Beverly Morgan Welch, director of the Museum of African American History in Boston, spoke at the Dillon Lecture Series this morning. She presented some fascinating information about the contributions of African Americans from the 1700s on.
Some of it was information I already knew, but much of it was new to me. I intend to profile some of the people she talked about here in the coming months. I hope you’ll be as interested as I was.
The African Meeting House in Boston is one of my favorite places. I can’t recommend it strongly enough. It was built in the early 1800s and is the oldest black church still standing in the country. It is one of the sites that makes up the museum.
If you’ve been a reader here for any amount of time you probably know of my interest in African American history. I don’t view this as history for just some of us, but for all of us. And as Morgan-Welch said today, “this is American history and if this history were known we would have a different kind of America.” May I just say, “amen?”
This is an interest I’ve always had, but grew tremendously when I started doing family history research. Right there, on the first census record I looked at, was a line under my ancestor’s household that said, “Slaves – 12.” I was revolted. I was embarrassed. I was curious. I was a hundred other emotions all at one time. And, in that moment I became something I didn’t want to be – a descendent of a slave owner.
My experience isn’t any different than that of many people who have ancestors in the south, but in all the conversations I’ve had about geneaology, this is a topic that is skirted around, avoided, and discussed only in hushed terms if at all. Morgan Welch summed this up today in the most beautiful way I’ve ever heard. She said, “Slavery is an x-rated conversation.”
She is absolutely correct, but it is something we have to come to terms with. Do you think I like knowing that my ancestors on multiple sides of the family were slave owners? No, I do not. But can I deny it? No. So what choices do I have? I have to accept it as what “was,” and try to make sure it never “is” again.
I wanted to know who those “Slaves – 12” in the census records were. Obviously, they had names, spouses, children, relationships and wishes just like every other person. Finding out who they were was not easy. In fact, I still don’t know all of them. I have found the names of some of them – Sarah, Pleasant, Hannah, George – listed in wills. I’m at once happy to see the names, and at the same time horrified to see them enumerated along with horses and houses and other property – given to the heirs of the owner. Of course, I know that some of the children listed as slaves were no doubt biological children of the owner, with as much right to the land and houses as their half brothers and sisters.
I have no proof that my ancestors were using their slaves for their personal pleasure, but would there be any logic in believing that my ancestors were people who would never do such a thing? No. No logic in that. It would be folly.
One of the guiding principles for my life is that the truth can always be spoken. It can be spoken with kindness, but it can be spoken. And this is one of those cases where truth is the only thing I can imagine will ever heal a rift in this country that we’re unwilling to even admit exists.
I was contacted through my family history website by someone a few months ago who believes they are descended from the slaves that my ancestors owned. She delicately broached the subject that we might be blood related. I assured her I was completely open to finding out the truth – and I would like to meet cousins of all colors – and add them to the family tree. She was shocked because she had not gotten that reaction from others she had contacted. That breaks my heart. I so want us to be past the point where we have these divisions. I want us to be open to the truth being spoken.
Of course, I don’t like the truth of my own family history in many ways. I’d much rather focus on my ancestor James Hunter Terrell who freed his slaves at his death. Admittedly, I’d much rather he have not had any in the first place, but at least there’s something redeeming in his story. But, that’s not all of my story. My personal story includes slave owners, and all that goes with that. My ancestors, and by extention I, have benefitted from the labor of men and women who were kidnapped, enslaved and held against their will.
Words can’t express how much I hate to write that, admit that, accept that. But, I can’t figure out what to do except deal with the facts. And the facts are there in black and white – in census documents and wills. It’s an ugly part of our history as a country, and it’s an ugly part of the history of my family. But, we don’t get to choose which parts of history we accept. It’s a mixed bag.
But, the truth. The truth. We must know the truth. We must speak the truth. Even if it’s uncomfortable, we must speak it.