Grappling with Slavery – When Ancestors aren’t a Source of Pride

Ben Affleck’s initial concealment of a slaveholding ancestor for his episode of Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. makes it time for me to come clean. I too, have slaveholders in the family, and these ancestors shame me more than the murderers and other miscreants I’ve been featuring on this blog.

I’ve had a document with this post’s title filed away for years. Sure, it was a rambling, bumbling, stumbling mess, not ready for primetime, but I kept ignoring it. Any subject would do if I could push off a confrontation with my sense of guilt over slavery.

Slavery in New York and Massachusetts

When I was a greener researcher, with roots in New Amsterdam / New York and New England, the northern states, I believed my family was in the clear on slavery. In retrospect, my ignorance on slavery in the north was stunning. My personal wakeup call came in the will of my 8th great-grandmother, the Amsterdam-born pioneer settler of New York, Sarah (Roelfse) (Kierstede) (Van Borsum) Stoothoff (1626-1693).

“…to my daughter Blandina, of this city, a negro boy, Hans. To my son Luycas Kierstede, my Indian named Ande. To my daughter Catharine Kierstede, a negress, named Susannah. To my son-in.law, Johannes Kip, husband of my said daughter Catharine, my negro, Sarah… To my son Jochem Kierstede, a little negro, called Maria, during his life, and then to Sarah, the eldest daughter of my son Roeloff Kierstede…” (1)

And there it was, the gut-punch, proof positive that my accomplished ancestress (2), kept in bondage a Native American, and black women, and children. Lines in my beloved native state, Massachusetts, were no more civilized. My 8th great-grandfather, Jonathan Rayment (1666-1745) of Beverly, was a deacon of the church for 23 years. In 1705, when he was 39 years old, he made the following purchase:

Capt. Joseph Flint, Mariner, of Salem, sells to Jonathan Rayment, of Bevery, “my Spanish Indian boy named Pito about 10 years old, for a slave.” (3)

As I traced the deacon Rayment to the end of his life in 1745, I hoped after 40 years of piety and wisdom, his humanity would have evolved, but the inventory of his estate lists after items including an iron kettle, frying pan and a silver tankard… “Slaves” beneath that, “1 Negro man… 1 Negro woman…”

A clipped portion

Deacon Rayment’s slaves: Cafar (Kafir) valued at 45 pounds, and Sarah, 37 pounds 10 shillings. (Click for larger view.)

It’s sobering to learn your people committed crimes against humanity, while regarding themselves as good Christians and respectable members of society.

The Awful Truth – Celebrity Edition

Several celebrity descendants of slaveholders have been featured on Finding Your Roots and Who Do You Think You Are,  including Anderson Cooper, Ken Burns, and Bill Paxton. They did the right thing right off by facing the findings on camera. They shared their disappointment and righteous anger. They acknowledged we all must accept the bad guys along with the good guys in our trees. And so it should be with our great, multiethnic, multiracial, American family.

Many folks argue that United States “fixed” slavery 150 years ago; that civil rights laws in the 1960s “fixed” segregation and discrimination; that white and black Americans have an equal shot at life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Yet, if that was true, if that was the present reality,  – nice, white Americans, like Ben Affleck, wouldn’t be so troubled over errant great-greats.

The terrible disparity in income, health and life spans between whites and minorities is evidence that our nation hasn’t yet established a culture that supports the American ideal of equality.

We can’t change the past, we can, and should, look it straight in the eye. Instead of dithering over guilt, we can join with nice Americans of all races to build toward a society that truly guarantees an opportunity for a decent life to all. It won’t be easy, but working to “form a more perfect union”(4) is as good an idea today as it was in 1787.

 

Notes, Sources & Resources:

(1) Abstract of wills on file in the Surrogates Office, City of New York  (Volume I. 1665-1707) by New York (County) Surrogate’s Court Abstracts of Wills –Liber 5-6 pgs. 225, 226, 227.

(2)  Sarah learned native languages and assisted Peter Stuyvesant in negotiating treaties with local tribes. In 1682, she was confirmed as owner of a patent originally granted to her second husband, Cornelis Van Borsum (1630-1682) for a lot on Manhattan Island, for her service. She also raised 11 children and outlived 3 husbands.

(3) Essex Registry of Deeds, Book 16, Folio 204, March 12, 1705.

(4) From the Preamble to the United States Constitution, “We the people We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

***
How Ben Affleck reacted after he discovered his slave-owning ancestors

Slavery in the North Website by historian, author, journalist and lecturer, Douglas Harper.

History of Slavery in Massachusetts  Wikipedia article covers freedom suits brought in 1781 that claimed slavery was contrary to the Bible and the new (1780) Massachusetts Constitution, but slavery remained legal in Massachusetts until the 13th Amendment was passed in 1865.

Why did O’Flaherty plant boiled potatoes?

I was excited when I acquired a copy of the Ayer’s American Almanac. Not only was it published in Lowell, Massachusetts, the ancestral city of my Roane clan, it’s the 1859 edition, – the year my Irish immigrant couple, John P. and Mary (Hurney) Roane were married. I liked to imagined the little booklet sitting on a shelf in their home on the comer of Gorham of Summer streets.

The purpose of the magazine, “For the health of All Nations,” was trumpeted by an angel on the cover.  Its enterprising publisher,  “Dr. James C. Ayer, Practical and Analytical Chemist,” had equal interest in promoting his financial health. Lengthy  articles describe the powers of Ayer’s Compound Concentrated Extract of Sarsaparilla, Ayer’s Cathartic Pills, and Ayer’s Cherry Pectoral, to ease everyday complaints, and to cure virtually everything from deafness, partial blindness, fits, paralysis and tumors –  to gout and syphilis.

Cover of Ayer's American Almanac 1859

The booklet measures 4 5/8 by 7 inches.

Despite the relentless advertising, the almanac had practical utility. The annual calendar incorporated the Christian observances of Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Trinity and Advent. It listed anniversaries of national significance,  such as “Franklin born, 1706” and “Battle of Tippecanoe, 1811.” And it wouldn’t be an almanac without the weather. Predictions of wind, rain, snow and temperature would have interested city dwellers and rural folk, just as we check the daily forecast. The almanac also offered amusement. Each calendar page had extra space at the bottom. Some months filled it with run-over text. Other months featured aphorisms, witticisms, doggerel – and jokes.

In my mind’s eye, I’d  picture John in the parlor reading aloud to Mary (who was illiterate), or to a small group of Sunday visitors enjoying a break in the work week.  I’d imagine hearing their laughter and cups clinking (whether filled with tea or something stronger, I can’t say).

Then after I read the booklet through, I wondered if I was wrong about the laughter. What would any native of Ireland think and feel about the following?

            “How much did yees ask for thim buttons?” inquired an Irish customer.

            “Fifteen cents.” 

            “I’ll give ye thirty-siven.”

            “I didn’t say fifty ─ I said fifteen,” replied the honest dealer.

            “Bedad, an’ I’ll give you tin cints, thin.”

 

            “Why in the world do you plant boiled potatoes, Mr. O”Flaherty?”

            “Shure, yer honor, I’m goin’ to thry the ixpirimint of raising them already biled for my own aiting.”

 

            “Did yoar fall hurt you?” said Pat to his friend who fell with his hed from a high ladder.

             “No, Patrick, shure, it was hitting the ground that hurthed me.”

 

            The Irishman’s plan for casting cannon was, ─First take a hole, and then pour the iron around it. 

Today, this seems benign humor,  some gentle ribbing, – and no harm done. Certainly no reason to be upset, right? Now consider these other bits of fun from 1859:

            “Say, Pomp, you nigger, where you get dat new hat?”

            “Why at de shop, ob course.”

            “What is de price of such an article as dat?”

            “I don’t know, nigger, I don’t know; de shopkeeper wasn’t dar!”

 

            Sambo says, “Why am my belubed Dinah like de cloth dey make in Lowell? Cos she’s an unbleached she─ting.”

In both the Irish and the Black ‘jokes,’ ethnic speech patterns signal the low intelligence and low character of the subjects. Instantly recognized stereotypes provide the readers of the dominant culture with a good laugh. If the source of the humor is the same, – why is it only the last  two retain shock value?

In part, the ethnic slurs pop; but the rest of it is recognition that African Americans still do not enjoy the full-fledged membership privileges that Irish Americans have in modern society.

After the Civil War, things began to turn around for the Irish in America. They fought for the Union with distinction, and earned the gratitude of the nation. Gradually,  “real” Americans (white natives) became more accepting, and government jobs, – fire, police, public works, and other essential services were opened up to the Irish.

In 1888, John and Mary’s son joined the US Post Office and carried letters for 40 years. This modest post, paid John F. Roane enough to purchase a house and to raise a large, family. The Lowell newspapers over decades, reported the exploits of Roane grandsons – in  sports, the arts, the military, politics, and respectable Lowell society.

Yet  barely 20 years before his son got that post office job, John P. Roane died – and Lowell newspapers didn’t carry a word of his passing. Though a Lowell resident for 18 years,  an American citizen,  property owner and businessman,  the Irish native’s life went unremarked.

So we come back to Ayer’s American Almanac.  What do  its “jokes’ reveal about that period  – and about our own times?

I still wonder whether John Roane was angered by the characterization of the Irish in America or if being raised under English oppressors had inured him to insult.

I wonder, too, whether he felt sympathy for that other marginalized people – or whether he  laughed.

Notes:

1. The Old Farmers Almanac is still around and on the web – http://www.farmersalmanac.com

2.  There is a little bit about J. C. Ayer at Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Cook_Ayer