I’ve never been a slaveholder, so surely I don’t owe anything to those who were descendants of slaveholders.
Or so I thought until the genealogists in my family (principally my sister in law Patty) went to work researching family history. As best we can tell, my family was first established in the United States by a distant ancestor Patrick, who arrived at the Port of Baltimore in 1803. He helped found the western Maryland town of Westernport. There he met and married a woman named Mary. Patrick was born in 1781 in Ireland and lived until 1818.
Marrying Mary turned out to be a prosperous union. Mary had inherited some slaves and about two hundred acres of land. She and Patrick had no problem with slavery, despite some evidence that Patrick attended Trinity College before emigrating and was considered a revolutionary. The farm prospered but presumably the slaves there did not. Anyhow, Patrick and Mary had a son James, who had a son Frank, who had a son John (“Bud”), who had a son John S, who was my grandfather. He sired James who sired me.
So just six generations ago, my ancestors were slaveholders.
Slavery was not unknown in Maryland in the early 19th century, but was uncommon. Maryland eventually made it illegal, which may account for some of my ancestors moving to the Harrisburg, Virginia area where it wasn’t (and, oddly, I spent my honeymoon). In any event, Patrick’s family prospered reasonably well, in part due to their slaves which cleared the land, sowed their crops and cooked their meals. Among the slaves owned by Patrick and Mary were Harriet, Billy, Phiby, Everline, Jerry, Rebecca, Thomas, John, Washington, Harrison and Joshua Wilson. So that’s at least eleven slaves that were owned by my distant ancestors.
I suspect few families have such extensive genealogical records as ours, and ours is due to the long labor of my sister in law Patty over many decades. Most likely most immigrants did not bring or acquire slaves, so my ancestors were somewhat exceptional. But the evidence is clear that it’s in my family tree and some part of my prosperity is indirectly tied to enslaved people who we can bet lived pretty miserable lives and never enjoyed freedom.
But should any of this matter? Should I feel guilty for the actions of my distant ancestors? Should I atone for their actions? Should some of my wealth be paid to the ancestors of these slaves?
The general current within the United States is very much anti-reparations. People feel they should not be held accountable for distant events for which they had no part. My family was never wealthy, although we were middle class. My Great Depression-era parents learned thrift and carried that forward as a value. To the extent I am anti-reparations, it may be because I inherited their thriftiness.
If you read my blog regularly, you have read that I was recently on a grand jury. I live in Hampshire County, Massachusetts, on the western side of the state. Overall the county remains pretty white, about 85 percent overall. But it’s well known that when the area was colonized, there were plenty of native Americans living here. To make the area “safe” for whites, Lord Jeffrey Amherst distributed blankets to the local natives. These blankets carried the Smallpox germ.
It’s a little known fact that the diseases brought to the New World by Europeans decimated native populations. Lord Amherst’s actions were not charitable; they were a deliberate action designed to reduce the population of natives here so Whites could settle in peace. Lord Amherst’s actions were horrific, but they worked. Hence the painting I found in our local courthouse while on jury duty showing good White people settling the area. In 2022, this painting is pretty disturbing. Since the courthouse is hard to get into, it’s not surprising few people have seen it.
Because this history is so well known, the citizens of Amherst feel the need to atone for the actions of their distant ancestors. One thing they want to do is change the name of the city to something other than Amherst, to help get rid of the stench of Lord Amherst’s actions. There aren’t a lot of Native or African Americans in Amherst, but the town is making modest plans to pay reparations to those who are here today. It’s hardly a huge boost up the economic ladder for these people, but at least it’s something. It’s a small step at atonement.
Amherst is one of a handful of communities nationwide considering anything like this, but it’s heartening nonetheless that so close to me people are actually trying to do something about it. Which leaves me to wonder what I should do, if anything.
The answer can be found in my will. Unless I change things before I die, approximately ten percent of my part of the estate will essentially be reparations. Who gets the money will depend on the Trustee, but it must go to the college educations of African Americans, Hispanic Americans and Women living in the United States.
I may increase the amount as I age, but six years ago when the will was put together this seemed a reasonable amount. With my current net worth, this would amount to at least $200,000.
I obviously can’t change the past, but I can take actions to rectify what was done to the ancestors of these people when I won’t need the money anymore.