My ancestors did wrong. It's right here in black and white.
January 16, 2019 8:02 AM   Subscribe

#1 is Edie. She's 45 years old, and valued at $800. And she, her, it's hard to say the word…owner...it's not right. This is my second great grandfather, William Hayes Paxton. #2, Julia. She's 26, valued at $1400. The list goes on. There are 44 names on this list.
After Two White Colorado Women Unearthed The History Of Their Slave-Owning Ancestors, They Turned To Reparations by Ann Marie Awad, Colorado Public Radio (article and audio of radio interview at link).

An anonymous Colorado donor gave her $200,000 inheritance to Soul2Soul sisters after learning that her great-great grandmother owned a slave named Alice. The donor refers to this as "personal partial reparations." Soul2Soul sisters, run by Rev. Tawana Davis and Rev. Dawn Riley Duval, describes itself as "a fiercely faith-based, Black womxn-led, racial justice organization focused on Black healing and Black liberation."

Lotte Lieb Dula discovered in her deceased grandmother's belongings a Smith college yearbook from the early 1900s that showed her grandmother in KKK robes. Dula also found a ledger documenting her family's slaves under the heading "Loss of Slaves by War, 1861-1865" (photograph in link). Dula works with Coming to the Table, an organization the links descendants of slaves and slaveholders to work toward healing the wounds of slavery, combating institutionalized racism, and reparations. She has helped pay the student-loan debt of an African American that she met through Coming to the Table, and plans to donate at least $500,000 toward reparations. Dula also plans to develop an organization to work on reparations for slavery.

The CPR interview by Ryan Warner is 24 min long and worth listening to (I haven't found a transcript). Excerpts with my transcription:
Warner: Do you have some sense that you may owe your status in life today to the work of that slave generations ago?
Anonymous donor: Absolutely. It can't be but that. [...]

Warner: What made you so passionate about this issue?
Dula: I discovered things about my family that I had no knowledge of. I discovered in my grandmother's records that she had been a member of the KKK while she was at Smith College in the early 1900s.
Warner: In fact you have a yearbook with you in which there is an ad, essentially, an emblazoning of the KKK logo on one of the pages.
Dula: I was stunned by that, and I found a picture of her wearing a robe, a hooded robe, in one of these yearbooks. I've always thought of my grandmother as a kind person, a person who made cookies for me, a person who wanted to make the world a better place. And when I discovered these things I realized, there was another, there was a very painful truth about my family, who hail from the south, and I decided that I really needed to look into this further. [...]

Warner: What do you say to people who think, these are the sins of your ancestors, these are not your sins? That the daughter can't be held responsible for the sins of a great- or great-great-grandfather.
Dula: I don't agree, because I feel like all of us as white people benefit from the effects of institutional racism. For instance, my forebears were lawmakers, politicians, doctors. These are the pillars of racism. I think this is how these things are held in place. These things exist today. I don't believe the past is the past. I believe it's fully present, these effects. So I am absolutely responsible.
Reparations on Metafilter previously and previouslier.
posted by medusa (24 comments total) 69 users marked this as a favorite
 
This is a horror that many cannot bear to look at. The excuse that this was my ancestors and not me does not erase the benefit we all still receive from that horror. We need to fix it.
posted by Mental Wimp at 8:24 AM on January 16 [10 favorites]


My personal comment - I posted this because I think it's hugely important that (some) white people are working to personally fund reparations and publicize what they are doing, not dismissing it as "the past" and unimportant. I hope this gets attention not just in Colorado.
posted by medusa at 8:31 AM on January 16 [25 favorites]


A remarkable story, I envy that she was able to find such a specific record.

I found out a few years ago that my family owned at least one slave. I still feel intense sadness when I think of this poor 13 year old girl. I don't even know her name. I have no idea how to research it back further. We have no personal family records.

I've grappled with the question of what reparations I owe. If I knew the specific family that my family owned, I think that personalization would make the question much more concrete. Instead I've tried to do more charitable giving for African-American causes, particularly educational funds. It feels too abstract.

There's a huge pile of economic evidence that shows the multi-generation effects of poverty and slavery. You can trace the effects of wealth through 6+ generations of people, even in a relatively mobile country like America. I am certain my good fortune is due in some part to the fact that my 3rd great grandparents owned a slave. And I'm willing to bet the descendants of that slave are less well off than my family is; at least, the statistics say that's overwhelmingly likely to be true.
posted by Nelson at 8:35 AM on January 16 [13 favorites]


A year or two ago I went on holiday in the UK & walked past a fine country house. A little research later revealed that the house was in the ownership of a family who’s ancestor had bought it with the profits earned in the slave trade. I sometimes wonder how that family see themselves.
posted by pharm at 8:49 AM on January 16 [3 favorites]


A little research later revealed that the house was in the ownership of a family who’s ancestor had bought it with the profits earned in the slave trade.

In the UK, they paid reparations to slave traders.
posted by thelonius at 9:00 AM on January 16 [10 favorites]


Or perhaps, in the UK they had the guts to do the distasteful thing and pay off the slave owners because this was the price, and the only way, of ending slavery.
posted by epo at 9:11 AM on January 16 [5 favorites]


Well, it wasn't the only way. But it was probably a slightly-less-shitty way.
posted by Etrigan at 9:15 AM on January 16 [1 favorite]


Thank you for posting this. I will be gingerly approaching this topic with my parents who are very invested in researching our geneology. I want that process to include us taking ownership of our ancestors' negative legacies. I am pretty sure my mom's mom had slave ownership in her immediate family history. I will try to find out who those people were.
posted by Hermione Granger at 10:24 AM on January 16 [1 favorite]


Thank you for sharing this. I just finished Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi and this is all so heavy on my heart.
posted by kimberussell at 10:26 AM on January 16 [1 favorite]


A year or two ago I went on holiday in the UK & walked past a fine country house. A little research later revealed that the house was in the ownership of a family who’s ancestor had bought it with the profits earned in the slave trade. I sometimes wonder how that family see themselves.

Goodness, there are countless houses all over New England that you can say that about. Many a well-to-do Yankee family was founded on human trafficking.
posted by Miko at 11:33 AM on January 16 [12 favorites]


Miko, that sounds like an FPP.
posted by medusa at 12:27 PM on January 16 [4 favorites]


> Miko, that sounds like an FPP

Agreed. I've been meaning for a while to find out my own family's involvement.
posted by The corpse in the library at 12:32 PM on January 16


Huh, I wouldv'e thought something on the topic had been posted before, but maybe not. I will build an FPP when I have some time. There are many good sources.
posted by Miko at 12:37 PM on January 16 [12 favorites]


Slavery has been illegal on English soil since Queen Elizabeth the First freed the serfs in 1574. This was confirned by the courts multiple times, e.g. in Smith v. Browne & Cooper in 1706 the judge ruled, "As soon as a Negro comes into England, he becomes free.".

Now the British Empire was another thing. Slavery was a shameful cancer on the empire til Parlianent banned the slave trade in 1807 (enforced globally by the Royal Navy), and finally abolished slavery in 1833.
posted by w0mbat at 12:41 PM on January 16 [3 favorites]


Slavery was a shameful cancer on the empire til Parlianent banned the slave trade in 1807 (enforced globally by the Royal Navy), and finally abolished slavery in 1833.

The enormous English textile (and financing) fortunes of the nineteenth century depended on slave labor producing cotton in the U.S. until the U.S. Civil War.
posted by praemunire at 1:09 PM on January 16 [11 favorites]


My family owned slaves.
Our family oral history acknowledges this, but tries to soften the blow -- it is claimed that after the Civil War, my great-whatever grandfather gave the people he had enslaved the option to find their own way or to stay on, but with pay. He was such a "good master," I was told, that not only did they almost all stay, but they even refused to accept payment for their labor! He even publicly acknowledged his long-time "mistress" who he had been enslaving.

As I grew older, of course, these details came to horrify me more than if I hadn't known them. How can my family feel better knowing their ancestor was not just a slaver, but a rapist who continued enslaving people even after it was made illegal?

My grandmother was swindled out of the family fortune by a succession of bad men, leaving her and her children destitute. Most of the family is bitter about this, to the extent of actually blaming her for her "poor judgement" in men. I, on the other hand, am indescribably relieved that -- although I benefit in a general sense from a system of white supremacy founded on the generational extraction of wealth and labor from Africans -- not one cent of my own money or material resources have come down to me from my ancestor's crimes.
posted by Krawczak at 1:49 PM on January 16 [3 favorites]


There was a book published in the UK that traced which families made money from the slave trade IIRC. I’ll see if I can track it down.
posted by pharm at 2:50 PM on January 16 [1 favorite]


...like Krawczak, I hadn't previously considered that the WASP part of my family including a string of arrogant ne'er-do-wells between me and the Civil War means I can't identify the descendants of the people they enslaved in order to redistribute that wealth. (to be fair, if I had had access to that money it probably would've gone into transition funds and other queer causes by now.)

I...could plausibly identify those people anyway, if they exist. I have always understood the ne'er-do-wells' interest in genealogy as about clinging to lost glory and feeling superior and been kind of repulsed. Ancestry research for social justice is sort of compelling, though.
posted by bagel at 2:51 PM on January 16


My people owned slaves. They were mostly smallholders, and although one of them had a large roll of enslaved persons in 1860 (if I recall the census correctly), there was no Tara or legacy of gentility to come down from that particular ancestor, or from anywhere. If they piled up great wealth in that way, it was taken from them, but it could not have been given back to those who made it.

And that's one obstacle to envisioning personal reparations: I cannot give back what was taken from these people, not if I tithed every dollar. My later ancestors, even when they were poor, never had to fear lynching for their educational ambitions or being burnt out of their homes for their real estate. That gave them the peace of mind to provide intangible stability for their children that the descendants of the enslaved people with my last name didn't have, and sometimes still don't.

I have to figure out how to give back in some way, of course, although I know better than to approach a person who is a direct descendant of those enslaved people. The loathing they would feel for me, another white person looking for emotional labor, would be palpable, and they would be right to feel it.
posted by Countess Elena at 3:53 PM on January 16 [3 favorites]


my great-whatever grandfather gave the people he had enslaved the option to find their own way or to stay on, but with pay. He was such a "good master," I was told, that not only did they almost all stay

There's a good possibility that's apocryphal apologetics. It's kind of a common tale often brought up at historic plantation sites.
posted by Miko at 4:34 PM on January 16 [6 favorites]


Miko, I put very little stock in the oral family history of racists (c.f. everybody's 1/16 Cherokee princess on their mother's side). I understand how it salves everyone's conscience to believe that their ancestor provided the people they were imprisoning with good working conditions or whatever. The thing that staggers me is the "they even refused payment" elaboration. Like, how blinded do you have to think that he is absolved from enslaving people by ... enslaving more people? For longer?
posted by Krawczak at 4:53 PM on January 16 [4 favorites]


Like, how blinded do you have to think that he is absolved from enslaving people by ... enslaving more people? For longer?

It's an inside-out worldview, but in fact the logic is that the lack of payment is evidence that the relationship was never one-way or exploitive, but always based on consent and authentic feeling. Which is a way of trying to take the difficulty out of the slavery itself, rather than trying to counter it in the aftermath.
posted by Miko at 7:28 PM on January 16 [2 favorites]


I have a few family members into genealogy. I’ve never much cared, it always seemed a little odd to me.
But this is a reason to care. Thank you for posting this.
posted by nat at 10:47 PM on January 16


Parlianent banned the slave trade in 1807 (enforced globally by the Royal Navy), and finally abolished slavery in 1833

The British ban exempted territories held by the British East India Company (always follow the money), Sri Lanka, and, interestingly, St Helena. The 1833 act fixed that oversight. Enforcing the ban to cover other countries' trade practices was laudatory.

The US banned the importation of slaves in 1807, and followed up with further acts in 1818, 1819, and 1820, this last act declaring the Atlantic slave trade to be piracy and punishable by death. (Britain made it a capital offence in 1827). The US navy's African Slave Trade Patrol worked with the British, the trade mostly heading to Brazil and south and central America. (Spanish and Portuguese laws on the trade get a bit involved.) See also, Africa Squadron: The U.S. Navy and the Slave Trade, 1842-1861 and W.E.B.Dubois's The Suppression of the African Slave-trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870.

The enormous English textile (and financing) fortunes of the nineteenth century depended on slave labor producing cotton in the U.S. until the U.S. Civil War.

This is where it gets interesting. New supplies during the war came from Egypt, India, Brazil, and parts of Africa. The economic boost to Egypt in particular was considerable, financing railroads and telegraphs, etc. So also post-war India. Foundations were laid. See Empire and Emancipation: Reconstructing the Worldwide Web of Cotton Production in the Age of the American Civil War

I once worked out the numbers. The cost per capita of following Britain's pay-off to British slave holders proved to be mountains cheaper than what the US spent (lost) paying for the Civil War. Makes you wonder how the slave issue would have turned out had America remained British.
posted by BWA at 8:41 AM on January 17 [1 favorite]


« Older not just for students   |   Minorcan Food of Florida Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments