said, I must be a pessimist.

    Still, that’s not the stuff that keeps me up at night. My gut tells me that the root of it all is that I don’t truly understand the nature of resentment. Like any defeat culture, even if it’s one over a hundred years old, you both embrace resentment while refusing to truly examine it and discover it’s faults in yourself. It’s cognitive dissonance. It’s easy to criticize, but those criticizing it don’t have to live with it.

    Of course this isn’t about what happened in 1860 or 1876. It’s about today. Yet I avoid the inevitable inner dialogue, because I fear it will lead to an existential breakdown and I’ll find myself eating dirt like Nebuchadnezzar or blowing up birdhouses because it’s emblematic of the affects of colonialism.

    Some nights I go to bed and I see it scrawled on the wall in my head: RESENTMENT

    There is no Daniel there to interpret the obvious.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Fascinating. Thanks for sharing, Jesse.

      Reading that, I can see how detached I am from all of it, by comparison.

      I didn’t grow up in a community where my parents had grown up, and where their forebears lived. I moved around all over the country, never in any one place for more than a year or two. In fact, the first place I ever lived in the United States for two years was when I was in the 7th and 8th grades, in New Orleans — or really, in Algiers over across the river.

      The longest I ever lived in one place was in Guayaquil, Ecuador, for two years and four-and-a-half months. That had a big impact on me. And while I usually lived in the South when we were in the States — except for a year in New Jersey in 2nd grade — I never had that rooted sense of place that you seem to have grown up with — and are haunted by.

      I visited South Carolina in the summers (except when we were in Ecuador). The pattern was, we’d live in the city where my Dad was stationed, in apartments on or near the base, for the school year, then we’d go to South Carolina (Bennettsville and Surfside Beach) for the summer, and then we’d move to the new place, in a different state or a different country.

      We did spend one whole school year in Bennettsville while my Dad was in Vietnam. But even though it’s the place of my birth — my mother went home to have me while my Dad was at a training school out West or something — I think most kids in my class at BHS thought of me as that stranger who came and went so quickly I had little effect on their lives. And today, I could walk the length of B’ville down Main Street and not be recognized by a soul.

      I grew up with my mother having a Southern accent and cooking Southern food, but I didn’t really grow up very rooted in any place.

      This caused me to have a detached, abstract, observer’s attitude toward the places where I lived. This was a very useful world view for a newspaperman, and I think it’s one reason why I’ve encountered quite a few other military brats in journalism.

      I’ve been back in South Carolina for 30 years now, so I feel far more attached and rooted than I ever did before. But it took a conscious effort to connect that way. And it’s not the same as with people who live where they grew up and where their parents grew up.

      My study of my ancestors is an intellectual exercise more than an emotional one. I can’t conceive of ancestor worship. I can’t feel pride or shame toward them, which I think you might be able to tell from the way I write about them. I can’t imagine being invested in thinking highly of them the way the blood-and-soil types do. They are strangers to me, before my grandparents. Interesting strangers, but strangers. I’m as interested in the ones who lived in the 13th century as in the ones from the 1860s.

      One more thing, about the Hamburg massacre and Jim Crow and that. I’ve got NO sense of where relatives of mine were in all that, except for the Bradleys — the ones who led to me. Patrick Henry’s son, my great-grandfather, was an attorney who early in his career moved to Washington to work for the Treasury Department. Later, he was one of a small group of men who started the General Accounting Office.

      Politically, the Bradleys despised the Tillmanites — and were deeply appalled when Pitchfork Ben ended up being their neighbor in Washington. My grandmother remembered sitting on his lap and asking if she could look under his eyepatch — and her parents expressing great displeasure that she had gone anywhere near the man. Perhaps that’s why they moved from the Hill out to Kensington, Md.; I don’t know….

      1. JesseS

        “They are strangers to me, before my grandparents.”

        That is the rub, really. As one friend said to me recently, “One night when I was a kid, a ghost walked into the house, patted my head, and then it disappeared, like a whiff of smoke. I didn’t know if the ghost was real or I was dreaming.” In his teens he told his grandmother about it and she opened up her husband’s trunk. There was the ghost. Of course it wasn’t a ghost at all, it was his grandfather’s Klan robe. It’s trite, but it often goes back to that old Faulkner quote about the past. Sometimes it ain’t the past.

        The rest of your post it kinda reminds me of Edward Said’s notion of a man without a nation (as opposed to a man without a country).

        He was a Palestinian who grew up bookish. For him the struggle was mostly playing soccer with other kids. He was smart and his parents were privileged, so they sent him off to England for his education. Later on he would become a professor of the classics at Columbia who did literary criticism. In other words a public intellectual. Anyway, when he returned “home” after college he realized he didn’t have as much in common with his relatives and friends as he thought he did. He thought they were often irrational and given to anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, while he wanted to read Adorno and listen to music. When he heard of someone strapping a bomb to their bodies and blowing themselves up in a market or hijacking an airplane, he thought it was inhuman and insane while his peers thought that person was a hero. He was a foreigner in his own land.

        He published a bit, got a little fame, and when he did lectures young Palestinians would show up to castigate him. Why didn’t he want real, productive means of liberation instead of harping on about the need for humanism and universal understanding? From their perspective he was no better than a collaborator. This hurt and he found this all confusing. He saw his childhood friends as being in the same boat as those suffering under Apartheid and only non-violence would free them. How could they not see this? It was obvious. He spent a lot of time thinking this over, while establishing what would be called post-colonialism, and came to the obvious: It’s all about place.

        He could try to internalize it all he wanted, but without living their experience bound to their place, he’d never know what it was really like for them. His conclusion was that not having a sense of place is a virtue, because without place you aren’t given to those biases.

        Initially I can agree, but I’ve always felt deeply uneasy with it. Granted he meant that mentally you shouldn’t be “of” a place, but it sounds too close to “Being raised in the house of a millionaire is a virtue” or “Being raised by wolves is a vice”. Those are purely circumstantial, right? How can a condition you didn’t ask for be something someone can cast a moral light on you for? I suppose if you were raised by cannibals and engaged in it, that would be a vice. So maybe that is where all of this falls apart.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          I wouldn’t call it a virtue so much as an asset. It’s a good thing for a journalist to have, for instance.

          But it also means there’s something missing, a distinctiveness of character that rooted people feel. A depth of understanding. A grokking. This strange thing (to me) of “lifelong friends.”

          It’s a trade-off.

          When I moved “back” here in 1987, I resolved that I wanted my kids to have a sense of place, to have friends over the course of their childhoods, and to some extent they have that, even though all but one of them was born before we came here.

          Whereas with me — my wife has only ever met two people I graduated from high school with (while I’ve probably met all of her classmates at one time or another). One of them is Burl, and I’m not sure Burl even remembered me when we reconnected a few years back — we’ve probably interacted more via this blog, and during his visit here in 2016, than during that one year we were at Radford High (my third high school) together….

  7. Mr. Smith

    As far as I know, my direct ancestors did not own slaves. The 1850 census shows that my paternal great-great grandfather’s household in the Upcountry had just $5 in assets.

    But slavery isn’t the only issue. When I took a look at the 1930 census, right there below my 11-month-old father it also showed a young black woman living in the household. I’d never heard any family stories about this woman, so I asked my father. He said, yes, they’d had a live-in maid for a time. But his wasn’t a well-to-do family. Both his parents were cotton mill “factors,” as they’re sometimes referred to: basic mill employees in an Upcountry mill village. Nevertheless, even they could afford a black maid. Why? Because that was one of the few jobs black women could get. To quote my maternal grandmother: “Used to be, you could get just any [——] off the street to come work for you.” Ugly, yes, but honest.

    Most white folks would rather not deal with it. Bring up stuff like this in conversation and they feel exposed and the conversation tends to go silent really fast, especially among older folks. (Maybe that accounts in part for the lack of comment here.) They react as if they don’t really have any personal experience with what you’re talking about – though they do of course. They lived in it day to day, every day. And if you push it, that’s when the resentment begins to percolate. Why you wanna go dig up all that old stuff? It’s as if there’s something wrong with YOU for asking.

    But it has to be dug up. Over and over again. Because it’s still with us. Because, like every other aspect of our history, it’s part of what made us. It has to become as much a part of our understanding of ourselves as all the “good” parts are.

  8. clark surratt

    Brad, you used the precise words “con job” to describe why poor whites joined the Confederate army and why segregation stayed in place for another 100 years. To me it’s all rather simple.
    I’ve seen the historical written warnings and heard them first hand from white “leaders” back in the 1950s and 1960s. The warnings go something like this, in summary paraphrase:
    “If slavery (or segregation) is not kept in place, the blacks will try to take over your farm, your job and your women. Mixing of the races is bad. There will be harm and hurt and bloodshed. Blacks might take over. They must be kept in their place.”
    Now, put that con and fear in a bunch of mostly uneducated whites and it’s fairly easy to see the results. I know this stuff. I’ve been there.


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