Jay Bookman: Slavery an integral part of nation's shared ancestry

Roundup: Talking About History

Nations, like families, have little secrets that everybody knows but nobody talks about. For the American family — if such a thing exists — that secret has always been slavery.

Even now, the quiet consequences of slavery dog our conscience and degrade our public debate. And sometimes, it intrudes in ways we never would have anticipated.

Let me tell you a story. My father's people come from western Virginia, near the headwaters of the James River. For 250 years they have lived in that valley, making their living as hunters and frontiersmen, then as farmers, later as railroad workers and tradesmen.

The first of our line to settle there was Jacob Persinger. As a child of two or three, he had been kidnapped by the Shawnee and raised as a tribe member, adopted by a mother who had lost a son of her own.

But in 1763, a treaty ending the French and Indian War required the Shawnee to return all white captives. Jacob, then a teenager, was handed to authorities, given a white name and told to live as a white man.

He wasn't having it. Twice, young Jacob ran back to the Shawnee, traveling alone more than 200 miles on foot from Virginia to Ohio; each time, he was returned to the white settlement by Shawnee elders afraid of violating the treaty.

"If you care for your Indian mother, you will not cause trouble for us again with the white man," the great chief Cornstalk told Jacob as he banished him the final time.

Or so the story goes.

Over the years I had heard bits and pieces of that tale, but when I started looking a little deeper, the story got richer. Among other things, I discovered that Jacob later owned two slaves, a female kitchen worker and a field hand known as Blue.

We cannot judge the past by the standards of today, but I imagine Jacob knew slavery was wrong. ...

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