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Sometimes what we find out about our ancestors isn’t what we want to find.

I’m going back this summer, back to the Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research (IGHR) at Samford University in Birmingham. I was lucky enough to get into the course I chose, and I chose it knowing that its registration was in the last time slot so if I didn’t manage to get in, all the other courses with earlier registration times would be full.

I’m very happy about getting into the course… and I’m very discomfited at the same time. Because the course I am taking this summer, the course I feel literally driven to take, is Course 8, Researching African-American Ancestors. And I’m taking it not because I have African-American ancestors. I’m taking it, instead, because a small number of my ancestors owned African-Americans. And because I want to know, I have to know, I need to know, the truth of what that meant.

1860 slave census, Attala Co., MS

I never thought, when I started researching my ancestry some years ago, that slavery would be any kind of an issue for me. After all, my father’s family emigrated from Germany in 19251 and, looking at my baby book, with the entries carefully printed in my mother’s hand, her family surely came to the United States after the Civil War. Her great grandparents, she said, were born in Ireland and in Wales.2

And that might have been true… if Ireland and Wales were small towns in Mississippi. For it was in Mississippi that her great grandparents, my second great grandparents, Gustavus Boone and Isabella (Gentry) Robertson, were born. Where, for many years, they lived.3 And where, in both 1850 and 1860, Gustavus was recorded as a slaveowner.4

I can just barely wrap my head around the concept of owning another human being in America in, say, 1790 or 1800. That’s before the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act passed in England in 18075 and before the abolition movement in the United States really started to gain steam. Although there certainly were abolitionist efforts well before then, it was 1833 before a major group — the American Anti-Slavery Society — organized in Philadelphia.6 So maybe, just maybe, some folks really didn’t “get it” when they were confronted by others who said it was wrong.

But by 1850? 1860? Nope. Can’t do it. Can’t condone it. And, on a deeply personal level, can’t forgive it.

Now, we’re often warned, as genealogists, not to engage in presentism — judging the past by the standards of today.7 It’s critical when we’re trying to evaluate the records of a time that we don’t judge those records by expectations of what one of those records should look like today.

But to me it’s a whole ‘nother story when we’re talking about passing moral judgments on the actions of our own ancestors at certain times. I’m not engaging in presentism when I take issue with this handful of my ancestors for their slave ownership that late in American history as much as I’m rejecting moral relativism. It was wrong… and they had to know it was wrong.

What has been passed down to me — this northerner my southern grandfather would have called a Yankee… in three syllables… and the first syllable wasn’t “darn” — are the “feel-good” slavery stories. How my ancestors cared for their slaves and took care of them, how their slaves loved them and stayed with them even after Emancipation. I suspect those tales are as common in southern families as tales of the Cherokee princess great grandmothers are. What I want from Course 8 are the tools to start finding out for myself as much as I can of just what the truth was. I am human enough to hope the stories are true…. and to hope, as well, for the courage to speak out to the apologists in my family if the truth here isn’t what we want to find.


SOURCES

  1. Manifest, SS George Washington, Jan-Feb 1925, p. 59 (stamped), lines 4-6, Geissler family, 4; “New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1957,” digital images, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 6 Jan 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication T715, roll 3605.
  2. Family tree pages, undated pamphlet-form baby book for Judy Eileen Geissler; privately held by Judy G. Russell, Avenel, New Jersey, 2011. Entries in the family tree were handwritten by Hazel (Cottrell) Geissler shortly after the birth of her second daughter.
  3. 1850 U.S. census, Winston County, Mississippi, District 8, population schedule, p. 373 (stamped), dwelling 809, family 816, Gustavius Robinson; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 20 Jan 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication M432, roll 382. Also, 1860 U.S. census, Attala County, Mississippi, Township 14, Range 8, population schedule, p. 76 (penned), dwelling 455, family 494, Gustavus B. Robertson household; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 20 Jan 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication M653, roll 577; imaged from FHL microfilm 803577.
  4. 1850 U.S. census, Winston County, Mississippi, slave schedule, p. 59 (penned), col. 2, lines 32-33, Gustavius Robinson, slave owner; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 20 Jan 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication M432, roll 390. Also, 1860 U.S. census, Attala County, Mississippi, Township 14, Range 8, slave schedule, p. 26 (penned), col. 2, lines 14-15, Gustavus B. Robertson, slave owner; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 20 Jan 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication M653, roll 595.
  5. “Abolition of slavery,” National Archives-UK (http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/slavery/about.htm : accessed 20 Jan 2012).
  6. “Abolition, Anti-Slavery Movements, and the Rise of the Sectional Controversy,” Library of Congress American Memory (http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/aaohtml/exhibit/aopart3.html : accessed 20 Jan 2012).
  7. Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, rev. ed. (Baltimore : Genealogical Publishing Co., 2009), 20.
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