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A public conversation about our worlds.

  • Monday: Morgan J. Locke
  • Tuesday: Madeleine E. Robins
  • Wednesday: Maureen F. McHugh
  • Thursday: Bradley Denton
  • Friday: Steven Gould
  • Saturday: Caroline Spector
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The Twin Provenances of Sin and Courage

October 13th, 2008 by Morgan J. Locke

I want to confess something I’ve never told anyone before.

Occasionally I meet someone with my surname, and when that happens, we often wonder together whether we are relatives–whether somewhere in the past we share a common ancestor. We compare notes about our families. Are we related?

Here’s the confession part: I am white, and have never met a black person with my own surname. And I have always had low-grade anxiety over what I would do if I did. Because slaves often ended up with the same surnames as their owners. And I have ancestors in the south, so it seems likely that there are descendants out there of slaves that my ancestors owned.

What could I say to this person? Certainly not: let’s compare family histories and see if my great-great-grandpa owned yours. In short, I am ashamed of my slave-owning roots. (And no, I’m not certain I have a slave-owning ancestor. But it seems likely, knowing what I know of my family’s history on that side: where they lived [Virginia starting in the 1700s] and what they did for a living [farming]).

This is something that has percolated in the back of my mind for years. But I’ve never said anything to anyone about it. It’s been my dirty little secret.

So, I had a conversation with my mother this weekend. My niece is about to wed, and folks are coming into town for the wedding, and family stories often surface around these kinds of events. My mother mentioned that I had an ancestor, a great-great-grandmother in Michigan, whose husband fought and died in the Civil War. It turns out this ancestor of mine was a member of the Underground Railroad, and had a home with a secret underground room. She helped runaway slaves cross over into Canada.

As my mother told me this, I felt relief. Yes, I almost certainly have some truly oppressive assholes for ancestors. But I am thankful that I also have one who had the moral courage and good judgment to be on the side of the angels.

So, in commemoration of those who–

  • Lived and died in bondage (we recall your suffering and grieve for your hurts at the hands of your oppressors);
  • Had the chance, and took their courage in their hands to flee (we rejoice that you found your freedom); and
  • Participated in the Underground Railroad, and aided escaping slaves (we honor your willingness to do what was right).

here is a multi-media site with maps, information, photos, and recordings about the Underground Railroad. Celebrate freedom. Click the pic and enjoy the ride! (And PS, Thanks, G’G’Gramma, for giving me something I can be proud of, from an ugly time in our nation’s past.)

Posted in History, Morgan, Personal History, Slavery | 3 Comments »

3 Responses

  1. Stuart Says:

    Seems likely that if there are descendants of the slaves your ancestors owned they are also relatives of yours. A co-worker of mine once told me of his feelings about knowing his great-great-grandfather was the slave owner who raped his great-great-grandmother.

    Have you searched the web for any of the DNA studies being done by people of your surname? There is much to be learned for little expense.

  2. Morgan J. Locke Says:

    Good point–and an interesting suggestion, checking into DNA studies.

    There’s some interesting research that was reported on in the press, but I can’t find the link now. It shows that in America (I’m going by memory here), about 25% of whites have between 2 and 30% African genes, and 75% of blacks have anywhere between 25 and 75% European genes.

    It’s clear that race is a construct that has more to do with cultural context than biology.

  3. Eat Our Brains » Blog Archive » McCains Says:

    [...] The Twin Provenances of Sin and Courage [...]

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