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Honoring the ancestors

The Legal Genealogist is still digging out from under the accumulated email, snail mail and other impacts of being away for three weeks so the return to what passes for normal around here on this blog is getting off to a bit of a slow start.

But I came across a blog post by Beth Wylie yesterday that I want to share… with the hope that it’ll start a conversation that all of us with deep southern roots can join in, respectfully and politely.

Beth’s blog is called Life in the Past Lane, and on May 21, she posted a thought-provoking piece entitled “Southern Heritage. It’s Complicated.”

Boy, does this ever resonate with me…

My mother was born and raised in Texas. Her mother and father were both born in Texas. My grandmother’s mother was born in Alabama and her father in Texas. My grandfather’s mother was born in Kentucky and his father in Texas. And so it goes, all the way back to my very earliest ancestors on this continent. The furthest north my family ever lived before the 20th century was southern Maryland; mine is the first generation even to live north of the Mason-Dixon line.

I grew up spending all of my summers in central Virginia. Walking the red clay dirt roads from my grandparents’ farm to the general store for moon pies and RC Cola. Collecting glass bottles to cash in to pay for sacks of penny candy. Picking bouquets of Queen Anne’s Lace and daisies. Swimming in the creeks.

I spent hours sitting under the trees, by the light of a bonfire, listening to the stories and the songs and the cadence of the south. My grandfather told us the south never lost the Civil War; it just called off hostilities when it ran out of money. But, he assured us, when enough Dixie cups were sold to raise enough money, the fight would be on again…

I am proud of my southern roots. Proud of my southern ancestors. Proud of the life they carved out of the frontier not once but repeatedly as they moved across the south into the southwest. And I honor them for what they achieved.

But I am also aware, as a genealogist, that my southern heritage includes responsibility for the institution of slavery. My ancestors included some who enslaved others. And some who fought against the Union on behalf of the “right” to enslave others.

Balancing those two parts of southern heritage is — as Beth tells us — a complicated matter.

I am not, I cannot be, proud of everything my southern forebears did. I do not, I can not, honor all of their choices.

This isn’t any different for me than my pride in my German heritage — my father was born in Bremen, Germany — but my deep abiding relief that my German grandfather’s side didn’t win in World War I… and that my German cousins didn’t prevail in World War II.

We can honor our ancestors without agreeing with everything they did.

And without putting up, or keeping up, monuments to a losing cause.

Your thoughts?

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