My ancestors owned slaves?

Be careful when you research your family, you might not like what you find.

I guess that’s what freaked out Ben Affleck so much.

My uncle has been researching our family for 20 years, and has traced our ancestors back to the 1600’s in the United States; we were here before the country was. We fought in the Revolutionary War (I wonder if the Daughter’s of the Revolution would let me in?), built cities and “tamed the west” (killing many natives along the way). We’re mainly Scotch-Irish with a lot of German thrown in I discovered. And my grandmother’s family were genteel plantation owning Southerners who owned slaves.

Slaves? My ancestors bought and sold black people?

I suppose it’s not all that surprising seeing as my ancestors have been here for 350 years. But I’d lived under the illusion that my family were all abolitionists. Many were. I have ancestors who fought on both sides of the Civil War. But seeing the documentation stating how many slaves a particular ancestor owned when he died makes me shudder.

When I lived in San Francisco there was a hair salon near my house that was owned by a black woman with the same last name as my grandmother. “I wonder if we’re related?”, I thought. Today, I wonder if my ancestors had owned hers.

Slavery. We see the effects of it all around in the high proportion of poverty in people of color and the institutional racism that impacts everyone’s daily life. To be black in this country is to be judged. What is it like to live with the weight of that, day in and day out?

My ancestors were slave owners. Rather than turning away from that fact, I acknowledge it. I recognize it as a part of my history. Am I guilty about it? I’m not sure. Should I be? I myself have never owned slaves, but again I think about the black woman who owns the salon with the same name as my grandmother. If we go back six generations, what will we find?

If you’re an American with ancestors who’ve been here more than 200 years, there is plenty of blood in your family closet.

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