Bringing Them Into the Light

Bringing Them Into the Light

by Kerry Scott on 19 March 2010

Well, if you hadn’t already figured it out, internet, it must be crystal clear by now that I will totally cheat on you.  When it’s over 60 degrees in March in Milwaukee, I will drop you like a hot potato.  This whole week I didn’t post or tweet or [whatever the verb is for posting on Facebook].  Instead, I played outside.  Yesterday I assembled my new potting bench in a t-shirt.  A T-SHIRT, PEOPLE.  I can totally feel the vitamin D coursing through my body (although it’s possible that’s the Easter candy talking).

Naturally, the forecast calls for snow tomorrow.  My new potting bench is going to look awesome covered in snow.

Part of the reason I haven’t written a blog post, though, has nothing to do with the weather.  It’s actually a couple of things that happened last Saturday.  I’ve been pondering them all week, because I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to say exactly about them.  I thought if I waited long enough it would come to me.  It didn’t.  But my week is up, so I’m posting anyway.

The first thing I saw last Saturday was the episode of Who Do You Think You Are from the previous night, with Emmitt Smith.  If you didn’t see it, you should have because it was excellent (way better than the first episode, in my opinion).  You can watch it online here.  That said, I’m going to spoil it for you right now:  Emmitt Smith is black.  He’s descended from former slaves.  He’s also descended from some white people who owned his family.  He’s related to both the victims and the perpetrators.  He traced his family back to a slave girl named Mariah, who was sold at age 11, because she was fathered by her owner, and the wife didn’t want her around anymore.

Can you imagine?  Because I can’t.

At one point, Smith visits an old cemetery where the white people who owned his relatives are buried.  It’s a nice cemetery, tidy and well-manicured and peaceful.  It’s the sort of place you’d be happy to rest when your time is up.  Smith asks the historian where the slaves would have been buried, and the historian points out the dark, overgrown wooded area behind the chain-link fence.  No tidy, manicured lawn.  No headstones.  Just forgotten people.

Now, I’ve found people in my family with unmarked graves too.  But I’ve never had a relative who was put on the other side of the chain-link fence, away from the real cemetery, because they were only three-fifths of a person.  When Smith walked over to that fence and looked out into the dark woods…well, I had to go get some Kleenex.  In fact, I needed another one just now while I was typing this.

I can’t imagine.  I really can’t.

Then, later, I was reading the tweets from the genealogists I follow on Twitter from the night before, when they’d been watching the show.  I saw this one from Luckie Daniels at Our Georgia Roots:

And that’s the one that really knocked me on my ass.  Can you imagine finding that your grandpa was sold at the age of five?  My oldest child will be five this summer.  I look at her and…I can’t imagine.  I don’t want to even try to imagine.  I want to run away from the thought of something like that.  It makes me want to throw up.

I do genealogical research because I like it.  It’s fun for me.  I’ve found out some negative things about my ancestors, of course, and I like some better than others.  I’m sure my descendants won’t be proud of everything I’ve ever done either.  But if I were finding things like that, as much as I love to do research…I’m not sure I could.  I don’t think it would be fun at all.  I think the anger, the outrage…it might be too much for me.  I think the act of typing “My grandpa was sold in a separate lot at the age of five” would be a truth that I probably couldn’t handle.

And for the white genealogists too…it’s really not much better.  Would it be fun to be researching your family if you were finding things like this?  If you found Luckie’s five-year-old grandpa as one of the slaves your own grandpa sold “in a separate lot,” how would you even begin to process that?  Could you stand to face Luckie and say, “Here’s the document you’re looking for?”  Honestly, I’m not sure I could.

But what I’ve learned recently in my new life as a genealogist is that that’s what needs to happen.  Black researchers have a hell of a time finding their roots.  I complain about untangling my Norwegians, with their patronyms and their farm names and all that…but that’s nothing.  Descendants of slaves have the hardest job in American genealogy, because their people were property.  If they were listed anywhere at all, they were listed as property (and often in private records, not public ones).  Naturally, some of the descendants of the property-owners who hold these records aren’t always eager to share the information.  I can completely understand why white genealogists have a hard time making the decision to share them, because writing a blog post about your grandpa the slave-owner and listing all of the human beings he owned can’t be fun (and even if you’re willing, your non-genealogical relatives are not always going to appreciate your candor).  But that’s the only way these long-ago slaves can be brought out of the dark woods and into the light, where their descendants and the rest of us can give them their due.

And you know what?  They’re actually doing it.  Today I woke up and found the Carnival of African-American Genealogy’s Restore My Name–Slave Records and Genealogy Research project in my Google Reader.  For the first time, black researchers and white researcher are using the blogosphere to work together, look each other in the eye, and find the truth about their families.  I don’t know how they’re finding the courage, but they are, and it’s awesome.  Because if we can find the nerve to start to talk about this stuff…well, some of this is going to hurt like hell, to be sure.  But healing is always painful, and tearing down that chain link fence, hard as it is, is going to be good for the people who need to know who their people are.  It’s an incredible gift.

I’m off to find the snow shovel…and more Kleenex.

Photo by meddygarnet

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Luckie Daniels March 19, 2010 at 2:42 pm

I don’t need the shovel Kerry (75 degrees here today!:-) but I could use the Kleenex. You absolutely, in one tidy post, have summed up the importance & purpose of the 1st Edition of CoAAG.

I read your post & I know we can heal — it’s as simple as honest talk, acceptance & understanding. If I don’t read another post/comment today, this let’s me know, we reached our goal.

.-= Luckie Daniels´s last blog ..1st Edition ~ Carnival of African-American Genealogy: Restore My Name – Slave Records & Genealogy Research =-.


Jett March 19, 2010 at 3:11 pm

Wow. I’d never really stopped to consider this aspect of the genealogical world; it’s stunning.

A few years back my aunt by marriage started delving into this fascinating study. She managed to trace her side of the family far, far back, but hit a roadblock with our side. It came to light that my great-grandfather and his two brothers had been either kidnapped or bought from Ireland (I’ve grown fuzzy on the details, I really should refresh myself on the story) and brought to America to work as farmhands. The boys escaped one night and the middle boy was shot as they were being tracked. My great-grandfather was left with the horrible choice of leaving his brother in the road to die so that he and his younger brother could continue their escape.

They got away and promptly changed their names; the younger brother died a handful of years later. After years and years he told his story to his wife, who told it to their children after his death…she had promised to never breathe a word of it until then. He never revealed his true identity to her, however, so knowledge of his birth name and original home died with him.

It’s an amazing story, and I’d like to know the whole of it, but I have no idea how someone might even begin researching such a thing.


Kerry Scott March 19, 2010 at 3:33 pm

Jett—Oh wow. Wow. I don’t know how to research that either (this sounds like it might be an indentured servant situation, which is not my area of expertise). But there is a LOT of help out there available if you want to pursue it. The internet has done some good things and some bad things for genealogy, but one big plus is that it is much easier to find an expert to help guide you to the right records.

It goes to show…slave roots come in all kinds of colors.


jmkenrick March 19, 2010 at 3:19 pm


I think this might be my favorite post you’ve done so far. It reminded me of a moment I shared with my father. Being California-grown, we thought it would be fun to take a road-trip through the South the summer before I started college. When we were in South Carolina, we stopped at an old refurbished plantation for a tour.

The plantation was still owned by the same family who had built it (way back before the Civil War,) and as they took us through the rooms, they told us all sorts of fascinating things about the lives the owners had lead. But they didn’t mention the slaves. Not once. When another visitor asked, the tour guide gave a brief, tidy answer along the lines of: “Yes, slavery happened. It was bad. The people here were no more or less involved than anyone else,” and moved on. It was…awkward, to say the least.

Later, my Dad and I, wandering the grounds alone, decided to explore the large swamp they had on the property. Four minutes into our trek in the swamp, we found a graveyard. I don’t know if that’s the proper word for it, really, it was so small: there was a little gate, and then tombstones about a foot high. I remember that three of them said “John” and two said “Mary,” and they were all leaning or fallen over because of the soft, spongy ground of the swamp. To date, it rates as one of the two most tragic things I’ve ever seen.

Later, in the ride home, we were trying to decompress the information. It had felt so wrong to see that portion of the history so ignored, that we had half debated speaking to the tour guide, but chickened out. Then I remember my Dad saying that he thought less of the family after that…but if they had been honest about the plantation time during the years of slavery and acknowledged the wrongdoing of their ancestors, he wouldn’t have thought less of them.

I believe that the only way to handle history like that is to acknowledge that our ancestors were just as complex and nuanced as we are today, just as likely to have good, bad and middling parts, and then to be upfront about what those were. And of course, although it’s impossible to ‘make up’ for the past, it would be nice if we could use that past as motivation for making the future better. I feel like I should mention that I’m writing this from the perspective of a white person whose ancestors (based on my grandfather’s little genealogy chart,) were all on the “right” sides of those old wars, so I’m sure there are important angles to this issue that I’m not seeing.

Hm. Now I feel like I should look up that plantation and maybe send a polite letter.

Sorry about the long comment. But I did love this post.


Kerry Scott March 19, 2010 at 3:29 pm

JM—thank you. And you’re right…you should send the letter. One thing I’ve learned in all this is that sometimes descendants of slave-owners are keeping quiet with the best of intentions, in order to avoid causing people more pain (and because of their own embarrassment, too, I’m sure…but I think there are also some good intentions at times). That quiet is not a kindness, though. It’s been 135 years. It’s time we talked.


Teresa Morris March 19, 2010 at 4:10 pm

Awesome post. I’m not really into genealogy at all, but you suckered me into sticking with your blog after you moved away from HR stuff because I love your writing so much. This is no exception.

Thanks for shedding some light on this subject. The more lights the better, I say.
.-= Teresa Morris´s last blog ..the birds =-.


Kerry March 19, 2010 at 4:19 pm

Teresa—thank you. (Sucker!)


mouse March 22, 2010 at 11:51 pm

Tracking the family tree on both sides of my family has proven difficult; all four of my grandparents took most of their secrets to the grave. As an added bonus, I didn’t meet my father until I was in high school so that was an extra data search I honestly never expected to have to deal with. Until I met my father and my mom started doing research on her side of the tree the things I knew were: I’m Cherokee, Irish, German, and Romanian gypsy and probably a lot of other stuff based on the family rumor mill. When you mix all of this together you get a girl who “looks white.” So with that thought in mind…

On my mother’s side I have one grandparent who was Cherokee but didn’t admit to being more than a quarter (he was full blooded) until his death bed. Our family left the trail of tears and pretended to be “dark Irish” for over 100 years. There is the possibility that some marriages to Mexican immigrants happened not long after the trail of tears; since they are also from indigenous American tribes, these marriages were less frowned on than marriages to Caucasians during the first generation or so, supposedly.

My maternal grandmother turns out to be descended from two different outlaw gangs; one a group of french immigrants who ran East St. Louis back when it was even scarier than it is now (no easy feat), the other with connections to the OK Corral shootout. There’s rumors the direct ancestor there may have been a black widow. Where the Romanian gypsies came into play is anybody’s guess; my money is on the OK Corral people.

On my father’s side all we know of my grandmother is that she was half Irish. Seriously, no one even has a clue about anything else; when the Irish part immigrated here, what the other half was, why it’s all a secret. No one knows. My paternal grandfather is where things get interesting (and back on topic to your post); He is, like both of my grandmothers, half Irish. The other half is a mix of Lakota, English, Scottish, and African. I don’t know much about the black ancestry; I know my great grandfather apparently had a hard time “passing” (and used the same “dark Irish” line that the Cherokees on the other side did) and that his mother was the product of a slave rape who was freed during the Civil War somehow (no one knows what happened to her mother).

So yes, I can imagine, in spite of not being raised in the black community and being essentially white from an ethnic standpoint (my racial background notwithstanding). I can absolutely imagine. My great-great-great grandmother was a slave who was raped by my great-great-great grandfather and bore a daughter. Said daughter was immediately a slave upon birth and not welcomed by either the white or black part of her family. She eventually married a white guy and had my great grandfather who spent his whole life telling a lie. Meanwhile on the other side of my family (and at virtually the same time), my Cherokee ancestors were busy telling the very same lie for the very same reason. And sadly, both sides succeed in marrying enough Irish people over the generations that I sunburn like crazy if I’m not careful (I get pretty brown by August though, pigmentally confused). So yeah, I totally get it. I am mutt, hear me roar.


Kerry Scott March 24, 2010 at 1:09 pm

Mouse—have you looked at doing the DNA testing that supposedly tells you where your people came from? Your background seems ideal for that.


mouse March 24, 2010 at 2:36 pm

I’ve wanted to since I first heard of it (saw one of the PBS specials with Don Chiedle and Chris Rock); we have reason to believe there is some additional African and American Indian on the maternal grandmother chunk (and who knows about my other grandma) and it would be fascinating to find out. The thing I find intriguing about all of my muttliness is the “how” of them all merging together. It’s not so much that I care that I’m all these different races and ethnicities. It’s more that I’m fascinated by these cultures who have tended to be more “marry within” marrying without all over the place. And alas, the DNA testing won’t tell me that. But still, it would be interesting to know.


Marsha Keeffer March 26, 2010 at 11:06 pm

I never imagined that genealogy would help us all reconcile…great post!
.-= Marsha Keeffer´s last blog ..Friday Frolic: Martha and The Vandellas =-.


Susan Tiner March 29, 2010 at 2:38 pm

I’ve been playing too, just not outside :-). This is an amazing post. I love Luckie’s comment: “it’s as simple as honest talk, acceptance & understanding.” Amen.


Marsha Keeffer June 2, 2011 at 12:57 am

Just re-read this post and you might be interested in reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – lots of family tracing in it, and a graveyard similar to what you described. All of us who have taken medications like polio vaccine have a debt we owe to Ms. Lacks and her family.


Kerry Scott June 2, 2011 at 6:10 am

You know, I remember reading articles about that story at the time the book came out. I’m at the library with the kids a lot lately, so I’ll see if they have it. Thanks!


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