Posted August 13th 2014 at 9:30 am by
in Who Am I? An African American's Quest to Discover Community Through Family History

U.S. Families and Divergent Legacies

Slave_Market-Atlanta_Georgia_1864

Slave Market in Atlanta Georgia, 1864

For my mother, Wylene, slavery was only three generations ago. Her great grandfather was born into slavery. His daughter, Wylene’s grandmother, toiled under the harsh conditions of sharecropping in the South. And she, my mother, was born the year after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling declared de jure segregated schools to be unequal and thus illegal; she was in the 7th grade by the time she sat in a desegregated school. For my mother, the legacy of slavery is with us in a very real way. Yet, we live in a society that largely devalues her grieving and healing process. In the previous post in this series, I shared my mother’s sentiments as she discovered her personal genealogical family history from within the cloud of slavery. Along with knowing her own family, she also found empowerment through knowing the names of our family’s former legal owners. Thanks to Ancestry.com and the work of genealogist E. W. McDonald, I was able to take the research a step farther and, in addition to identifying my 2nd great grandfather’s legal owners, we could also identify one immediate descendant.

Knowing that members of this woman’s family had, just a few generations ago, prospered directly from the free labor and exploitation of my family, I was curious about how she and other descendants had fared over the years.

My Expectations: Empathy and an Apology

To be honest, beyond fueling my curiosity, what I sought was a heartfelt apology and some type of expressed empathy towards the present-day struggles of African Americans. The exploitation and oppression of my family didn’t end when legal slavery ended. A change of laws didn’t change the hearts and minds of those in power or of those that benefited from being racialized as White. I wanted recognition of the humanity of African Americans. I wanted a sincere acknowledgement that many of the challenges ailing the African American community were not contrived from a culture of poverty or crime and that her family played a hand in the outcomes for at least one African American family: mine! I knew that she did not enslave my family personally, nor was I enslaved personally. Yet, here we both were, living out the legacies of our recent family’s past in America. So, it is with these thoughts as context, that I contacted her.

Much to my surprise, she welcomed the communication and over the past year, we’ve conversed back and forth via email and text message.

Her Response: “Pull Themselves up by their Bootstraps”

Early on I learned that she had also spent several years thoroughly documenting her family history. But, it was only a few years prior to our encounter that she had learned that her family had legally owned slaves. Up until then, slave holding had been a secret within her family, intentionally not passed down to later generations.

In reflecting on this history, she said:

I have the convenience of disassociating myself from any feelings I might have about my ancestors having been slave owners. In fact, I now realize that denial runs deep in all of us on that point. Why didn’t my family ever see fit to discuss this fact with the children? I imagine that much of their ambiguity or denial concerning the past had to do with shame on having once been well-off, and then having lost that status.

Plus, there’s the cultural aspect that I respect in [Louisiana], and it’s something I’ve noticed in all the poor countries and countries with difficult histories where I’ve lived. They don’t relive the past. Life is tough, and you know that, so you get on with living and enjoy the present. You don’t know when another hurricane or depression or war or disease will turn your fortunes, so you don’t look back.

Initially, I was angry and hurt at the suggestion that her family’s biggest reflection regarding owning my family and others was the loss of socioeconomic status that they eventually faced. But more than that, her sentiments were illustrative of the American idea that through life’s difficulties, everyone should work hard and ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps.’ This way of thinking ignores the extent to which government policies play a role in the ‘pulling of oneself up’ and the reality that these policies have long catered to racial majorities while excluding racial minorities. For example, it doesn’t consider that European American soldiers returning from WWII were welcomed with new mortgage terms insured by the federal government to help them support their families while African American soldiers returning from the same war were denied this benefit. It does not take into account the cumulative effects on the African American community of stolen labor, discriminatory hiring and real estate practices, and exclusion from quality education–just to name a few slights. Rather, it privileges the media’s depictions of African Americans as morally deprived and prone to crime without questioning the privileges that come with being White in America.

“Conquest” and The Politics of Racialization

The descendent went on to say, “Frankly, I find the complaining of many [throughout] the wealthier parts of the US hard to take. We have relatively little in [Louisiana], but we enjoy more [of] that little that we do have”. Reflecting on growing up poor in New Orleans, she says, “We did lose everything in the change of hands among colonial powers”.

When the settlers of the original colonies of the U.S. ‘conquered the West’, those conquered were Native Americans, Spanish settlers, and other immigrant groups such as the descendant’s French and Irish ancestors. My African ancestors had already been conquered as slaves. Having roots in Louisiana, she explained that she feels that the dominant American narrative does not reflect the history of her family either. Moreover, identifying more with her Irish ancestry, she explained that her Irish ancestor came to Louisiana when he was 14 years old. And, still upset over the European land grabbling in Ireland, later joined up with the Confederacy in the American Civil War to fight off the North, whose behavior reminded him of the British in Ireland. She also acknowledged that her Irish ancestor had another motive for fighting in the war against the North: jobs. Free Africans (Blacks) meant stiff competition for the menial jobs the Irish and other immigrants generally held.

While sympathetic to the discrimination her Irish family experienced, I can’t help but reject excuses for any immigrant group’s abuse of the Native Americans, Mexicans, and Africans already present. Moreover, as her French and Irish ancestors were racialized as White and my African ancestors were racialized as Black, even in freedom, our struggles were most certainly not the same.

The Power of Knowing and Sharing Genealogical Family History

Since my initial communications with this descendant, I have let go of the need for external validation from her about the present-day struggles of African Americans. She has since acknowledged the importance of having this sort of dialogue in the U.S., though she was initially nervous about how she may be perceived throughout it.

In the spirit of pushing the dialogue forward, I’ve come to believe that she and others like her should be given the opportunity to speak from their perspectives. That is how we will understand one another. I believe strongly in the power of knowing and sharing genealogical family history in the context of U.S. history, particularly for African Americans. Doing so can enable people to realize that society as we know it was constructed and has the potential to be reconstructed differently; this is extremely empowering. For European Americans, the process of knowing and sharing can inspire an awakening. It has the potential to spur a reflection on the implications of legal slave owning and White privilege in a racialized society.

There is a growing trend of African Americans discovering their genealogical family history and with it, a growing awareness of social identity and the structures of society. There is also a deepening of a sense of connection to countries of recent ancestry, typically those in West Africa. In The African American as African, Molefi Kete Asante says, “Africa itself has awakened to the potential of its ethnic diaspora, which promises a greater future for Africa in a material way but also demonstrates that distance and time are mere trivialities of history in the re-establishment of relations”. In the next blog post, I will reflect on the potential for the re-establishing of relations between West Africans and their ethnic diaspora, African Americans.

7 responses to “U.S. Families and Divergent Legacies”

  1. Wylene Hameed says:

    Another milestone uncovered, not realizing how time seem so long age, but so short at the same. I never realize how close I was into the slavery and most of the Jim Crow Laws era, not until I read this article. Three generations ago.

    I remember my first desegregated school day. The fear of the unknown. Mr Cassey, the first time ever getting a paddling from a teacher, but that didn’t happen again, because of my mother. I also remember having to go up in the balcony to watch a movie at the local theater. I was visiting some friends in Cassade, Va when a group of us stop at a local cafe to get food, and to my surprise, I was asked to go outside to the back window to place my order. What, What, are you kidding me, it’s 1972, no one does that anymore, so I thought, so I refused and went hungry for that day.

    While reading this article, I had the greatest urge wonna meet this descendant. If we could get more people like her to acknowlege their part, if any. People has been denying this problem for a long time. I say; ‘go for the dialogue, it’s worth a try.

    I like to thank you LaKisha for all the hard work you are doing to bridge the gap in our family. With every post comes ease. Thank you, beautiful piece of work.

  2. Mel says:

    Hi Lakisha,

    I have been following your blog and I appreciate what you have uncovered and your feelings about it. Toward the end of this article you said, “In the spirit of pushing the dialogue forward, I’ve come to believe that she and others like her should be given the opportunity to speak from their perspectives. That is how we will understand one another.” So I have decided to comment. This is my perspective. My name is Mel and I am white. I have been interested in my family history since I was a child and once I learned how to organize the information I gleaned I started creating my family tree. I consider my research pretty solid back to the Civil War, although I do still have a lot of work I can do.

    I am a descendent of poor farmers. I have 4 grandfathers and several uncles and cousins that fought for the Confederacy. It’s a heritage I’m proud of. For a long time I was also proud of the fact that none of them had owned slaves at the time of the Civil War or before. I recently discovered a document with the names of my 6th and 7th great grandfathers, Slave Schedules. I was disappointed to learn that between them they had 16 slaves. I can only hope, until I do further research, that they treated them better than others and may have educated them like I’ve heard happened in some cases.

    I was born in 1977. After slavery. After the Civil Rights Movement. After desegregation. I went to public schools and college with not only whites but other ethnicities as well. I never saw white or black water fountains or bathrooms or other things like that that would separate people. To me, we are equal. Those people of other ethnicities had the same opportunities that I had. I am not saying that changes don’t still need to be made or that people are not still hurt by racism. I know they are, that just hasn’t been my experience. A note on my parents; they were children of the military and were living overseas in the mid sixties so they didn’t have a direct experience with the Civil Rights Movement either. They didn’t have any stories for me about what life was like then for that reason.

    Like the descendent of Samuel Glass, “I have the convenience of disassociating myself from any feelings I might have about my ancestors having been slave owners.” They lived in a different time with different expectations and way of life just like we do now. We are not held accountable for our parent’s decisions or mistakes so why should we be held accountable for the decisions and mistakes of our 7th great grandfather? I know very little about my grandparent’s lives and less about their parent’s lives and anybody before that is just a name and vital statistics. My family is not in denial about owning slaves. We simply didn’t know because that information wasn’t passed down. The reason for that varies. People from my grandparent’s generation back are very tight lipped about bad things that happen. Maybe my 7th great grandfather’s children didn’t like that he owned slaves. I can see them changing their lives accordingly and not passing that information on to their children. I know you were looking for a “heartfelt apology” but I wouldn’t be able to give one either. It’s not mine to give.

    So what do I do with the information I have learned? I don’t repeat it. I treat people kindly and with respect. I try to stop a bad trend or make change happen where it needs to. I learn from the past and move on taking those lessons with me.

    Thank you for “listening” to my perspective. Everybody has a story that should be listened to and taken into consideration. By learning from these perspectives the world will change.

    With respect, Mel

  3. Holly says:

    This resonates with me: “…society as we know it was reconstructed…” I agree. I have become acutely aware of my white privilege the past few years. In furthering my education and opening my eyes, I’ve been seeking answers to understand and construct the history behind present day struggles of African-Americans. Plain and simple: “Society” has been constructed by those in power and has marginalized those without power.

    Schools teach children about the Civil Rights Movement. My children unquestionably thought Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation. Revisionist history and missing details paint a better picture for the convenience of the “majority.” It’s a denial of our American History to leave out valid details about Post-Emancipation. In our schools, we are not educated about Reconstruction and the South’s response of “Redemption.” Yes, they cover Jim Crow in school; but do my children grasp convict and vagrancy laws imposed on unemployed freedmen? Do my children know that if these freedmen were jailed for vagrancy they essentially became “slaves” all over again — that they could be “leased out” for labor by a jailor? Was this freedom? Do my children realize that even though an amendment gave African Americans the right to vote, policy makers could impose literacy tests to impede this freedom? How could that ever provide the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?

    I seek to understand. The divisive issue of race in our country is around every corner. Mass-incarceration is the new Jim Crow. The cycle continues. Your voice and this dialogue are VERY important Lakisha. Please continue to use your passion, knowledge and skills to push this forward.

  4. mike hilton says:

    Hi Lakisha,

    As always, I enjoy your postings on this topic and look forward to much more. Equality and freedom even today, are something many people appear to take for granted. The struggles that your family went through tell us something about the nature of ourselves and America are we going to be a land of the free, where all people are judged by the content of their character not by the color of their skin when the plain truth, is there is no “black” or “white” race, there is only one race, the human race. The majority of my ancestors left Africa 65,000 years ago and traveled to India, then northwards looping back into Europe where they encountered another people, the Homo neanderthalis. By skin tone and appearance I am White though I do have some Gypsy “Boheme” blood, who married into a number of other ethnicities and my immediate family today, is every color of the rainbow. Some of my ancestors did profit from slavery and owned slaves, Mary Lacroix and Samuel Glass, were my relatives, her sister Catherine Lacroix was my great-great-great grandmother. Do I feel any sympathy or empathy for slave owners who profited from the labor of humans who felt the same and were the same as them? No Do I feel anything for their loss of wealth even though, they were my “relatives” after the Civil War? No I do not, labor by compulsion of others who were not treated justly is wrong and if I had lived in those times, I would have been against slavery as an injustice even if I had lived in the Deep South. Some others of my family, the Wafer family in particular, in North Louisiana owned slaves and were wealthy, throughout the 1800s, one of my ancestors Reverand James T. Wafer 1789-1857 died with an estate worth 50,000 plus dollars and which included dozens of slaves. Most of my ancestors, did not own slaves my great-great grandfather Thomas G. Hilton did fight on the side of the South in the Civil War and was apparently, crippled dying at the age of 34, in 1874, another one of my ancestors who was on the side of liberty and justice was William S. Braddy 1844-1935, who was from Mississippi and fought for the Union but in the South unfortunately, it was very rare to find those who would have spoken up for the those held in bondage.

    Racial attitudes were something that I knew nothing about, when I was living in Pecos, Texas when I was 4, 5, 6 and 7 years old because while I was an Anglo- in what was a community that was becoming more Hispanic, there was nothing said about about other “races” and schools were integrated, this was in 1969-1971 and I had friends of every ethnicity. It was not until we moved to Louisiana, in 1972 that I saw the ugly face of racism when I made friends with children who were called names and I was called names along with them, something I couldn’t understand or relate to. I identified with and this will sound nerdy the Star Trek concept of IDIC or Infinite Diversity in Infirnite Comninations. We returned to Texas then came back to Alexandria, Louisiana in 1974 and lived in the projects along with people of every ethnicity and at the time every group got along fairly well but there was no discussions about race we were just interested in playing football, pool and having a good time and it may have seemed like with the Voting Rights Act and other improvements that things would continually get better. My Grandmother on my Dad’s side, was not an enlightened person but she taught me never to use what they call the N word today, that it was ignorant to say such a word but hatred still lives in the hearts of people and as recently, as two years ago I called out some older judge from California about his using that word and he told me I was ignorant, stupid and uneducated. Well, I can’t understand such people and prefer not to have dealings with them. I think that it is beautiful LaKisha, that you are re-discovering your heritage and it will take you many places. I have been down some dark roads and some enlightened paths while working on my heritage and became interested in my family when I was 12 years old and living in the projects of Alexandria, I hope that you are able to journey back to Africa, to re-discover your roots just as I hope someday, to journey to parts of Europe, Egypt and India to re-discover mine. I think it is a great shame that there were those people who judged the content of some of your ancestor’s character by the color of their skin when they were the same blood, same heart and same mind as them but they just couldn’t see it. Thomas Jefferson, wrote that “All men were created equal” but he could not bring himself to live with his own words, holding hundreds of people in bondage, including his own children and if the African-American poet Phyliss Wheatley had written to him, his words would not have been kind. George Washington was another slave holder who owned slaves all his life and did not treat them as equals but when the African American poet Phyliss Wheatley wrote him a letter and a poem, he wrote her back, acknowledging her as a human being, would that he had demonstrated the courage to treat his slaves as humans and spoke up for abolition as Benjamin Franklin started to in his last years. Olaudah Equiano 1745-1797 was one of the first former slaves to write of his life as a slave, his autobiography written in 1789 is compelling reading, he married a local English girl Susannah Cullen in 1792 and had two daughters. He was the pioneer abolitionist in England and it was thanks to his efforts that eventually slavery ended in England. I am hopeful, that everyone will eventually be able to find there heritage and see how we are all inter-related and it will be possible, I hope for us to eventually see when we last shared a common ancestor, so I could say to LaKisha, I see that we last shared a common ancestor x number of years ago or to anyone else in the World.

  5. Karin says:

    So many things are rushing around my head after reading your posting and the comments that have surfaced so far. As I pull back to see the system that is developing around this post, it appears to be one of sharing. From that, I take much encouragement. Many people are expressing their own narratives and attempting to further elucidate timelines, their own racialized experience and/or to situate and check themselves relative to the privilege structures of the historical societies of which their ancestors were a part and our contemporary society in which they participate. It is interesting to notice that, among commenters, a self-prompted and open investigation into their history as [US] “Americans” is happening.

    I also feel inclined to share my narrative but I will stop myself. I have little certainty that contributing my own narrative here will be relevant to your post or your investigation. However, I do wish to comment that your words have given me much on which to reflect. Furthermore, you have given me more insight into how I may listen and how I may be an ally.

  6. I love the insight on this entry. I am enlightened with the work that has already been done by Lakisha David and Mike Hilton. The interest in family heritage is outstanding. I have been opened up to such a vast knowledge that in previous years never crossed my mind. Slavery was and will always be a part of everyone’s life reguardless which side you find your ancestors on. I am so sincerly thankful for the work done by Lakisha David. I love you to pieces and thanks alot.

  7. Michael says:

    As u have been on this journey for all of our understanding, I’ve been reading, as well.

    Mainly about our American culture. From the establishment of the beginning colonies to the most recent events. I feel that somethings have changed in our country, intelligence being one. And it has been applied to all aspects of our life. In this article you showed that in the thought processes that have been used throughout our ancestry. We learned from mistakes in our past and have become more intelligent in dealing with our social issues today.

    Although, slavery still exists in today’s society. It is less physical and more mental. But just as harmful and dangerous as before. I hope everyone continues to exercise intelligence and pushes to make this country what it should be and that’s ‘free’. Thanks LaKisha and everyone for their comments and opinions.

    You all make this uplifting and exciting.

    -mike