Sunday, April 29, 2007

"They Owned Slaves"

"They owned slaves." When my mother died in 2002, I inherited her compilation of family history and the unwelcome knowledge that my ancestors owned slaves. The story below, and a copy of a Last Will and Testament that in the same paragraph directed the dividing of the slaves and horses among the heirs was ample evidence that, for me, the question of whether there should be an apology for slavery is not esoteric but instead, quite personal.

"I was ten years old when Granddaddy died. He told me a Civil War story which I remember quite well. His father, Watson P. Abrams, lived in the above house. They owned slaves. When the Civil War was being fought, Granddaddy's father sent the slaves to the canebrake with the horses. One slave was unfaithful and gave information to the Union troops. The one horse which his mother, Mary Miller Abrams, could ride (she was crippled) was taken by the Union soldiers." (Mary Olga Watson Hamrick)

As I read these words, I was shocked to learn that my Great Great Grandfather owned slaves and stunned that my mother's focus in her account was on the "unfaithfulness" of one of the slaves and the hardship created for her Great Grandmother when the Union soldiers took the one horse she could ride. Suddenly, the evil of slavery was not something that belonged to someone else's family. Here it was, squarely in my lap. Like it or not, and I did not, my family, and therefore I, benefited from the labor of slaves, and for that I feel profound regret.

My mother's family were farmers in rural North Carolina, and she told detailed stories about how hard she and her five brothers and sisters worked in the cotton fields. They survived the Great Depression better than people who lived in the city because they were able to grow their own food. Still, it was hard, and she told my sisters and I about going to school barefoot because there were no shoes and about getting corn husk dolls at Christmas because there was no money. She talked about playing with the children of the sharecroppers who lived on their land. She was quick to point out how "good" her father was to the sharecroppers-sharecroppers who were undoubtedly the descendants of the slaves the family once owned.

I have thought about telling this story for several years. I am telling it now because we continue to debate whether or not Georgia should apologize for slavery, and I want to suggest that for me, in fact for many of us, that need for apology and reconciliation may be more personal. Sen. Robert Brown has said that such an apology would be demeaning, but the NAACP has chastised him for not supporting the measure.

At the end of the day, talk is cheap. Reconciliation is about doing right, not taking right. It is ironic that in the same speech where the leader of the NAACP criticised Sen. Brown, he praised the efforts of Sen. Eric Johnson despite the fact that Sen. Johnson supported a number of pieces of legislation this year that would tend to hurt poor and minority families. For instance, he blocked the consideration of a bill that would have allowed a judge to revisit the sentence of Genarlow Wilson, and he helped sponsor legislation that will channel needed dollars away from our public schools. I think that Brown's point, that an apology for slavery can never be sufficient, is on point. Instead, Brown is busy, engaged in supporting legislation, like preserving PeachCare, that will make a substantive difference right now.

Personally and as a State, an apology for slavery just doesn't seem like enough. Words do matter but our actions are so much more important. How can we act in ways that will bring about reconciliation for the wrong that was done? We can support programs that help lift people out of poverty and afford everyone an opportunity for success. We can support candidates for office who will carry those principles forward. We can live as if reconciliation is our personal responsibility, not some far removed duty of the State.


Tina said...

My ancestors were slave-holders too and there is no way I can change that bit of history. Nor can I change the fact that my grandmother's generation was the first, among my foremothers, who could vote. Before that, clear back to the beginning of history, my foremothers were deprived of political rights and often of property rights or the right to get an education or a divorce or. .whatever...the list goes on and on. Sometimes their status was pretty much that of chattel. Even today, there are elements in our society who would like to control women's reproductive rights. I'm not sure to whom my request for an apology should be addressed, but, as Sen. Brown says, it wouldn't serve any purpose. What we all need to do now is exercise eternal vigilance so that what has been gained will not be eroded. History has a lot of ugly chapters. We can work together and create a better future.

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