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.
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.