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Saturday, February 01, 2014

Did Blacks Own Slaves...??

It's the beginning of Black History Month -- so I am curious what will we as a society learn about ourselves, families and history during this month of celebration?  Google has kicked off the month with Harriett Tubman... thank you GOOGLE.

So a friend of mine just sent me a text tonight and asked:  "Did Blacks Own Slaves?"

I responded back: "Yes.. call me"

In my own research I have been following a freedman from Cooper County Missouri for ten years trying to   figure out how he was able to buy his entire family out of slavery?  It has not been an easy research project. The question is... how did he do it, did anyone help him and what happened to the family?   What knowledge did he have to set in motion purchasing his family members who are listed on the slave schedule? How did he know what to do in court?  How did he secure his own freedom?  I have bits and pieces of the story -- but I need more records to prove it.   My own search for 2 black slave-owners in Missouri has proven almost elusive -- they did exist; but their stories are not found in the historical or academic conversation especially in this former slave state. 
I am also very intrigued by emancipation stories and those few instances where I run across a black slave-owner.  I found Freedom Papers: An Atlantic Odyssey in the Age of Emancipation by Rebecca J. Scott, Jean M. H├ębrard an extremely interesting book as well as Elizabeth Keckley's autobiography and the several novels written about her personal story such as Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini.   Black slave-ownership and free ancestors are not issues that have trickled down in my own family history.  How about yours?

Edward P. Jones

In response to my friend's question about Black Slave-owners -- I recommended the novel: The Known World by Edward P. Jones.  It's a very thought provoking and several times while reading, I stopped and asked myself -- could this have really happened  and what research did Mr. Jones to write this story?   Mr. Jones was a guest at Columbia College last year (if my memory is correct) and the event was not highly publicized in my opinion so I didn't find out until the last minute and couldn't attend.   I really wanted an autographed copy of his book:-(

Anyway -- you can download the book --  The Known World via Googlebooks for $10 -- but here's what the description of the novel says:

"In one of the most acclaimed novels in recent memory, Edward P. Jones, two-time National Book Award finalist, tells the story of Henry Townsend, a black farmer and former slave who falls under the tutelage of William Robbins, the most powerful man in Manchester County, Virginia. Making certain he never circumvents the law, Townsend runs his affairs with unusual discipline. But when death takes him unexpectedly, his widow, Caldonia, can't uphold the estate's order and chaos ensues. In a daring and ambitious novel, Jones has woven a footnote of history into an epic that takes an unflinching look at slavery in all of its moral complexities.  This P.S. edition features an extra 16 pages of insights into the book, including author interviews, recommended reading, and more."

I missed this recent conversation piece about Jones' book:  American Dreams, 2003: The Known World by Edward P. Jones  that appeared in the Daily Beast last fall (11/26/2013) which adds some additional dimension to the conversations we don't like to have.  It's a particularly interesting subject to me especially since the release of the movie 12 Years a Slave -- based on the true story of Solomon Northrup.     The sub-title of the article above notes:  One of the most intriguing and provocative novels about slavery came out ten years ago. Nathaniel Rich on how it was misunderstood on publication but its real message haunts us even more today.   

Here is an interesting 2003  review of Jones' book by Price Cobb on NPR. 

Lack of Conversation
Our conversation was about why we don't talk about Blacks who owned slaves or why they owned slaves.    I think as a culture we loathe to talk about race, diversity and inclusion. Good lord -- people cringe at the thought of having a conversation about the peculiar institution which served as the crux of the nation's economy.  Slavery was protected by our founding leaders as a right and then it took more than 2 centuries to abolish.  When confronted with the topic -- people tend to say -- Black People should just get over it!  Survivors of America's slavery Holocaust are in my opinion -- akin to victims of sexual abuse.  The mind, body and spirit was the scene of a crime and the legacy of Jim Crow, slavery and our nation divided over race has left deep marks of pain in people both black and white,  gay and straight, Christian and non-Christian.  The dysfunction created American's apartheid has not been driven from our soil -- the past continues to plague our society -- we even have a new kind of Jim Crow.

Speaking of Jim Crow -- when I mention Michelle Alexander's book in conversation: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness -- people panic.   I watch the tormented facial expressions and body language when I am talking to someone about race and slavery etc.   I can see them getting wiggly.  They want out of the conversation so badly -- they want to plug their ears and sing "lalalalalalala" because out of sight and sound means they can avoid processing the historical relevance related to people of color.  It's pure denial.  The conversation conjures up emotions and images all of us would prefer to deny and ignore.   I get that... but if we don't get a grip on the past  -- this bogus social construct called RACE keeps hovering over our society like a vulture. 

Resisting Telling Our History
In my own research among people of color -- there is a resistance to telling family history, sharing information and some elders refusing to share what they know about our ancestors.  Some people want to limit the "history" to only positive stories and ignore those that conjure up painful memories in the re-telling.  I get that too -- but does the next generation benefit from the non-disclosure?   It seems to me that if we avoid embracing our ancestry and difficult life experiences because of bad memories, embarrassment etc., -- we can't substantively model our appreciation for the significant sacrifice and hard work of our ancestral soldiers.   How can we know who or what we are when "silence is golden" about our past as slaves or slave-owners, oppressors or liberators.   

I think in families we should inspire each other to create our own memorabilia,  write our own screenplays, novels and such?  What about saving and sharing those family photo albums?  How do we curate our own memoirs?   What do we know about the distinguished members of our families, their education,  travels and experiences. Who are the writers and the artists? Who in our families should be honored for the sacrifice of protecting our nation?   

How Do We Celebrate Our History? 
In my recent blog entitled: How Did You Find That: Phyllis Violeta Diggs Draffen -- I was impressed with the painting of Phyllis and that Nancy Draffen Brown and Shayla McDonald were so willing and gracious to share their memorabilia and memories about their ancestor.  In their sharing -- they were celebrating and honoring Phyllis.   

So how do we celebrate our ancestral history?  In some places -- the community still organizes and hosts an annual Emancipation picnic like in the article above?   There are all kinds of ways for us to share what we've learned with the next generation like: how do we celebrate recipes like that fabulous bread-pudding grandma used bake or the prose she used to write?  What about the special haircuts only grandpa could give?  Who did the marching, protesting, and challenging the system where they could?  What about the cartoons grandpa used to draw or his great singing voice?  What about the grocery store or car dealership that great-grandpa owned that had been in the family for 50 years or more? What about our Native American heritage -- do we know our tribe of origin?   In short, besides doing genealogical or academic research -- the only way that a historical bank of knowledge about slavery,  freedom and our respective histories can be passed down to the next generations is by our respective family historians embracing and sharing the past.

My cousin Earl Miles died last January 2013 at the age of 94.  He never grew tired of sharing his family history and answering questions.  We enjoyed going to reunions in the summer and learning about other parts of our family network.  I was also impressed with  families  where it was visibly obvious that there was considerable collaboration to make sure the reunion was a success and well attended.

So no, we don't talk about slavery in our families or public discourse.  Some of us or uncomfortable and will deny there is any enduring impact.   Some of us even get bogged down with the "it's the man's fault" stuff.  Yeah -- the man has contributed mightily -- but as a race of people we certainly have our own challenges, strengths, stumbles, concerns and by the way a history as slave-owners too.  

Blacks Owned Slaves
In the course of doing researching and hours of reading stories on microfilm -- I remembered that I had saved this article.  I am not going to comment on it.. other than to put it here for your perusal.    It's from the Ralls County Times (Ralls County, Missouri) Friday, January 10, 1913 entitled:  "Blacks Owned Slaves"

A final note about denial and discomfort discussing slavery etc.     
The University of Missouri recently demonstrated that they are uncomfortable with the media or public to focusing on the subject MU founders who owned slaves. This is one of the reasons that I selected discussing former slaves owned by MU presidents for my Black History presentation this month. 

An example of MU's unwillingness to talk about slavery happened on January 20, 2014 -- when our local newspaper the Columbia Missourian ran a story entitled: Descendant of MU Founder Atones for Family's Slave Owning Past. Unfortunately the pay-wall went up the day after this story ran;  so if you are interested in a .pdf copy -please drop me an email at: with the subject header ATONEMENT PDF -- or better yet -- email the Missourian editor Katherine Reed and ask if the pay-wall can be lifted for the duration of Black History month.

Reading the article made it very clear to me that education about the historical impact slavery is key to understanding of the past and present -- and that an apology changes nothing.  However,  in my opinion what Mr. Mering is trying to do is provide the funds to do that historical research/education on Black History not just for his own personal atonement but for the benefit of the University and its students.  I don't consider his effort an apology but rather a contribution to the University in a way that quite frankly makes them uncomfortable. 

I say congrats to Mr. Mering for saying no to such nonsense, bench-warming and pretending. I appreciate him using his white privilege to not only say no -- but hell no.  Imagine the progress on diversity and include that could be made if MU had more alumnus and financial supporters like Clay Mering!
Ok.. so enough of my prattle, book recommendations and articles. I think if we want to know whether or not our ancestors were slaves, owned slaves, fought for civil rights, or even shamefully participated in the institution of Jim Crow, the Klu Klux Klan, Holocaust, extermination of Native Americans, interment of Japanese American citizens; and the oppression of women, the LBGTQ community etc  --- we can't learn from our history unless we are willing to having those difficult conversations about what happened in the past.  Why?   I think our ability to build a better future depends mightily on harnessing the knowledge of who were are as people -- the good, the bad and the ugly.

Traci Wilson-Kleekamp


John Tevis said...

Well said, I completely agree. We need to understand our past to become better in the future. So many of our children only know of our past from TV
Great work!
John Tevis

Teri in Iowa said...

I am currently being considered as a Diversity Coordinator for the Des Moines Public Schools, I imagine I'll be calling you for advice!! Wow...great writing Traci!

Melissa Fayad said...

It is hard to think that we are not that far away from slavery times. Yes, over 150 years ago, but how few generations. And we are still living with the consequences.