General Question

susanc's avatar

Did members of your family "own" slaves?

Asked by susanc (15868 points ) April 9th, 2008

Do you even know? If so, how do you talk to yourself about this? Does your current family discuss this?

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13 Answers

cwilbur's avatar

I know that neither the branch of my family that’s been here since the 1600s nor the branch of my family that came over in the early 1800s owned slaves on this continent. I don’t think they owned slaves before that, as they lived in countries where slavery was illegal, but I couldn’t say for certain.

Robby's avatar

I really do not know. I know my family tree goes back to Ireland and don’t know if that was going on there. If I did know, I don’t see how knowing that would make a differance. As for myself and present family we are all people lovers and accept everyone.

mzgator's avatar

No. My ancestors were way too poor. My father’s family were essentially slaves. His family came over from France and were endentured slaves. They had to work for 15 years in order to pay for their passage to the United States. My maiden last name is Seaux. Originally it was Seau, but when my ancestors came over they could not read or write. They signed with an x. We have copies of their agreement where the people they served wrote Seau and then they signed with their x. Over the years, the spelling of the name changed to Seaux.

What most people don’t realize is that slaves were very expensive. Most people could never afford them.

My mother’s family was from England. They were sharecroppers in the South. They farmed the land, but never owned it.

gailcalled's avatar

Au contraire. My grandparents had to face the signs that said “No Jews, no Irish need apply.”

Zaku's avatar

I don’t know of any such thing in the branches I know the history of. My family history is relatively free of associations with recent atrocities and injustices except for US military actions from WW2 and later (and then only by being in country – no bombardiers or economists in the family).

Jonsonite's avatar

One paternal side has been here since before the revolution, but in and around Boston. The other paternal side was from the deep south, and there was at least one Southern Belle in there (disowned for marrying a sharecropper!). So I assume her and/or her ancestors owned slaves.

I don’t think about it at all, actually. I had to think back when you asked the question and go down the lines. But thinking about it, it doesn’t particularly bother me. I’m sure plenty of my ancestors, couched in their own cultural contexts, did things that I find immoral and would condemn someone for doing today. I take it not as a reason to condemn our ancestors, but to laud our civilization for how far it’s come in such a short time. I imagine our great-great-grandchildren will be looking back on some of our actions and attitudes and asking similar questions.

sadia's avatar

yes. and some members of my family were slaves as well. so as far as my internal and external conversations go, they’re complex. but whatever moral/ethical rules my ancestors lived by, they’ve been filtered through generations to help form the principles i live my life by today (which oppose oppression)

annaott22's avatar

I know mine did but I also know that I’m 1/ 8th black. I don’t put too much thought in to slavery though because i know I didn’t own any and it was just the way of life back then and I had no say so but as ive figured some folks in my family were pretty fond of their help because I’m 1/8th

loser's avatar

mine still does

ketoneus's avatar

Unfortunately, yes. My brother recently did some genealogy work and discovered that our great-great-great-grandfather “owned several families of slaves, many of whom belonged to the same churches as he did.” Even though my parents and grandparents are very respectable, good-hearted people, I’m afraid the legacy of slavery has lived on in their relatively backwards views on race. I was a senior in college before I recognized my own very backwards views and began a journey toward tolerance. I’m far from perfect, but I’m a much better man because of my increased tolerance and empathy for my fellow human beings – ALL of them.

gooch's avatar

Yes I found a will in which one of my forefathers owned slaves. Most of my forgathers were too poor to own a horse more less a slave. The one that did own slaves set them free upon his death but they stayed with one of his sons who gave them everything he had upon his death. I have no problems with that because that’s how it was back then and I never owned anyone. To feel personal remorse for that would be stupid in my opinion. I don’t blame my Japanese friends for the attack on Pearl Harbor. I don’t blame my Italian friends for Jesus’ crusifiction. I don’t blame my German friends for Hitler’s crimes. I think each person is accountable for their own doings. I don’t except blame or credit for the things my forefathers have done.

bookish1's avatar

No, but my family on my father’s side had servants.

Espiritus_Corvus's avatar

There was a branch of the family on my mother’s side back in the mid 1700’s through to the end of the Civil War on the Eastern Shore in Ackomack County, Virginia that had a large plantation with slaves. I don’t know how many—till this day, that part of the family doesn’t respond to requests for this type of information—but I doubt they would have done as well without their slaves. Some fought with their slaves as aides in the Revolution. Some of them fought on the sea against the British in 1812 as privateers with their slaves working the decks of their ships. The family thrived on harvesting fish and shellfish, grain and tobacco for the Baltimore, Richmond, and Petersburg markets.

One son, my mother’s great grandfather, wandered off into Sevier County, Tennessee in the 1840s and settled 160 acres. He sold off the lumber that resulted from clearing his land, bought livestock, farmed, married a Cherokee woman, and bought 22 slaves. They shipped goods and stock out of Gatlinburg. He and his sons fought for the South during the Civil War. He was killed at Vicksburg in ‘63. The farm was devastated by Yankees, renegades and neighbors, and the slaves scattered to the winds.

One of his sons, a Confederate Captain, (my mother’s Grandfather), was allowed to keep his horse after Appomattox and, with his portion of the money from the sale of the Tennessee property to carpetbaggers, went to the Childress, Texas area in the southeast panhandle and eventually established a cotton farm. (The California branch of the family still has the Confederate battle flag he brought back with him from the War.) He married a Swedish immigrant woman. They tried cattle for awhile, but after the Civil War armies went home, the West was overrun with beef without buyers and only the large cattle consortiums with railroad and land interests survived the fallout. The day of the independent cattleman and their profitable cattle drives was quickly coming to a close, hemmed in by the new barbed wire. The family did OK for awhile in cotton, but drought, infection, and increasingly piss-poor crops in the late 1800s eventually took it’s toll and they had to sell off a lot of the land.

His son, my mom’s father and my grandfather, was born in 1876 on the cotton farm near Childress the year General Custer led his men into the massacre at the Little Big Horn. As a teenager, he went with his father and 6 brothers to Oklahoma in 1889 for the land rush and successfully settled a section of land and farmed various crops until 1934 when the last of the top soil blew away in the dust storms and forced them to abandon their land and strike out for California. I have a picture of the family, including my mother who was only 7 at the time, in a rickety old Ford truck with everything they own stacked on top headed for California on Route 66—just like the Joads. Needless to say, Steinbeck is very big in my family. There were two families in their cars following them and they all pooled their meager resources to get across. They worked the fields from Bakersfield up through the San Joaquin to Sacramento, living in Hoovervilles and Federal camps along the way.

Just outside North Sacramento, the old man, his buddy from Texas, and my teenage Aunt’s fiancee pooled their resources again and bought an old, run down 1920s motel along a highway with 5 wooden cabins for $600 and renovated them for sale as homes to 5 other Okie families who were glad to put $25 down on a $500 mortgage (held by my Grandfather and his partners) for a small home of their own with indoor plumbing. With that money, they built bigger and better homes, eventually a small neighborhood of them which they named Gardenland. During these years, the three partners and their families lived in the main building\office of the motel. They named the streets of Gardenland after themselves and their wives. Many of those homes still stand today. By the 1950s they were a major construction firm, building luxury homes along the beaches in the San Louis Obispo area. By 1960, they were into commercial construction, real estate, and banking.

My Grandfather was a good man who lived long enough to teach my brothers and I how to play his old Dobro guitar (Prairie music, Gospel, and Texas Swing), ride western and care properly for dogs and horses, shoot, fish, and even taught us some woodcraft. He could find water by dowsing with a wire coat hanger stuck into a Coke bottle.

He had been on one of the last cattle drives, a government rescue operation to a starving Indian reservation in New Mexico in mid-winter. He was a traveling music teacher who made most of his money on instrument sales through the Montgomery Ward and Sears Roebuck Catalogues to Texas schools. He wrote hymns for the Baptist church, one of which is still sung today. During especially hard times he would pitch a tent, preach the Baptist Gospel, take up a collection, then move on to another town of which he quickly took its measure, then often used the money as a poker stake. He had no qualms about cheating at poker when it came to keeping the farm and feeding his family. He was very good at card tricks, both for fun and profit.

He farmed cotton, he hired out as a cowhand and fixed farm machinery. Over the years, he raised two families. After following Roosevelt’s 1898 expeditionary force to Florida where he was to be shipped off to Cuba to wreak vengeance for the USS Maine, he came down with typhoid from drinking the bad water while bivouacked for months at the crowded debarkation point along the Tampa docks. He survived to be shipped home in what he always considered a disgrace. He arrived back in Texas to watch his first wife and two of his children die of small pox. He married his second wife, my grandmother, in 1914 when she was 16 and he was 38. She was an orphan girl working as a chambermaid in a Dallas hotel. He was a light-hearted romantic, a good man at a hoedown who could play numerous instruments and fix anything that was broken or worn out. He never forgave the recruiting officer back in Oklahoma—a neighbor—who refused him a slot in the Army to fight the Germans in WWI because of his age. He was mechanic, a good musician, a poet, a blacksmith, a carpenter, a good marksman, a farmer, a stock man, and an excellent horseman. He had three years of schooling.

And he was a paradox. Especially to my father, a young executive and a Kennedy liberal from a long line of liberals from the East coast dating back to the Maryland antebellum abolitionist movement. I think the liberal tradition in my fathers side of the family dates back to the discrimination they experienced as Catholics in early America; the Catholic fight for their own colony Maryland where Catholics were finally able to own land and exercise their freedoms like other Englishmen of the Colonies. (That branch of the family fought for the Union and they too have a flag.) He was a Texan of his times. He hated Mexicans and Blacks with a passion and showed no mercy to their plight in a Jim Crow South. The Civil Rights Movement of the ‘50s appalled him. He carried a pistol in his back pocket well into his sixties. According to my mother, this was because he always expected trouble from “the niggers.” Yet he was very proud of his Cherokee bloodline which made him a suspicious character by his cohorts. That and the fact that he never really fit in to any cohort anyway. For all his faults, he was his own man and did some good here. Thanks to my parents, especially my mom and her sisters, their children were never exposed to the dark side of this old man and his multi-generational racism died with him in 1962.

I realize that this doesn’t address the slave ownership history in my family very well, and I ask your indulgence, but it shows how a family can morph in 150 years. It takes just a few people to make a stand for positive, practical change—and my parents did that. They made the effort to ensure that hundreds of years of racism would not be passed down to the future generations of this family.

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