Facing an uncomfortable and ugly truth

Editor's Note

What do you do when you discover that your forefathers did in fact own slaves? Personally, I never wanted to face such a question, but in early January I found myself doing just that.

My love for history has given me the impetus over several years to trace my family’s history and genealogy. As a hobby, my amateur genealogical research comes in fits and starts, woven into my free time away from work, school and other involvements. With much research already compiled by other family members both close and distant, I’ve been able to track down a great deal of my family’s history.

So, as the New Year came and went, I found time once again to pour over old family documents online and at the library. My thoughts about Black History Month were fresh in my mind, too, as I prepared for our newspaper’s coverage of several topics of importance in the African-American LGBT community starting in this issue and continuing into next.

The timing of all this seems to have come by near-divine intervention — that at this perfectly-appointed time, while preparing for Black History Month soon after the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, I would stumble upon the kind of evidence I’d long feared might pop up in my family history.

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My seventh-great-grandfather, Thomas Comer, died sometime around 1793 or 1794. His will, dated in 1794, bore the brunt of the unfortunate history. Thomas died with over 800 acres of plantation property in Halifax County, Va. In addition, the will included more than a dozen slaves to be inherited by Thomas’ wife Frances. After her death, the slaves and their families were to be inherited by Thomas’ children.

“I give and devise that my son John Comer,” Thomas wrote of my sixth-great-grandfather, “shall have my negroes Stephen, Lucy and Rose with their future increase.”

I’ve read the will several times now, cringing each time. Its language is antiquated. It’s also ugly and harsh, reflecting the inhumane moral standards (or failings, if you will) of the time it represents.

I don’t yet know what happened to Stephen, Lucy or Rose or to any of the other captive people mentioned in the will: Murrcar, Fillis, Bess, Dicy, Chloe, Jese, Isaac, Fellis, Betty and Joe. But, I plan on finding out. Indeed, I find such a task obligatory.

In terms of genealogical research, white folks have it easy. Take my family, for example. I’ve had the luck of being born into a family of avid genealogical enthusiasts. Research completed by relatives, both close and distant, is easily obtainable. And, their work was made all the more easy for them due to one factor and one factor alone: My family is white.

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This near ease at which I’ve been able to track down old family burial sites and build a family tree is something I know cannot be taken for granted. For many black Americans, tracing family lineage into the pre-Civil War era is difficult at best and sometimes impossible. Several obstacles stand in the way, but chief among them is slavery.

Considered property instead of people, slave families were often torn apart as husbands, wives, fathers, mothers and siblings were sold away by their white owners. Slave marriages reflected the cruel reality of that “peculiar institution,” as couples often vowed themselves to each other “until death or distance do we part.” Records of births and deaths were rarely kept, though bills of sale sometimes documented slaves’ lives and histories. In a time before birth certificates, slave families weren’t even given the opportunity to record their family histories in other ways. No wills. No family bibles. No land contracts or deeds.

I think it is in genealogy where white privilege — all the obvious and the sometimes less-obvious historic, political, economic and societal advantages white people are simply born into when compared to people of color — can become most personally apparent. Racism and white supremacy is interwoven at a regular clip, whether through direct evidence of past familial slave ownership or the simple fact that one’s family had fair-enough colored skin and “pure”-enough blood to receive all the legal privileges and liberties of recording their own existence. Such freedoms were never granted to black slaves and their children. In fact, they were explicitly and consistently denied by law and by practice.

My genealogical research must now be expanded. In addition to researching my own family’s history, I’ll work hard to learn more about Stephen, Lucy, Rose and each of the other slaves my family once owned. The stories and history I seek for my family must include the stories and lives of these people. To ignore their existence would be an historical travesty — a continuance of the white privilege my forefathers and their children and their children’s children received when they saw fit to enslave an entire class of people. Me and my siblings and cousins — we are each who we are today not only because my great-grandfathers eventually made our births possible, but also because they built lives for themselves and future generations of their white children, each of us included, on the backs, blood and lives of others.

So, what can I do? Certainly, I can’t change this history. And, I can’t change these uncomfortable or ugly facts about my family’s past. But, I can help to put a human face on the people history has all-too-often forgotten. This time — for Stephen, Lucy and Rose and all the others — it won’t be so. : :

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Posted by Matt Comer

Matt Comer previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015 and as a staff writer afterward in 2016.