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.)