Sunday, July 18, 2010

Not So Long Ago or Far Away: Six Degrees to Slavery

I read a fun (and thought provoking) post last week.  Dionne at Finding Josephine wrote about finding relationships amongst the slave owners of her ancestors and relations and ended with a Six Degrees challenge concerning President Obama.

Growing up in New England I rarely thought about slavery.  It didn't escape me that life was more difficult for the African-Americans I knew (all two families in my New York suburban existence), but as long as I behaved as I believed I should that was enough for me.  I was even a little smug, believing that my 20th century immigrant and Union soldier southern ancestors shielded me from any "guilt".   Now, original sin notwithstanding, I don't believe in inherited guilt.   I am not responsible for the actions of my ancestors in war or peace.

But as I've considered how much some of their decisions have affected me, it's impossible not consider that slavery has too.  I'm grateful my grandparents came to America.  I'm grateful my ancestors stayed rooted in East Tennessee for centuries giving me a sense of home when my own life has involved so much movement.  And I'm grateful everyday for the man I married (ok, almost everyday).  Smartest move I ever made.

So am I also grateful my grandparents were white and could come here?  That my family stayed in Tennessee because some of them owned slaves who helped keep their standard of living at a level that allowed them to stay and afforded their children a leg up?  Am I grateful for the legacy of my husband's family of devout faith, Catholic education and oodles of southern charm that rested on a foundation of slave run plantations?  I am.

Hard not to feel shame there.  I may not be responsible, but I have surely benefited.

I can't change any of the past.  But I do want to see it clearly.  Slave owning isn't close to the whole story, but it's part of it.  So - Six Degrees to Slave Owning?  Unfortunately, I don't need anywhere near six.  In fact I can do six without much digging.

  • My mother (b. TN) knew her grandmother Flora McAdams (b. 1867, IL) who knew her grandparents Thomas & Cynthia Stephenson McAdams (b. 1806 & 1817, TN) who were slave owners.  Three degrees.
  • My mother (b. TN) knew her grandmother  Catherine Conway (b. 1865, TN) who knew her father Porter Conway (b. 1828, TN) who knew his father James Conway (b. 1802, TN) who was a slave owner.  Four degrees
  • My mother (b. TN) knew her grandfather R.J. Williams (b. 1862, VA) who knew his father Granville Williams (b. 1820, VA) who was a slave owner.  Three degrees.  
  • My mother-in-law (b. MD) knew her grandmother Mariah Lee Palmer (b. 1844, VA) who was a slave owner.  Two degrees.
I was startled to see that even the westward expansion side of the family can participate.  
  • My father-in-law (b. WY) knew his grandfather Frank Clark (b. 1873, IA) who knew his father Andrew Clark (b. 1842, IL) who knew his grandfather Stephen Shelton (b. about 1799, NC or VA) who was a slave owner. Four degrees.
  • My father-in-law (b. WY) knew his grandmother Eva Bonnell (b. 1869, KS) who knew her mother Mary Catherine Shouse (b. 1842, KY) who knew her father Benjamin Shouse (b. 1811, KY) who was a slave owner. Four degrees.  
What I find interesting is that my children, born much more than a century after Emancipation and decades after the Civil Rights Act passed are just as close as I am.  They know or knew everyone of my first degree connections. It's just not that long ago or far away.