Sydney M. Williams
Essay from Essex
“Confessions & Thoughts from a Descendant of Slave Owners”
June 4, 2018
“If scientists can be confident of anything, it is that whatever we currently believe
about the genetic nature of differences among populations is most likely wrong.”
Professor of Genetics, Harvard University
The New York Times, March 23, 2018
I am descended from slave owners. In 1796, at age 26, Joseph Washington (my great-great-great grandfather), left Southampton County, Virginia and headed west. (His great-great grandfather John Washington had emigrated from England to Surry City, Virginia in 1655.)Arriving in Robertson County, Tennessee that same year, Joseph bought 60 acres from Hugh Lewis for $360.00, near Cedar Hill. He brought with him slaves, some of whose descendants still live in the area. Joseph died in 1848 and left the farm – by then larger and called Wessyngton – to his son, George Augustine Washington. The latter added land, and the farm became – both before and after the Civil War – the largest producer of Dark Fire-cured tobacco in the United States. George was the last owner of slaves, dying in 1892. Ownership of the main house, barns and some of the land went to George’s son Joseph Edwin Washington. Joseph was a planter, but also a lawyer and politician. He served ten years in Congress, 1887-1897. After Edwin died in 1915, the farm was operated by his widow, Mary Bolling Kemp Washington. (Their second daughter Elizabeth Wyndham Washington [1888-1962] was my maternal grandmother.) In 1930, George Augustine Washington II, the bachelor son of Joseph and Mary, left his law practice in New York City and, at age 51, returned to Wessyngton to help during the Depression and War years. He remained there until his death in 1964. The place was then owned by eight first cousins, one of whom was my mother. It was sold in 1983. Completing the circle:in the two summers before it was sold, my oldest son worked on the farm. He worked for “Dit” Terry, whose ancestors had travelled to Tennessee as slaves with Joseph Washington in 1796.
I am also descended from indentured servants. Indentured servants were not slaves, but their economic well-being and their social status was far below the merchants who paid their passage to America. Once in this country, they had to work for four to seven years to pay back passage, room and board. Most of us whose American ancestry can be traced back a couple of hundred years could say the same. This is not to impugn guilt, victimhood, privilege or unfairness. We are who we are, and I believe the Bible is wrong when in Exodus it is written: “…for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation…” Our fathers and mothers, slaves and slave owners, lived in different times. For most of human history, slavery was a fact of life. It was always morally wrong, but it always existed and still does, in too many places, despite being out-lawed by the United Nations on December 2, 1949. We, the living, should be judged by the standards of our time, for who we are, our character – our honor, civility, empathy and respect for others.
The truth is that slavery was ubiquitous throughout the Colonies, as it was throughout most of the world. While it was far more common in the South, it extended throughout the North. Many of our edifices were built with slave labor, like parts of the U.S. Capitol and the White House in Washington; Trinity Church in New York; many of the buildings on the campuses of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and UNC at Chapel Hill, and Mount Vernon, Monticello and Montpelier (James Madison’s home). Should they be destroyed as reminders of an evil legacy, or should they be seen as historical markers and memorials to their owners and to the enslaved men and women who built them? It has become faddish to redact memories of our imperfect past, like the removing or destroying of statues of Confederate generals. I can understand not celebrating those who defended slavery, but I also believe we must confront our past honestly. We must acknowledge the good and the bad. America is not perfect, just as none of us are, but no nation has accomplished the good we have. Tearing down statues does not alter what happened. Ignorance of one’s past is not enlightenment. So, why are we so intent on erasing the past? Is it to atone for the sins of our forefathers? Or, do we believe that if we see no evil there is (or was) no evil – that blindfolds provide moral courage and comfort? We can run, but we cannot hide. Providing safe places may offer temporary reprieve, but they do not address historical facts.
In recent years, group think has replaced individual thought. Its carrier is identity politics, the progeny of affirmative action grown large and reckless. It is manifested in such groups as Women’s March, Black Lives Matter and in those groups whose members constitute a single sex, race ethnicity or religion. They are like the fraternities and sororities of my day, in that they appeal to like-minded people, but with a self-proclaimed mission riddled with arrogance and bounded by ignorance. They are an anathema to free and independent thought. Ironically, it is not diversity in substance they call for but diversity in appearance. They threaten the fact that success is individual – a function of ability, aspiration and a willingness to work hard and smart. We are not all equal and never can be. If I stand next to LeBron James would anyone doubt who was the better physical specimen? If I were to match wits with Neil deGrasse Tyson would there be any question as to who was the smartest? If you were to see me alongside George Clooney would anyone think I was the more attractive? We should be judged for the individual we are, not by the group into which we have been placed.
It is condescending to treat as victims those whose race, sex or creed are unlike one’s own. It is proclaiming that success is not one’s own – that it was attributable to outside help. Certainly, parents, teachers and mentors guide us, but we are not widgets to be stamped out on an assembly line, numbered and compartmentalized. We are individuals, hopefully living civilly and respectfully in communities. One may be a better athlete, another a better scholar and a third a better artist. What we have in common are the opportunities that we, as Americans, have – the right to speak out, to succeed or to fail and to know that we are all equal before the law.
What truly separates us is not our racial or religious differences, but our ideas. Just as books should be judged by their content, not their covers, we should be judged by our character, not our sex, religion or race. Most of us have simple, common goals: We want to live peacefully and securely; we want work that provides for our physical needs, as well as for the dignity that satisfies our soul; we want a good education for our children; we want to be loved and respected. Where we differ is in the means to achieve those goals. Some prefer to emphasize the person, others the state. Both can lead to extremism – anarchy or socialism. We should share ideas, to find mutually acceptable solutions. Compromise is not a four-letter word. We are one nation; we should be able to accommodate all people and ideas.
It has become common to ignore personal responsibility, to blame failures on victimhood – that “white privilege” has disadvantaged those of different cultures. Yet, among all nations, America has the best history of accommodating cultural diversity. In a recent Wall Street Journal, Jason Willick interviewed James Davison Hunter, a professor of religion and culture at the University of Virginia: “It is not perfect(our cultural diversity) and certainly not linear, and certainly race has been one of those elements of our past and present that resists that kind of absorption. But look at Catholics, Jews, Mormons. My hope is that we can continue to absorb diversity. But it’s certainly being tested right now.” There is no question it is being tested, in part because of politicians who place us into identifiable and easily accessed groups. But, time is on the side of assimilation. Consider how far we have come from a segregated south in the 1950s. Look at the composition of schools and colleges today versus sixty years ago – the numbers of women, Asians, Hispanics and African-Americans. Consider marriage. According to a PEW Research study, the number of newlyweds married to a spouse of a different race or ethnicity has risen from 3% in 1957 to 17% in 2015. Progress may be slow, but there has been progress.
Slavery once existed in this country, as it did in most parts of the world, and it still does under the euphemism “human trafficking” in parts of Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and Asia. It is [and was] not limited to African-Americans; though slaves in this country were overwhelmingly from Africa. But the fact that it was both ubiquitous and accepted does not (and did not) justify it. There is no question that it was sinful – in fact, there is no crime more morally outrageous than enslavement – but we cannot let that fact consume our conscience today. We live in a different age. We have the advantage of being able to know the past. We should acknowledge and honor those who fought against slavery, from rebels like Nat Turner to the fictional Elizabeth who crossed the ice-covered Ohio River to freedom. We should remember and honor those who fought and died in the Civil War and the abolitionists who marched for freedom. We should think of and honor African-American heroes, like Frederick Douglas, Booker T. Washington and Martin Luther King. There are African-Americans on both sides of the political aisle; we should welcome their intellectual diversity.
Treating humans as chattel is evil incarnate. But most who fought on the side of the south had never been beneficiaries of slave ownership. They were too poor and too ignorant to understand the implications of slavery, other than their repugnant belief that because they were White, they were superior. Their officers told them they were fighting for states’ rights and against an invading army, which they were. But, their leaders romanticized an idealized, agrarian world – a world whose economy was predicated on the institution of slavery. Essentially, it was economics that was behind the South’s decision to secede from the Union. (Thomas Jefferson, did not endorse slavery, but Monticello depended on it.) Most in the South, it is my guess, gave little thought to the demeaning nature of bondage, but ignorance does not excuse bad behavior. Enslaving people and creating dependency is always wrong. It diminishes the human spirit and ignores the dignity and celebration freedom brings.
The issue of race is complex. The “Jim Crow” years and the segregation policies that followed hurt assimilation. The Civil Rights movement brought the benefits of integration and affirmative action, but it also fostered a sense of dependency and victimhood, something politicians have since milked to their advantage. As an aside, one cannot help but get a sense that issues, like immigration, guns, abortion and race are ones that many politicians do not want to resolve. They serve as rallying points for those who prefer polarized views. The truth is, we all have weaknesses as well as strengths. The key to individual success is to minimize the former and emphasize the latter. As Americans, we are part of at fortunate community that comprises the greatest experiment in liberalism and self-government the world has ever known. As Abraham Lincoln said at Gettysburg a hundred and fifty-five years ago, we lucky people live under a government “of the people, by the people, for the people.” We cannot let that ideal perish. We should be civil in our dealings with others. We should live within the law, and if we break it we should be punished. But, we should not stigmatize anyone for what or how their ancestors lived. We should be responsible for our own actions, including mistakes. In our relations with one another, it is sincerity that is wanted, not sanctimony; honesty, not hypocrisy; personal pleasantries, not perfidious pieties.
As Americans, we are advantaged in that almost all of us (or our ancestors) came from somewhere else. Greeks, Poles, Chinese, Persians, English, Spanish, Japanese, Italians and others have national heritages that stretch back centuries. Apart from Native Americans, we don’t have that, as a sense of pride or as an encumbrance. Even during our colonial days, we were never subject to imperialism, as were so many, especially in parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia. We are Americans. We are truly a melting pot, a composite of rugged individuals. With each generation we have become more multiracial. In time, as my paternal grandmother used to say, we will all be of the same color. Diversity, then, will be manifested in ideas, not the pigments of our skins.
None of us just appeared. Eve did not emerge from Adam’s rib. We all descend from those who came before. Humans have been around for about 60,000 years. Yet, if we just go back ten generations – about 300 years – we each descend from 1024 individuals. I doubt there is a man or woman alive who could name all those from whom they descend going back just 200 years. Because of the large numbers of ancestors from whom we each descend, we must all be related. Mathematically, it cannot be otherwise. The population of the world in 1700 was about 650 million, and there are seven billion of us today. An interest in ancestry has become more common. Almost 12 million people have had their DNA tested. (Last year the number tested doubled.) Anecdotal evidence suggests backgrounds are more diverse (and more integrated) than had been previously thought. Given the geometric nature of our ancestors that should not surprise.
One example among thousands:On a farm in Tennessee, around 1831, my great-great grandfather George Augustine Washington, at age 16, fathered a son, Granville Washington. He was born to a young, 15-year-old woman named Fanny, a slave on George’s father’s farm. Granville, became a house slave and later, as a free man, valet to his biological father. After the Civil War, Granville went to Nashville where he married and had two sons. Later he returned to the farm and died in 1898. Granville’s story and that of other slaves on that Tennessee farm and their descendants are described by John F. Baker, Jr., a descendant of slaves, in a book The Washington’s of Wessyngton Plantation, published by Simon & Schuster in 2009. The book traces his family back ten generations. It is sobering to realize that some of his ancestors were enslaved longer than the 153 years they have been free. And I am proud to acknowledge that because of two young people, in a passionate moment 188 years ago, John Baker and I are cousins with a common heritage.