Blog: Here's what Tom says about that!

Liberty vs. Enterprise: Monticello, Brown University & Slavery by Another Name

Posted February 15th, 2012 by Tom

Throughout history, when the battle has been between Liberty and Enterprise, Enterprise has usually won…

Three items of note caught my attention this week… all caught up for centuries in this historic battle.

Brown University thoroughly investigated its historic ties to slavery and the slave trade, and its profit therefrom, and issued a remarkable report a few years back. This week it was announced that Brown will acknowledge its deep, historic connection in a very public way by following one of the recommendations in the report and create a slavery memorial in a prominent place on campus. Read the rest of this entry »

The Hemingses of Monticello

Posted January 14th, 2011 by Tom

It turns out that the stories about Thomas Jefferson I learned while growing up don’t exactly tell the whole story. Funny how that happens with “history” sometimes… lots of times.

Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, was the third president of the United States, founded the University of Virginia, designed and built Monticello, and died the same day John Adams died; fifty years to the day after the founding of our nation on July 4, 1826.

And then there’s all rest; the stuff that isn’t so noble. The whispered parts of Jefferson’s life that I didn’t learn so much in school were hidden for a reason. Some of it is quite unsavory; horrible, frankly. These parts bring him down off the marble pedestal and allow us to see him as more, well, human. And, too often, inhumane. Read the rest of this entry »

Guest Post: Bridging the Gap

Posted January 9th, 2011 by Tom

I met Susan Hutchison through my involvement with Coming to the Table, a group of people committed to acknowledge, understand, and heal the persistent wounds of the legacy of slavery. Susan is one of the co-founders of this remarkable organization and a descendant of slaveholders. I hope you are as moved by her story as I am…

Full stop. My heart raced. I tried to absorb something of the human meaning of this discovery. I had seen slave names in property lists before, and it was always unsettling. This time there was a whole new dimension in the form of living people – Henry’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren – kinfolk I would soon meet.”

BRIDGING THE GAP, by Susan Hutchison

In August of 2010 I traveled from relatively cool and mossy Seattle to the humid, cricket-buzzing heat of southeastern Mississippi for a family reunion I will never forget.

I am white, and this was a black family reunion. No, I was not marrying into the family. These were my cousins. My great-great grandfather, William Trotter, was the father – and slaveholder – of Henry Trotter, the man whose descendants were gathering from across the country.

Read the rest of this entry »

Gathering stories of descendants of slaveholders

Posted April 11th, 2010 by Tom

If you are a “white” descendant of someone who enslaved African people, two close friends of mine, Susan Hutchison and David Pettee, would love to hear from you.

They are gathering stories that connect us with a part of our national history that has been buried, a part of the story that is needed if we are to honestly acknowledge our past and understand the meaning it holds for us today. Such stories help reveal how we in the United States continue to be impacted by slavery and its aftermath, and what is needed to more fully transcend our troubled past.

Susan and David are writing a book about what they are learning. They will use quotes from the stories they hear to illustrate the themes that emerge. From their new website:

Genealogy has become a passion for many Americans. However, it is our experience that among white descendants of slaveholders, few know of their family’s historical connection to slavery, and in general, those who do are not comfortable researching that connection.

This discomfort is understandable in light of the emotional burden that may come with confronting the truth. The result of avoiding the truth, though, is that it remains buried. Our communities’ memories are distorted. Our collective efforts to become truly United States and a healthy society are hobbled by amnesia and denial.

Susan Hutchison is a descendant of Thomas and Martha Jefferson, and many other Southern slaveholders. She helped start Coming to the Table, where she and I met. David Pettee’s family has long connections to slavery in New England. His research to date has uncovered thirty-three slaveholding ancestors from Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut.

The importance of their work is illustrated in an article David shared with the Coming to the Table community that appears in today’s Boston Globe. “When Boston Awoke” tells the story of Thomas Sims, a 23-year-old runaway enslaved man from Georgia. Sims was captured in Massachusetts. “In compliance with the recently strengthened Fugitive Slave Law, part of the controversial North-South Compromise of 1850, the progressive city of Boston was returning Sims to his master.”

Notice the line “the progressive city of Boston.” The story is true, of course, as far as it goes. What is left out–and what is typically left out in the North–is the rest of the story; the less noble parts. For the last couple centuries we from the North have tended to consider ourselves and our ancestors progressive and enlightened abolitionists. The truth is that Massachusetts, including Boston, was deeply involved in the slave trade and enslavement.

Note the following provision from the Massachusetts Body of Liberties in 1641; #91 that David provided:

There shall never be any bond slaverie, villinage or Captivitie amongst us unles it be lawfull Captives taken in just warres, and such strangers as willingly selle themselves or are sold to us. And these shall have all the liberties and Christian usages which the law of god established in Israell concerning such persons doeth morally require. This exempts none from servitude who shall be Judged thereto by Authoritie.

If we’re ever going to heal from the deep wounds of oppression in this country we must begin by acknowledging the whole truth–particularly the shameful parts–and grappling with their present-day consequences together.

I’ll present updates on Susan’s and David’s progress here and I’ll definitely let you know when their book is published. For more information, visit their website.

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Norman DeWolf | Website: James DeW. Perry