America's Complete History Includes Slaves


The author is completing a book about the variety of her ancestors’ DNA, ancestry and genealogy, and how each intersected with dramatic historical events.

When I first started researching my ancestors in the 1990s, I gave speeches at venues where African-Americans whose ancestry is rooted in the South stood or walked to the microphone and asked how and where they could research their own ancestors.  Some had began researching, but reached a dead end, because for the first few centuries, African-American history was not recorded.  At conferences, where there were other presenters and speakers, I walked the audience members who asked about black southern ancestry to the table of the Southern historian/genealogist or Civil War reenactor.  Why?  Because I’d met some Southern researchers who had records of African-Americans who fought in the Civil War.
They had found records of African-Americans on their white ancestors’ family trees, but they kept the records secret.  Edward Ball’s Slaves in the Family opens with his relatives who denied they had African-American ancestors.  We cannot continue to support people who want to retain the invisibility of African-American ancestors and ancestry.

A few readers responded to a Newsweek review of NBC’s new genealogy show Who Do You Think You Are?, featuring the football player Emmitt Smith, by saying that the history of his slave ancestors should not have been told.  This denial of one segment of American ancestry has to end.  But first, we need to understand some people want to hide their ancestors, their behavior, and their survival in the first place.

There is a raging debate about what history should be told and what history should be hidden.  The fact that the maltreatment of African slaves in America lasted as long as it did, because millions of humans were born, abused and kept invisible is something that has to stop.  So when Governor Bob McDonnell of Virginia proclaimed April as Confederate History Month of the Commonwealth, heralding a series of WHEREAS this and WHEREAS that statements, referring to the Civil War, he tried again to  render African-American ancestry and history invisible, because nowhere in his series of WHEREAS declarations did he mention slavery.  He later apologized and added a WHEREAS about slavery, saying Virginians are “thankful” for its eradication, but slavery was not “significant” in the history of the state.  But people around the world celebrate slavery’s eradication because it was significant and the people who experienced it were survivors.  He did not say this in a WHEREAS, but I do.

A descendant of slaves, I celebrate their survival instincts.  That attitude allowed me to research my ancestors and face American history without dwelling on what the governor calls the “painful part.”  This historical era was one of survival and sacrifice.  It started before the Civil War and before Emancipation.  When we look at American history, we have to look as far back as possible.  It took me a long time to face my ancestors who were slave-owners, but I did.

I was fortunate enough to see my ancestors in earlier eras.  Thanks to preserved records, I am able to re-remember more about Virginia than the governor.  My Scottish ancestors, the Smellies, were slave-owners who traded tobacco from a building in Fredericksburg in the early and mid-1700s.  I even located the building where they traded, still standing today as a museum.  These ancestors were wealthy merchants, noblemen who built mansions and estates in Europe and Virginia, traveled back and forth to the American colonies, and left managers in Virginia to oversee their slavery-plantation-tobacco trade. 

Interestingly, the Scottish records called the Smellies “Virginia and West India Merchants.”  They owned slaves, slave ships, slave plantations, and slave trading posts and auction places, but slavery was not mentioned in their autobiographies and legacies.  So entrenched was slavery in the business and development of Virginia and in the lives of my tobacco trading ancestors, their business records called them Virginia merchants, not American or Colonial merchants.

So governor, slavery is very a significant part of Virginian, American, and world history.

My Scottish European ancestors left church records of the black children they had with slaves and free women in the American colonies.  The merchants who founded Virginia were nobles, “burgesses.”  Students, tourists and genealogists of history know that the merchants who settled Virginia and launched the birth of politics and laws in the America were nobles who traded and owned slaves and built wealth and communities from slavery.  The Virginia House of Burgesses, organized in Jamestown in 1607, met in 1619 as the first elected legislative group of officials in America.  Less well-known is that Virginia’s founding fathers, and America’s founding fathers, had their own black children whom they owned and treated as slaves.

Many African Americans today are descended from these founders, as well as from Africans who were forcibly settled in Virginia, and the other colonies, since these early years.

Africans arrived in Virginia on British and Dutch ships in 1619.  One British ship – and a British ship flying a Dutch flag – brought to Virginia “20 and odd” Africans, whom they sold as indentured servants.  These British traders were nobles, pirates, who seized a Portuguese slave ship en route from Africa.  These founding fathers were engaged in dangerous business.  By 1640, a Virginia court changed the laws, and declared that the indentured Africans shall “serve his said master or his assigns for the time of his natural life here and elsewhere.” 

They were free before they were slaves, but these ancestors were slaves for multiple generations and even multiple centuries.  Re-memory into deep history enables us to see our ancestors – all our ancestors – as survivors.  Some of them were terrible people, but they, too, survived.  Some were heroes.  Today, we can be better people by not denying who our ancestors were.  Our world history and ancestors are intertwined at the roots.

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Douglas Hainline - 4/19/2010

My goodness, how foolish for the governor of Virginia to deny the reality of slavery. Almost certainly, his ancestors included many generations of slaves. Slavery is a human universal, at least among those groups which become civilized enough not to have to kill all their enemies when they have defeated them. "We were slaves in the land of Egypt" ... and not only the Jews. We were slaves among the Romans, we were slaves among the Germanic tribes which surrounded the Roman Empire, we were slaves to the Aztecs long before the Spanish came, we were slaves in India and the Middle East and China. And we were slaves in Africa, long before the white man came. All of us are the descendants of slaves.

Let us celebrate the fact that the human race is slowly advancing, and one mark of that advance is that slavery is largely -- except in parts of Africa -- a dead institution.