Thursday, April 23, 2015

Comment: Slavery in the Family

[Print shows an idealized portrayal of American slavery and the conditions of blacks under this system in 1841. Artist: Edward Williams Clay, 1799-1857, Published by Arthur Donnelly no. 19 1/2 Courtland St., N.Y.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540]

By now you've probably seen the story in the New York Times and other sources about the actor Ben Affleck's request that his slave-owning ancestor not be mentioned on the PBS genealogy program "Finding Your Roots" that was aired last September. (At the moment everybody seems to be apologizing for how that turned out.)

As someone who learned about my biological ancestry only in the last fifteen years, I know what it's like to discover ancestors who lived in ways that make me uncomfortable. I know that most white residents of the South didn't own slaves, but almost all of my ancestors living in Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Texas did and I can't change that fact.

Shown below is a detail from the 1827 inventory of the estate of my paternal fourth great grandfather Jesse Warren, Sr.* in Hancock County, Georgia.
["Georgia, Probate Records, 1742-1990," images, FamilySearch (,267796201 : accessed 14 April 2015), Hancock - Wills and administration records 1827-1830 vol M - image 57 of 394; county probate courthouses, Georgia.]

There's no evidence to suggest that any of my direct Southern forebears treated their human property more humanely than was common and the very real possibility that at least one was more harsh than most.
[ Illustrations of the American Anti-Slavery Almanac for 1840.
Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division Washington, D.C. 20540]

[Wilson Chinn, a branded slave from Louisiana--Also exhibiting instruments of torture used to punish slaves
Date Created/Published: c1863.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540]

And it's not just my ancestors living in the South who owned slaves. One of my earliest New England ancestors left her "indian woman" to her son in her will and a New York Quaker was voted the money to buy a slave by his Meeting in the 18th Century.

But all these people lived a long time ago and I'm not responsible for nor feel guilty because of their actions. Covering up the "bad" part of their histories is not only dishonest but futile.

*At least the names of the enslaved persons are given in these documents unlike census records where they are only numbers. Note that the first man named is "African Dave" which probably indicates where he was born.

© 2015 Copyright, Christine Manczuk, All Rights Reserved.

1 comment:

  1. Well, out here in the back country of France I didn't hear about Ben Affleck and his desire not to admit to slave owning ancestors. How many of our ancestors mistreated their wives and children? How many participated in witch hunts? How many mistreated their animals? As you say, we are not responsible for the past, only the future. Ol' Ben must be a bit silly.