Thursday, February 5, 2015

Named in the will

         Now that it is Black History month I have a huge confession to make. Some of the ancestors I've uncovered were slaveholders.
          Slager. Rose. James.
          Their names pop up in the wills, to be passed on to the next generation along with land and a favorite sorrel riding horse or a treasured spinning wheel.
           Sarah. Izra. Angelo.
           The names conjure faces. Tired and sweaty. Or wrapped in a bandana and dusted with flour. Frightened. Angry. Resigned to their fate.
          I never really thought my ancestors were part of this great national sin, not because my ancestors were morally superior but because they were dirt poor. At the time of the Civil War all of my ancestors were subsistence farmers in Missouri. They didn't own slaves. They didn't own much of anything.
           But now that I am looking more closely at my earlier ancestors in the 1600s, I see that several of them were caught up in the marketing mania that became slavery. In both Virginia and New Jersey the government offered inducements to attract settlers to tame the wilderness. Settlers received "head rights" -- grants of 50 or 60 acres per person. And if a man bought one of the black workers being unloaded at the dock, then he received an additional 60 acres in the deal.
           It doesn't make it acceptable or right, but it helps me understand how William Merrell, a man of fairly modest means in the northern state of New Jersey, ended up with two slaves to pass along in his will. And in Virginia, the Colemans amassed so much land they needed lots of workers to clear it.
           I'm  embarrassed and ashamed and very sorry to realize my family played a part in this tragedy.
          There's one named Sampson. He must have been big and strong. There's one named Mustapher. Sounds like one of the cats in a Broadway musical. There's even one called Cupid.
          Their names echo through the wills and legal paperwork right along with the names of all my distant cousins of long ago.
           They are part of my history, too. 

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