An Old Portrait in a Dark Closet
Before flying down to Georgia, I began, for the first time, to ask questions about my mother’s particular corner of the South, a place I had never visited.
I began to read, learning that a fabulously wealthy slave empire exploded in this part of southwest Georgia at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Once the Native Americans were removed—and early objections to slavery by yeoman farmers were swept aside—it all happened fast. Over a few decades, the number of enslaved people and the wealth of the planters both grew exponentially, creating a noveau riche, a self-styled aristocracy of the sort romanticized in that blockbuster film of all time, Gone With the Wind.
Even as I read, it didn’t occur to me that a slave empire in Georgia had anything to do with me. I grew up in Oregon and my Southern-born mother seldom talked about her home. All I really knew was that she was a sorority girl at the nearby University of Alabama and that she met my father—a pilot in the Air Force stationed in Georgia—in an officer’s club swimming pool. They married and she returned with him to his family farm in Oregon.
I knew too that my Georgia grandfather and great-grandfather, men I never met, were well-to-do merchants: grocery wholesalers. Nobody ever told me what came before that. I never thought to ask.
But recently—having seen the Confederate battle flag flown in the name of racism and hate in Charlottesville and at the United States Capitol—I have to ask: what part did my family play in any of this? What am I heir to? And why don’t I know?
So I have flown to Albany, Georgia from the greater New York metropolitan area where I now live. I’ve picked up a rental car, and headed south.
I’m going to my mother’s hometown of Cairo, a county seat and farming center located twenty miles north of the Florida line. A funny name, I always thought, pronounced KAY-row, like the syrup. But it was, in fact, named for the Egyptian city, a boast about the fabulous future expected in the region.
It’s a pleasant spring day and I am enjoying my drive through rolling countryside. Much of the land is cleared and under highly mechanized cultivation; it seems to be a thriving agricultural region. As I get further south, I notice a smell of burning in the air. The smoke, I am sure, comes from controlled burns, as farmers clear away weeds ahead of spring planting.
Smelling the smoke, however, I am slammed by a mental image from my pre-trip reading, the unbelievably barbaric lynching of a man named Sam Hose, who, in 1899, was dismembered, disemboweled, and castrated, his face skinned. Finally, he was burned, still alive, before a crowd of festive whites.
The Hose lynching occurred near Atlanta, two hundred miles north of Cairo, but I am aware as I drive southwest that I am heading into what was, when my mother was a girl, the heart of white terrorism in Georgia. Between the end of the Civil War and the end of World War II, Georgia saw 589 lynchings, second only to Mississippi with 654. And a county-by-county lynching map, created by Tuskegee University, shows that the cluster of counties in southwest Georgia have been the state’s most “active,” with 109 events recorded.
While still at home—while it was only “history”—I studied the map and tried to tabulate the number of lynchings that took place within a fifty-mile radius of Cairo. I learned that during the time my grandmother was a girl, there were forty-six such events in nearby towns. In my mother’s girlhood in the 1920s and ‘30s there were eight, including two famous lynchings in nearby Thomasville, the family seat.
Now, actually here, smelling the light, acrid scent of smoke, unable to shake the horror of Sam Hose, I feel myself descending into something I had not expected to be so palpable.
Suddenly my drive is no longer as pleasant. And it crosses my mind: Did I really have to come down here? Is there any reason for me to think there’s something to learn? Why am I even wondering about my family’s role in Southern history? Anyway—whatever that role may have been—what does it have to do with me?
But another pre-trip reading comes to mind: “To be blunt,” Michael Erik Dyson writes to white people in the long “sermon,” Tears We Cannot Stop: “you are emotionally immature about race. Some of you are rightfully appalled at the flash of white racial demagoguery. But you have little curiosity about the complicated forces of race. You have no idea that your whiteness and your American identity have become fatally intertwined; they are virtually indistinguishable.”
Those who have not bothered to find out about their own personal connection to slavery and Jim Crow, Dyson writes: must now “surrender [their] innocence. . . reject the willful denial of history and live fully in our complicated present with all the discomfort that brings.”
It feels like he’s talking to me.
And so, I drive on until I get to the highway exit for Cairo.
I follow signs to “city center.” But there’s not much city to see. As in so many small communities around the country, Cairo’s downtown has shrunk, service and retail business lost to corporate chains out on the highway. In fact, the city center appears to be only half a block long. A train no longer arrives, but a rusting railroad crossing is a reminder of another era.
Though my mother seldom spoke of the South, the tracks remind me of a rare reminiscence: she, along with other local children, never having seen snow, would wait by the tracks to scoop up the frozen white stuff adhering to express trains arriving from the North.
Here too, downtown, is the Zebulon movie theater, established in 1936 and looking its age. It must have been here that she and her friends saw a movie every day after school, using a free pass provided by a business associate of her father’s.
Ok. Maybe I know more about her life in the South than I realized.
Really though: It’s just a little country town that’s seen better days. I’m relieved that nothing screams of a racist past.
Except maybe that there is no place to sit down for a Coke or a cup of coffee. I know there used to be. Yes, I remember this too. My mother was sometimes required to meet her father at the soda fountain to drink down a dose of hateful castor oil, poorly disguised in orange juice.
But there’s nothing like that now. No soda fountain. No lunch counter.
The next stop on my itinerary is the history room of the town library. Here, set up with microfilm, I spend the afternoon looking at copies of the local weekly, the Cairo Messenger, trying to learn about attitudes from the late 1920s and 1930s when my mother was a girl here.
Not surprisingly, Grady County does not generate a great deal of news, and the editor fills up much of the paper with articles of interest to farmers: there’s a big mule auction coming up; farmers in the tobacco belt who complain, “We want sump’thin else,” would be foolish to “jump to another crop.”
There are advertisements: here is one for the Grady Pharmacy, which is, no doubt, where my mother came for her castor oil and orange juice.
I read too that the new 1929 Chevrolet roadster has a “faster getaway and great speed” than its competitors, and I remember hearing how my grandfather and his brothers loved to argue Chevy versus Ford.
My grandfather, I seem to know, favored the Chevy; he would light a cigar as he drove to visit family in nearby Thomas County, trips that my mother remembered because she got carsick from the cigar smoke.
As always in small-town weeklies—I grew up with one in Oregon—there’s reporting on local club and church doings. In a June1929 paper, I see that Jefferson Davis’s birthday has been commemorated at the Cairoga Club. Surviving Confederate veterans have been invited to share their memories; a girls’ choir performs and one Mr. W.B. Roddenbery delivers remarks.
I realize this is a name I have heard: the Roddenberys were the rich people in the area, a cut above my mother’s own people. I note too that I am sitting at this minute in the Roddenbery Memorial Library, a gracious antebellum-style building with white columns and white rocking chairs on the veranda.
In his speech honoring Jefferson Davis, Roddenbery assures his listeners “that the generations now coming on will never yield to the thought that the cause for which our fathers and forefathers fought was wrong.”
This “cause,” he declares was entirely righteous, even though it may have been “coupled with a principle that was wrong.”
I read this puzzling formulation again. How can a cause be “entirely righteous” if coupled with a “wrong” principle?
Could this be something that people actually believe?
Remembering my pre-trip reading, however, I realize that Roddenbery is simply repeating the key concept of something called the Myth of the Lost Cause, a remarkably potent narrative, constructed in the South in the years following the Civil War. The aim of this narrative was to explain away Southern guilt and folly: the war that the South began and lost so disastrously is now portrayed as a more noble conflict. It wasn’t about slavery at all, but “states’ rights,” an “entirely righteous” cause.
Yes, slavery existed, as the Myth has it, but it was a benevolent institution; the enslaved people loved their masters. And yes, the war was lost, but the Confederate soldier fought gallantly against a much larger, more industrialized foe.
This narrative was false, as eminent historians such as Eric Foner have shown. In fact, the South seceded from the Union not merely to preserve slavery—Lincoln had repeatedly declared his intention to allow it to remain as it was—but for the right to spread the institution throughout the newly-opened West, where the Southerners envisioned even grander slave empires.
Further, Southern soldiers were not always valiant, as Georgia historian David Williams has written, deserting in ruinously large numbers. Meanwhile, enslaved people fled in droves to the Union lines.
Remarkably, the Myth of the Lost Cause, was generally accepted by the North. Why? The war had been long, bloody and costly, and efforts to give the freedmen some rights by “reconstructing” the South had been an exhausting and mostly botched affair, opening the way for years of Jim Crow. And while some in the north cared about rights for black people, a great many did not.
Thus, in the midst of so much loss and confusion, the narrative of a mighty struggle between two noble foes made people—whites at least—feel better.
“In the popular mind,” historian Alan T. Nolan has written, “the Lost Cause represents the national memory of the Civil War; it has been substituted for the history of the war.” The adoption of this narrative was aided, Nolan adds, by the popularity of Gone With the Wind, originally a novel by a Georgia author, and a thoroughgoing “lost cause document.”
It is a narrative many still believe.
Slavery was not a bad thing, writer S.E. Curtis was recently told as she interviewed Civil War reenactors for a magazine article: The enslaved people were treated better than white people in most parts of the country. They had health care. If they got too old to work, well, they were cared for.
When Curtis, who describes herself as a “member of the first generations of Southern schoolchildren to learn from (less) censored textbooks,” continues to probe as to the pros and cons of slavery, she is accused of being “brainwashed.” She’s told she has fallen for the propaganda on slavery that came out of the 1990s “when the NAACP found this could be a good fundraising thing.”
Now, in the Cairo library, seeing the Myth rehearsed for the benefit of youngsters who would have been my mother’s age, another of her stories swims into my memory. There was, I remember being told, a sweet old lady, a Sunday School teacher, who once invited a few of the children to a tea party in her home. When the refreshments had been enjoyed, the teacher had a special surprise; she escorted the youngsters to a small, dark and seemingly empty room, little more than a closet. Once a spotlight was flipped on, however, a life-sized oil painting of Jefferson Davis was revealed. The Confederate president was displayed for only a moment; then the children were ushered out. The old painting, it was understood, might be harmed by too much light.
It made an impression, becoming one of my mother’s few reminiscences of what might be called political life in the South.
But now another memory is prompted: my mother is taking me see a re-release of Gone With the Wind. We lived in the country, and seldom drove to the county seat to see movies, so I understood this is something special. My mother was excited.
And my twelve-year-old self loves the movie, loved Scarlett O’Hara, the dresses in particular. How beautiful Scarlett was with her corseted waist and impossibly flowing hoop skirts!
Her dresses made me think of a picture that hung on my mother’s bedroom wall and that I paused to look at every time I passed. It was taken on her wedding day in Cairo; she wore a white, hoop-skirted dress, so full, so buoyant, that she seemed to float down the church steps.
As we drove home from the movie, my mother made a point of explaining what I now know to be a key tenant of the Myth: the gallant Southerners did not really lose, but were simply overwhelmed by the much larger, more mechanized North.
Riding along in the back seat, I felt this to be quite sad and very unfair.
As for the black people in the movie, I don’t believe I understood that they were enslaved, and my mother did not broach this subject. Rather—except for their color—the cheerful workers coming in at sunset reminded me of our own boisterous farm hands at the end of a day in the fields. And the Mammy figure—eternally fuming over the misdeeds of young people; more-or-less in charge behind the scenes—appeared quite similar to my own Oregon grandmother.
Certainly, there was no hint that these people were unhappy with their lot.
Though my mother grew up in Cairo in Grady County, the family seat was in Thomas County, and I have set up a date with a genealogist in Thomasville, twenty minutes to the east. Even before I arrive in the tastefully appointed library, she has generously done a great deal of research, tracing my family, the Montgomerys, back to the very beginning of the 19th century.
I learn now of the first family members to arrive in this part of Georgia. This information comes in part from records associated with Georgia’s unique land lottery, which facilitated the distribution of former Native lands to white newcomers. One such newcomer was my great-great-great-great grandfather Samuel Montgomery who arrived from Burke County to the east. There, he is listed as a tax defaulter. But here in the “west,” he enters the 1806 land lottery, and by 1819, when my great-great-great grandfather John L. Montgomery is born, Samuel is a substantial property holder in Laurens County, north of Thomas County.
Here in the library, I am to be congratulated: I am Seventh Generation in this part of Georgia. I am decidedly “good” family.
But my cordial relationship with the librarian cools when I ask whether my family may have owned enslaved people. This information is not available in the library, I am told.
And I receive a crisp lecture: I should not make the common error of assuming slavery was peculiar to the South. There were slaves in other parts of America. George Washington had slaves.
This is true. It is also true that slavery, never more than 5 percent of the population in the North, was mostly ended there by 1804. Meanwhile the number of enslaved black people grew exponentially in the South, so that by 1860 there were 3.9 million enslaved people making up 32 percent of the population. Here in Georgia, there were half a million enslaved people, representing approximately 43 percent of the population.
Now the softly lit library does not feel as welcoming as it had. I get back in my car and drive to the Best Western on the road between Cairo and Thomasville. I hate sterile, corporate motels. But I know the wifi is good and also that—unlike at the lovely B&B I checked out—the décor won’t be predominately full-color photographs of Gone With the Wind.
I get online and it does not take long to locate the 1860 federal census. For the first time, I learn that in the year before the Civil War, 43-year-old John L. Montgomery was, in fact, a plantation owner, and that he was worth half a million dollars in today’s money. His holdings were in both land and “property.”
On a different part of the federal census called the “slave schedule,” I confirm what I have begun to guess: John L.’s personal “property” consisted largely of enslaved people, nine of them. No names are given, only genders and ages: there were three men, ages 28, 40 and 65. There were also three women all in their twenties. In addition, there were two teenage boys, 16 and 14. Finally there was one child.
I can’t, of course, wring from the census record how it felt to own other human beings. How it felt to own a child who, nine years old, is the same age as the first of John L’s six children. Did the boys grow up together? Is one of the young women the child’s mother? If so, will John L.—knowing the tender nature of his own youngsters—make sure that mother and son remain together? Or will he break up the family if compelled by financial considerations?
I can’t see any of this. What I can see is that John L. was doing well, producing 20,000 pounds of cotton a year. Though he was not in the top one percent of Georgians who held one hundred enslaved people or more—think Tara in Gone With the Wind—he was close to joining the second echelon, the six percent who owned more than ten people. Think Sweet Home, the plantation in Toni Morrison’s Beloved.
In that second group, I see, would be the Roddenberys, whose farm is near that of John L. and who, according to the slave schedule, own some 30 people.
It seems likely that John L. would want to climb the social and financial ladder by acquiring more enslaved people. For one thing, it is considered that 20 workers are needed before the planter can hire an overseer and get out of the field himself.
And then, there’s another reason why John L. may believe he needs more free labor. Records show that he owns 1,000 acres, but only 250 are “improved.” I take this to mean that his workers have managed to rip the dense tangles of brush and stands of Georgia pine from only one quarter of his land. If he could acquire more enslaved people to clear more of his land and put it into the lucrative crop of cotton, he might surpass even the Roddenberys.
The lure of this advancement probably meant that John L. was strongly in support of secession. As I have learned from Geogia historian, David Williams, “plain folk”—the 30 percent who did not own human chattel—were not always anxious to go to war. Meanwhile the largest slave owners were comfortable with the status quo and not so sure about rocking the boat. Rather, it was the up-and-coming men who furiously refused to accept limitations upon slavery’s expansion.
But in 1861, records show, John L. does not go to fight. I can only guess why this would be so. Perhaps, at 43, he is considered too old. It could be too that he is part of a phenomenon that Williams calls a “rich man’s war but poor man’s fight,” reflecting the fact that much of the fighting fell to “plain folk.”
But by 1864, Atlanta having fallen and Sherman rampaging through Eastern Georgia, the governor ordered every white man to report for militia service. Many, as I see from the call-up sheet where I find John L.’s name, offer excuses for not going; many more hire a substitute. But 46-year-old John L. signs up. Within a few months his unit of teenage boys and older men is thrown into battle against hardened Union troops at Griswoldville, south of Atlanta. The result is disastrous for the Georgians; John L. is among the many dead.
I try to understand my fallen Confederate ancestor. If he didn’t fight before, why is he out on a doomed mission now? Is he a fanatical and deluded believer in the Southern cause that many now understand to be lost? Does he feel guilty that others have fought while he remained at home? Is he protecting his investment in slavery? Does he believe the fears that have been spread of a slave insurrection—especially in a county like his where blacks outnumber whites, 6,000 to 4,000? Is the freedom of Georgia’s enslaved people simply unthinkable—an “Armageddon” as some are calling it—that John L. feels he must combat at all costs?
Since nobody ever talked about the role of our family—at least not in my hearing—I can’t know what John L. was thinking.
I do know that after the war, the South was indeed devastated. But Armageddon seems not to have come, at least not for everyone. The Montgomerys held onto their land and in 1870, I see John L.’s teenage sons running the farm, no doubt with the help of freed black workers.
And in succeeding years, the family seems to have parlayed their holdings rather successfully, as the land is portioned out and sold, and sons and grandsons of John L. transition into the professions and business.
And what of the black people who lived near the Montgomerys post-Civil War? These are listed as either laborers or domestic servants. None own homes, few can read or write, and few own land. One woman, a cook, stands out; she reports property valued at ten dollars.
I am becoming fond of the sterile Best Western. In the faux-Mexican bar, I drink a beer and watch a baseball game. I could be anywhere. Except that anything I say draws the immediate and creepily enthusiastic response from staff: “Yes Ma’am!”
Between innings, I pick up a copy of the Atlantic I’ve brought down with me, and look again through Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article, comparing America’s response to the Civil War with that of many Germans after World War II. In Germany, Coates writes, as late as the 1950s, “West German officialdom encouraged a comfortable view of the German past in which the Wehrmacht was heroic while the Nazis were a minority who had been properly punished.”
The German’s wish to make themselves look and feel better after World War II, Coates shows, is remarkably similar to the efforts of the Southerners to re-habilitate their image, following their own self-inflicted debacle.
In the case of the Germans, most continued to maintain that the Holocaust hadn’t been their fault, expressing the view that only people who had “really committed something” should be held responsible.
But the discussions went on and finally resulted in $7 billion in “reparation” payments made to infrastructure projects in Israel. The money, of course, could not begin to make up for the human cost of what happened. But, Coates writes, it did “launch Germany’s reckoning with itself and perhaps provided a road map for a how a great civilization might be worthy of its name.”
It’s time for me to go, but before I leave South Georgia, there is one more stop I need to make, the 1858 Thomasville courthouse, a stately, white-columned building that is included on the National Register of Historic Places.
The courthouse is indeed historic. For it was here in 1930 that, according to an article in Georgia Quarterly, that one of the county’s best known lynchings began and ended. It was from here that one Willy Kirkland, jailed after a young white girl said she was assaulted by a black man, was dragged by a mob. And after Kirkland was murdered in a clearing—the manner of death is not described—it was back to the historic courthouse that his body was dragged by a car. Here on the courthouse steps, the corpse was put on “display.”
Anyone reading the local papers would have known the story. One headline appears to have given all the necessary information: Kirkland had been “Identified by Girl as Her Assailant.” Also: “No Doubt As To Negro Man Being Sought.”
An inconvenient aspect of the case is only mentioned in the last paragraph: Kirkland, a convicted mule thief, had been incarcerated in a prison stockade and the warden had stated that “the negro did not leave the camp” on the day of the attack.
But the true identity of the assailant seems not to have been especially important. Such events had, as the Atlanta Constitution wrote in a 2017 retrospective on lynching, a “deeper significance” than punishment. Conducted before the “entire white community,” they were “celebratory acts of racial control and domination.”
The entire white community?
Here on the courthouse steps, where the remains of Willy Kirkland once lay, I am remembering a 1924 novel I read before coming down, Fire in the Flint. It was set in a small unnamed south-Georgia town, but judging from references to nearby locations, I am fairly sure that town was Thomasville.
Written by Walter White, a black man who passed for white and went undercover to report on lynchings for the NAACP, the novel shows the reaction of a white merchant—one of the “good” whites—when asked by the town’s black doctor if he wouldn’t come out against lynching. The question is met with astonishment: “Never. It would ruin my business, my wife would begin to be dropped by all the other folks in town and it wouldn’t be long before they began calling me a ‘nigger lover.’”
Not only is it impossible for the man to come out against lynching, but he is nervous even to be having this conversation: “’If the boys in the KKK knew I had been running along like this with a colored man, I don’t know what would happen to me.’”
No. I am afraid there is no reason for thinking that my family, their prosperity built on the labor of enslaved people, a family from whom no complaint was ever heard about Southern racism—though these attitudes were clearly rampant in everyday life—would be the ones to stand in protest.
And in that case, I have to ask: were they here? Would they have actually taken part, at least by their presence in the crowd, to show their support for this “communal” act.
Were, then, my grandfather and great-grandfather in the mob of 1,000 that took Kirkland from the prison stockade? Were they in the clearing when he was murdered, quite likely tortured? Did they help rope up the dead body so it could be dragged back to town? Or did they merely drive the 20 miles over from Cairo to view the corpse on display at the courthouse steps?
If my great-grandfather, a popular businessman known as Big Daddy, did drive over to Thomasville, did he go alone? Or did he perhaps load up his car with friends from the Sunday School, of which he was a life-long pillar?
Did my 27-year-old grandfather—leaving my grandmother and my 3-year-old mother at home—also attend these events? If so, did he feel regret that such extreme actions were deemed necessary, conferring solemnly with others there? Or did he have his pocket flask, perhaps passing it around, enjoying a community festivity on a fine autumn day?
And what of my grandmother, a young woman of “good” family, who, in her sacred white femininity, was a central, if passive, player in the drama of lynching? For though she would have been too genteel to have been in attendance, these brutal acts were almost always said to be occasioned by an affront to white womanhood.
Did these punishments make her feel safer? Or did they make her feel more vulnerable to some unspeakable assault which—given the frequency of lynchings—appeared to be the desire of every black man? Or is it possible that she already understood—it’s horrible to consider this—that the lynchings were calculated acts of dominance, nothing to do with white womanhood at all?
And then what were the housekeeping challenges after a lynching? What, say, was the mood of the half dozen black servants employed by a family of substance? Did the lynching perhaps create a problem of absenteeism? Did the breakfast go uncooked and the laundry remain unwashed?
But perhaps servants did not dare to stay away. In that case, did one see the lynching reflected in a dozen dark eyes for days? Did one inevitably share in their misery? Or was one’s sense of dominance only confirmed?
And what of the little girl who would become my mother? Though she never mentioned the lynchings that continued throughout her girlhood, what conclusions did she draw from living through them?
Perhaps she never knew? Perhaps it was kept from children?
But now I’m thinking again of my pre-trip reading, of a book written by a woman approximately my mother’s age, who grew up just over the line in Florida.
Of course, children were not told particulars of such events, author Lillian Smith writes in her autobiographical Killers of the Dream. “A lynching could happen in our county, and we wouldn’t know it. Yet, we did know because of faces, the whispers, a tightening of the whole town. . . Sometimes, it was your nurse who made you know. You loved her and suddenly she was frightened and you knew it. Her eyes saw things your eyes could not see. As the two of you sat in the sand playing your baby games, she’d whisper, ‘Lawd Jesus, when you going to help us?’”
My mother, I remember hearing, also had a black nurse. Her name was Mandy and she walked with a limp. But if my mother saw the horror of lynchings in her eyes, it was not something she chose to discuss.
It is time for me to go. But driving out of Thomasville, I pass signs for the Jack Hadley Black History Museum, and I follow the arrows, finding myself in a very different part of town from the one where the library and city hall are located. Suddenly I’m in a neighborhood made up of long rows of low, dilapidated structures; rough wood that seems never to have been painted. Some of the houses are caved in and empty. Others, not much better, are occupied.
Still, there are flower beds and blooming bushes, and, on this lovely early evening, black families are out taking the air. Everyone looks up alertly as I pass. I realize I am gawking and driving too slowly and I speed up. I hope I am the only one thinking of how the latter-day Klan would parade through black neighborhoods in their cars of an evening, headlights off, dome lights on, white faces shining.
But I get a warm welcome at the museum, a house of several rooms, all jammed with mementos of black life, from the local high school’s basketball championship to photos of the Obamas. The museum, I learn, is currently engaged in a project to save Thomasville’s Imperial Hotel. Built in 1949, it was the only local hotel in the Jim Crow era that would accommodate black travelers.
Jack Hadley himself is in residence; a Thomasville man, he returned after an Air Force career spent in Germany to establish the museum. He offers to show me around, and we stop in front of a wall filled with photos from the former Pebble Hill plantation, later a grouse hunting lodge for Northerners. Most of the photos date from the 1930s and show festive black people, dressed in white finery on a brilliantly sunny day. They are celebrating an annual Easter picnic laid on by the lodge owners for workers, their family and friends. It was clearly a huge event: Lists on display commemorate the food that was prepared: 2,000 sandwiches, for example.
Pebble Hill, I learn, figures prominently in Hadley’s own history. His family was enslaved there when it was a plantation. In fact, he is descended from the union of the master and an enslaved woman.
My family is from here too, I tell him. I’m just down here trying to find out who they were. I’ve never known anything about them.
Hadley gives me a nod.
“You are doing the right thing,” he says.
I drive through the night back up to Albany, back through the former slave empire where my family rose from nothing to a modest but quite serviceable level of wealth and prominence.
Yes, it was a long time ago. I didn’t know these people. I didn’t get any of their land or money.
And I haven’t, after all, “committed” anything.
But thanks to those who did, I grew up with very different sense of entitlement in terms of status, education, and financial expectations than, say, if my mother had been of the “plain” white folk who were not enriched by the labor of enslaved people and who, when my mother was a girl in the Depression South, were often reduced to the direst privation.
It is doubtful, for example, that a girl of that class would have attended college, pledged a sorority, or met an ambitious young lieutenant in an officer’s club swimming pool.
Obviously, of course, I have had different expectations from the descendants of the black workers who produced the family wealth and thus, the family status and privilege.
Writing on the subject of reparations, Ta-Nehisi Coates has said, “More important than any check cut to any African American, the payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders. . .what we need is an airing of family secrets, a settling of old ghosts.”
Well, here are my family secrets. Here are my musty old ghosts.
But my story, I’m sure, is not so rare. There must be thousands of us non-Southerners with similar secret histories, people who profited from the crime of slavery and continue to do so.
Surely the time has come to open the closet door and switch on the light.
DIANE SIMMONS has published seven books of fiction, non-fiction and criticism. Her essay, “Nobody Goes to the Gulag Anymore,” researched when she was a Fulbright Fellow in the Czech Republic, was published in Missouri Review and excerpted in Lit Hub. Her essay on Vaclav Havel, “Principles! You’re Making a Killing on Them,” was published in the travel magazine Nowhere, and was nominated for a Pushcart prize. She holds a Ph.D. in English literature and teaches at City University of New York.