We’re just two lifetimes removed from ugly history of slavery
March 7, 2007
BY MARK BROWN Sun-Times Columnist
When I was a kid, I thought that anything that happened before I was born was ancient history. It didn’t matter if it was five years before I was born or 500 years. The year 1955 was the cutoff point. Events before then might be interesting but couldn’t possibly have any real-world connection to my life, or so I thought.
As I get older, my time perspective keeps changing. Despite the passage of all those additional years, I now feel closer than ever to the events of World War II – Hitler’s extermination of six million Jews and our dropping of the atomic bomb now looming frighteningly large in life’s rear-view mirror.
Even the Civil War stopped seeming so far in the past after I visited Gettysburg a few years back and saw the photos from the 75th anniversary reunion of the famous battle, held in 1938 and attended by 1,918 Civil War veterans, many of whom were pictured participating in a re-enactment of Pickett’s Charge.
I guess that’s why I’m not so quick to shrug off the discovery that my ancestors owned slaves as something that happened “a long time ago,” just because it was more than a century before my birth.
No longer abstract
If you missed Sunday’s column, I told the story of learning from my mom last week that some of my forebears were slaveowners.
This resulted from my calling her to make inquiries after the story hit the news Friday that one of Sen. Barack Obama’s white ancestors owned slaves.
My mom’s always trying to tell me about her genealogical research, but I’ve never paid much attention.
It came as something of a surprise then when she produced documentation showing how her great-great grandfather David E. Richardson (my great-great-great grandfather) sold off the last of the family slaves to his brother in 1853 for $170.
David Richardson and his brothers had inherited slaves from their father, Charles, my great-great-great-great grandfather.
As I explained, it’s not entirely clear from the records how many total slaves were involved, but the 1853 documents make specific reference to “one Negro boy named Tom about 17 years old of yellow complexion,” as well as a 5-year-old girl named Sarah and 7-year-old boy named Patrick, “both of black complexion.”
I suppose none of this should have been very surprising. White Americans whose roots in this country date back a couple of centuries are quite likely to have slave owners in their ancestry. I’d always assumed my family didn’t have enough money to own slaves, although I must have known in the back of my mind that it was still a possibility.
But there’s something about seeing it confirmed right there on paper that puts everything in a different light. It’s no longer abstract and theoretical for me.
‘White liberal guilt’?
The people in my family owned other people. Black people. They passed on these black people in their wills as inheritance. They recorded this ownership in official records the same as if the black people were parcels of land.
It’s not exactly lost on me that this is the same type of finding that Ald. Dorothy Tillman has used to demand reparations from investment banking firms doing business with the City of Chicago.
Do I think I owe anybody financial reparations? No.
Do I feel some personal sense of obligation that I didn’t feel a week ago?
Yes, I think so. I’m not sure what form it should take, but at the very least, I think I have an even greater responsibility to be sensitive to racial issues.
Some people want to dismiss this as “white liberal guilt.”
While I can’t say I received an outpouring of response to Sunday’s column, much of what I did get was along those lines. A lot of whites don’t like to be reminded of slavery.
I’m not telling anybody they should feel guilty.
I don’t personally feel guilty. But I’m not particularly comfortable with this new knowledge, either.
Not such a long time ago
The way I look at it, 1853 isn’t so long ago. That’s just two lifetimes.
Let’s take that 5-year-old slave girl Sarah. It’s possible that she lived to be 82 years old. In her later years, she might have met and had some impact on some other little 5-year-old girl, who is now 82 herself. That brings you right up to today.
That 82-year-old could be somebody whose life has intersected with mine – or with my children’s – without my knowing it.
Maybe that’s too esoteric for your taste, but it seems pretty straightforward to me.
We’re just two lifetimes removed from the ugliest chapter in our history. No wonder slavery’s legacy of racism and dysfunction is so hard to sweep away.
And I used to think it was such a long, long time ago.
suntimes.com/news/brown/2860 … 07.article[/url]
Becareful Loretta, your sheet is showing.