When I was a child, my southern grandmother took great delight in the fact that she was a Jamestown descendant and DAR member and saw her membership in those organizations as part of her legacy to her granddaughters, ensuring our social success. She was matter of fact that the family had owned slaves in the past, but emphasized that we did not come from plantation-type families, that our slaves had been trusted house servants. At first this seemed okay to me, because it was okay to her, but eventually I understood that the domination of another person’s free will was unacceptable. I became more and more uncomfortable with the legacy of my white privilege, knowing that it was tied to something I see as reprehensible.
Earlier this year a wonderful distant elderly family member shared some interesting history with me. Our mutual ancestor, Harriet Hamilton Austin immigrated to the US around 1845 from Ireland. Here is the story that broke my heart: “I had the only record which was the original Bill of Sale to Edward Clegg who purchased that little eight year old girl at a Slave Auction in 1844. Edward Clegg was bidding for his mother-in-law,Harriet Hamilton Austin. The Van Buren Courthouse burned completely down in the 1870’s and all records were destroyed. Harriet later gave the little girl to Maria Jane Austin Clegg, her daughter. Harriet, the Slave Girl, later became little Maud Clegg’s nanny. Her name was Harriet after her original owner, a custom in those days. After Maria Jane’s death little Maud was sent back to Arkansas and it appears that Austin H. Clegg, age 16, and the Slave Girl, Harriet, took little Maud back to Arkansas. Sydney Clegg Austin became the guardian of Maud and Sydney gave Harriet her Free Papers so she could make the trip without problems. Todd told me Harriet was allowed to disembark at Van Buren but her husband was not allowed to because he did not have Free Papers. This happened in 1860. Harriett and her husband returned to Van Buren after the war.” My five times great-grandmother, then middle-aged and upper-class, comes to the US and almost immediately an 8-year-old child was purchased for her use. What was the heartbreak she left behind? Why was my great-grandmother’s need of a servant greater than that heartbreak? We are very shy in this culture about calling out the great wickedness of slavery, and we should not be, we must not be.