Monday, January 5, 2009

Telling the Old, Old Story: Race in America, Ongoing Saga

One of my new year's covenants with myself is to move beyond the information-gathering stage with the writing project about which I blogged some months back. To move beyond the research stage to writing, that is. Because I enjoy research, and because there is always more to find, one of the temptations with anything I write is to gather endlessly and to defer writing.

At the time I noted on this blog that I was undertaking the project, I didn't give details. Its parameters still remain open, dependent on what I can find in some areas. Dependent, really, on whether people who know some aspects of some stories I want to tell are able and willing to talk . . . .

But about one aspect of it, I can share freely now. This has to do with a story some Midwestern cousins who hunted me up several years back have brought to me, and about which I blogged in the past year when some of these cousins came to visit.

Their family descends from a brother of one of my four-great-grandfathers, who married (in that he committed himself to the relationship when he could not legally marry) a woman of color. The family moved from Mississippi to Arkansas in the 1840s. I grew up in the same county in which this family lived, never dreaming I had any connection to the county going back to that period, or relatives who had lived there a story that is turning out to be of tremendous significance to me.

My hope in telling this story is to link it to one, and possibly several, others that I encountered growing up in the same place over 100 years later--stories that illustrate the ongoing struggle of those who want to eradicate racism from our society. In some ways, much had changed in the place in which I grew up after 100 years. In other ways, things remained dismally the same, dismally centered on demeaning racial distinctions that allowed those with white skins to claim amazing privilege and power over those with darker pigmentation.

I have spent recent weeks poring over letters my distant cousins brought me (copies, that is) from this family, in the period from 1850 to 1880. These document at close hand the thoughts of the white plantation owner who raised a family of color, as the Civil War approached. They also track his effort to keep his land in the tumultuous period following the war, when the value of land dropped, prices for crops bottomed out, and taxes skyrocketed.

It is interesting, to say the least, to read ruminations of distant Urcousins about what would happen if Lincoln were elected. The fact that these cousins were living lives that spanned the color line makes the reflections all the more poignant. It is clear that the white plantation owner father of the family did not want the Democrats to win the 1860 election--that is, he did not want slavery to endure. What is less clear is whether his sympathies were with Lincoln or the Bell-Everett ticket. He says that he would be more pleased if people engaged religious issues with the passion they were giving to political ones in the late 1850s.

It is equally plain that his sons in Ohio, both young men of color, were ardent Lincoln supporters. The family has letters that they exchanged as the War neared, talking about various political issues, including Lincoln's election.

Perhaps the most interesting discovery I've made as I have rummaged through the treasure-trove of documents this family has shared with me is a school report for the older son, who was sent with his sister from Arkansas to Ohio in 1852. The school report is from 1854.

It gives me the final clue I needed to understand precisely why the parents of these two youngsters sent them north when they were young teens. It has long been clear to me from a number of letters that the parents took this difficult action, with much anguish, to protect their children from harm as racial tensions rose in the South with the approaching war. Seven years after the first two children went north, their father brought their younger brother to live with them.

But the school report adds another dimension to their decisions: on careful reading of it in the past several weeks, I've noted that it gives the name of the academy in Ohio that the teen was attending. When I research that name, all kinds of doors open: it was a school noted for its willingness to teach children of any race, at a time when such schools simply did not exist in the U.S.

It was also closely connected to the Underground Railroad. I now see clearly that the parents made the difficult decision to send their children away not only to protect them from harm, but also to see that they were schooled. After the schooling, the youngsters were set up on farms. Much of the correspondence of the latter part of the 1850s has to do with their father's determination to pay for their land so that they could live free of any debt.

The more I read these family letters, the more I am impressed by this man. I'm impressed by his determination to see that his children of color got good educations, a determination many white fathers of children of color in the South did not have. I find a touching account in the 1880s of this school's early history, which names the young man whose school report I have, speaking of him as a "colored boy from Arkansas" who arrived at the school without much education, but who learned rapidly, because he had a brilliant mind.

The descendants of this man still speak of his acumen at academic subjects, his ability to memorize and repeat passages of literary works. The 1854 school report notes that in the period from 17 April to 1 September, he had memorized 547 scripture verses and had read 23 chapters of scipture per week--this in addition to making outstanding marks in subjects ranging from algebra to grammar to natural philosophy.

Unlike many white men who fathered children of color in the South at this period, the father of this young man acknowledged both his wife and his children by her. His letters to his children remind them constantly that whatever belonged to him belonged to them, too--that they would not be in want as long as he had resources.

The letters are both exceptionally affectionate and also religious, in a way that transcends maudlin piety. This was a rare person who took his religious obligations seriously, and who was persuaded by the position his Methodist church took on slavery, to such an extent that he simply made no distinction based on color, in his regard for his wife and children.

I have wondered about the attitude of other family members towards this branch of the family that crossed the color line. The descendants in this line of the family do have stories of some prejudices their ancestors encountered from white members of the family. A family history by a Georgia relative acts as if the wife of color and her children simply didn't exist.

On the other hand, I find fascinating letters from relatives in Alabama, a sister and sister-in-law of the white father of the children of color, which suggest that these relatives affirmed and accepted their niece and nephews of color. One of these women was the widow of a brother of the white plantation owner who was a state representative and Methodist minister in Alabama.

That minister left a will in which he made provisions for his slaves to be brought to Liberia by a free man of color who bore the family name--to be set free. I find a letter in which his widow writes her "esteemed nephews" in Ohio, telling them that their children were beautiful in the pictures they had sent, and demonstrating affection for them.

This is proving to be an interesting project. It's one I have undertaken because I have been asked by a journal to write an article about this family story. It's also one that I hope to turn into a longer, book-length narrative. It had been my dream for several years to write such a book, and until now, I have not had sufficient time and space in my life to do the work necessary to complete it. Perhaps now is a good time to think about this topic, with a new president whose history comprises some of this complexity around the charged issue of race.

I am also stubbornly determined to complete this project after I told several of my co-workers about it at the last academic institution at which I worked, and discovered that one of these co-workers, a prominent member of that school's cabinet for some years, mocked the project and suggested I could not complete it. I had thought he might be interested, since the woman of color on whom the story focuses had his surname, a not-too-usual one.

If I seem slow to post in coming days, please know that I am working on this project--but with an eye to current events and educational and theological issues that will still, I hope, elicit commentary from me.

P.S. The photo is a photo of one of the two young men of color sent by their parents to Ohio for schooling and protection. This man was, unfortunately, murdered in Arkansas after he inherited his father's land. In the same week in which he was ambushed and shot in the back while riding on his land, black men were lynched all across south Arkansas, in an act of organized terrorism.