What Responsibilities Does a Descendant of Slaveholders Bear?
If you have ancestors who owned other people, what should you do when you discover you are a descendant of slaveholders?
Cheri Hudson Passey, a descendant of slaveholders, shared many valuable tips with me while we were at a genealogy conference to help folks process this issue.
This post follows nicely after the one entitled, “5 Tips for Researching Southern US Ancestors.“
Be Aware of the Emotions
When you discover that you have slaveholders on your tree, it can be tough to process. You may experience shock.
A celebrity gained trying to hide his slaveholding ancestors from a popular television program. Cheri says, “he was probably embarrassed and thought maybe it would do something negative to his career.”
She stresses that we’re not responsible for our ancestors’ actions, but we can do something positive for descendants of enslaved persons.
Cheri shared that one of her ancestors was an overseer. She found that knowledge hard to swallow. Her ancestor was an enforcer tasked with inflicting punishment. Some owners might have been delightful, but the overseer probably wasn’t.
The first thing to do when you discover you are a descendant of slaveholders is to process your emotions.
Be Open to the Possibility That Your Ancestors Owned Slaves
Many Americans say their parents or grandparents never mentioned owning a slave. Their conclusion is they don’t have ancestors who owned slaves. The common lament goes something like this:
“This couldn’t have happened. My ancestors would never do that. They were too poor.”
No matter where we lived in the United States, Cheri says many of us will run across some documents indicating that our ancestors either owned slaves or participated in the slavery industry.
Many descendants stop wondering, “Did my family own slaves” and then latch on to the belief that “If my ancestors owned slaves, they were good people.”
Recognize a Descendant of Slaveholders is Not Responsible for Slavery
Today, many do not give grace to individuals who owned slaves in the past. We shouldn’t argue over whether we should laud or condemn the slaveholders of the past.
We need to agree that the things that our ancestors did in the past do not reflect on us. Descendants of slaveholders are not responsible for slavery.
We didn’t live at that time. As easily as we could have been abolitionists, some of us might have participated in the slavery institution. We can not be sure.
We live now, and few of us would own slaves given the opportunity.
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What Should a Descendant of Slaveholders Do Today?
Slavery often produced records such as bills of sale or lease, disbursement of slaves in wills and probate records, correspondence, and other writings that may record slaves. While these records are essential for slaveholding ancestors to document marriage, real estate ownership, and identify relationships, these records are invaluable for descendants of slaves.
Many descendants of slaves have to stop climbing their trees in 1870. Although the 1850 and 1860 census records began identifying everyone's names in a household, few slaves' names appear in these records.
When you find these documents identifying slave ownership, don’t hide the records. Cheri suggests we transcribe all the information on the record:
the slaveholder’s name
the names of the enslaved
Then, share the document on social media, in a blog post, or in an African-American Research page on Facebook. As you share the information, share where you obtained the data (we all need to craft citations, right!?!)
Watch this video.
Why Share Slaveholder’s Information and Transactions?
Sharing the documents about the slaveholding ancestors provides the clues for descendants of slaves to find THEIR ancestors. Many slaveholders created children with enslaved women. In other words, the records of the enslaved are entwined with those of the slaveholders. Your slaveholding family tree is partially a descendant of slavery’s common family tree.
Don’t Be Afraid to Respond to Descendants of Your Ancestors’ Slaves
As more and more people take DNA tests, you may see that matches with African-American blood. Some will reach out to you. Don’t be afraid to respond. You are being contacted to help these DNA matches reconnect with their family members.
The beauty of these connections is working together to figure out where we all came from.
Shine Light on the Records of Slaveholders and Make Connections
In the video below, Cheri explains how she worked with a woman whose ancestor was enslaved by their common ancestor. Through their work together, they are both finding healing. Watch the video to hear more.
In short, if you are a descendant of slaveholders, you are not responsible for the past actions. You do have a responsibility to share documents they discover while climbing their family tree with the African-American community. Together, we can all find our families.