As a researcher, I have spent many sleepless nights processing information I have read in documents or haunted by images I have discovered. As a white historian, I am painfully aware of how important it is I consider the lens through which I am viewing this information as I pursue my passion for inclusive storytelling. That said, I’m a strong believer in the power of empathy as the path to a more humanitarian view of the world. After all, that is what I am writing about—the human experience.
A few years ago, I wrote about the “invention” of white women in 1691. In that article, I described a field trip with my then 8 year old daughter in which I kept waiting to hear the full story. Every story matters . . . but in our society, it would appear some matter more than others.
That same year, I also wrote about the human pain and deep sense of loss I was feeling for 9 beautiful souls murdered during a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, 2015. Part of that article talks about the love I have experienced in a predominantly African American church.
Today is Juneteenth. It is also a day in which I have personally struggled to understand how so many in our country are comfortable with children being ripped from the arms of their parents. As I tossed and turned last night thinking about ALL of this, I thought—tomorrow. Tomorrow is the day I will begin writing the series about the enslaved ancestors in my little part of the world.
Photo Credit: Stephenson, Mrs. Charles (Grace Murray). [Emancipation Day Celebration band, June 19, 1900], photograph, June 19, 1900; (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth124054/:accessed June 19, 2018), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Austin History Center, Austin Public Library.
My intent in this series is to honor and celebrate those previously invisible. It is not to embarrass or shame the descendants of slave owners or create a community divide. Southern history is never black or white—issues of “race”, gender and class all intermingle to tell a complex story. If we invest in telling that story collectively and in the spirit of inclusiveness, truth and transparency, the journey will be enriched by our collaborative spirit.
The bitter truth is this country has a long, painful history of separating brown and black children from their parents. Whether it was boarding schools for Indigenous tribes or selling babies of African origin away from their parents on an auction block as property, there is a lot of healing—and remembering—that remains to be done.
This series begins with an Indenture from 1795 in King William County, Virginia. Thomas Seayres sells five slaves to John McEmery: “Amey a woman of thirty-two years of age (now pregnant) Edmund a boy of six years Peter a boy of ? years, Willis a boy of five years and Rachel a girl of two years” with rights to their future increase.
Imagine for a moment these are your ancestors; you are researching your family tree. You of course may never discover that you are even related to Amey since that wasn’t her name—not originally anyway. She didn’t choose that name. Her baby was not her own. That sweet, innocent new soul, like her other children, belonged to the highest bidder or “gentlemen” who purchased her the way they would purchase a cow or tract of land.
As a mother and human being, stories like these shred my heart. It reminds me that human beings are indeed capable of unimaginable atrocities and the process of dehumanizing the “other” continues today. The balm in Gilead is indeed truth, empathy and a collective consciousness that recognizes your story is my story and my story is yours. Until WE are comfortable sharing our pain, historically and in the present, we are destined to repeat some aspects of a painful past.
For those who say, “No one alive today was a slave or a slaveholder” as an argument typically followed by “Get over it, let it go” how about this–no one alive today was a Confederate soldier who died on a bloody battlefield either, but you still believe their lives deserve honor and respect, right? If that same philosophy doesn’t apply to those who were enslaved and built this region on their backs, then Southern identify is the epitome of hypocrisy. In reality, you can’t tell one story without telling the other. American history is interrelated and interracial, like it or not.
I hope you will join me on this healing journey and work to lift the veil. Say their names. Tell their stories. All of them.
“In a real sense all life is interrelated. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the inter-related structure of reality.” ~Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail and the Struggle That Changed a Nation
Say their names . . .