Welcome to the club
Ben Affleck was “embarrassed” to discover that he had slaveowning ancestors. “The very thought left a bad taste in (his) mouth.”1
That’s about the reaction all of us would have — should have — on first discovering the reality of slave ownership in our own families.
It’s certainly the reaction The Legal Genealogist had back long ago when I first discovered that reality in my own family.
I never thought, when I started researching my ancestry years ago, that slavery would be any kind of an issue for me. After all, my father’s family emigrated from Germany in 19252 and, looking at my baby book, with information carefully entered by hand, my mother’s family surely came to the United States after the Civil War. Her great grandparents, she had written, were born in Ireland and in Wales.3
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.4
And where, in both 1850 and 1860, Gustavus was recorded as a slaveowner.5
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 18076 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.7 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.8 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.
And whether these stories are true or merely the “feel-good” versions of a terrible reality, I absolutely understand what it is like to be embarrassed at the very thought of slaveowning ancestors. To have the very thought leave a bad taste in my mouth.
So welcome to the club, Ben.
Now pull up a chair and let’s talk about what we do about this.
Because what we don’t do … what we can never do … is deny the reality of the past.
Because when we try to deny the reality of the past, we are in effect writing out of our history the lives of those who were enslaved.
And they deserve better.
Somewhere in this world there may be descendants of the women, aged 30 and 50, who served my third great grandparents and their children in 1850.
Somewhere in this world there may be descendants of the woman aged 25 and her daughter aged three who served my third great grandparents and their children in 1860.
Somewhere in this world there may be descendants of those two women, the slaves of 1860, who — I firmly believe — are the Ana and Mary Robertson, aged 36 and 13, shown as black, born in Mississippi, and recorded in the household next door to my third great grandparents and their children in 1870.9 Who likely are the Annie Robertson and Mary Shirrell of Lamar County, Texas, in 1880.10
As descendants of slaves and slaveowners alike, we should talk.
Learn each other’s stories.
Help finish each other’s tales.
Not as sources of embarrassment.
Not as anything to be ashamed of.
Not as something to try to hide.
But as interesting people whose ancestors’ lives intersected our ancestors’ lives.
So how about this club, Ben?
A club made up — for all we know now — of kin.
A club of cousins, perhaps.
A club of family.
If nothing more, then the “same human race” club.
Welcome to this club, Ben.
Come join us.
- “‘Embarrassed’ Ben Affleck Admits to Asking PBS to Hide Slave-Owning Ancestor’s Past,” NBCNews.com posted 21 Apr 2015 (http://www.nbcnews.com/ : accessed 24 Apr 2015). ↩
- 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 24 Apr 2015); citing National Archive microfilm publication T715, roll 3605. ↩
- 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. ↩
- 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 24 Apr 2015); 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 24 Apr 2015); citing National Archive microfilm publication M653, roll 577. ↩
- 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 24 Apr 2015); 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 24 Apr 2015); citing National Archive microfilm publication M653, roll 595. ↩
- “Abolition of slavery,” National Archives-UK (http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/slavery/about.htm : accessed 24 Apr 2015). ↩
- “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 24 Apr 2015). ↩
- Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, rev. ed. (Baltimore : Genealogical Publishing Co., 2009), 20. ↩
- 1870 U.S. census, Lamar County, Texas, Beat 2, population schedule, p. 253(B) (stamped), dwelling/family 308, Ana and Mary Robertson; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 24 Apr 2015); citing National Archive microfilm publication M593, roll 1594. ↩
- 1880 U.S. census, Lamar County, Texas, Paris, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 81, p. 213C (stamped), dwelling 166, family 202, Nathan Shirrell household; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 24 Apr 2015); citing National Archive microfilm publication T9, roll 1314. ↩