To me, Elizabeth Cannon is “Cousin Elizabeth.” She is my first cousin once removed, the daughter of my great aunt Marion Cannon. Elizabeth is a perfectly wonderful person, who likes to bring me down a notch by reminding me that she changed my diaper on more than one occasion. Too much information, to be sure.
Elizabeth is an assiduous genealoger. She really is the family historian. She has compiled an impressive collection of artifacts, pictures, and letters from the Cobb, Dorsey, Lumpkin, Cannon, and Hull families. She has also worked on detailed genealogies of these families, as well as the Wilsey family.
We’ve had some conversations recently about our family’s role in the institution of slavery. I wrote a post last fall about some of my reflections of being from a family that owned slaves in antebellum Georgia. Here is Elizabeth’s poignant piece:
Slaves of My Ancestors
I have heard tales of my ancestors from my family for as long as I can remember. They seemed almost mythic to me. They were so perfect, so well-behaved. Always doing just the right thing at just the right time. They were people I needed to emulate, to worship, to consider the epitome to which I must strive to achieve.
As I grew up, I mostly didn’t pay much attention to all these tales of glory. It seemed to me to be silly to worship people I didn’t know and never would. But it was a little hard to ignore when I went with my family to Athens, Georgia. I was told that my grandmother used to say that when she died she didn’t want to go to heaven. She wanted to go to Athens. The family names Cobb and Hull and Lumpkin were all over the place. These ancestors were worshipped in the town where they lived and died. Maybe there was something to this after all.
With this esteemed place and all these perfect people buried 70+ miles away in Atlanta, I could pretty much ignore them. Particularly as a teenager, I could just regard it as babbling from my clearly senile 40-year-old mother – luckily she got a lot less senile as she got older. What she was doing was passing down the family myths to another generation. But she had a rather strange take on slavery. In her world, of course her family owned slaves. Everyone did. But in her family’s case they were so kind and loving to their slaves that when emancipation came, the slaves didn’t want to leave. They stayed and continued to live with the family. Which didn’t particularly surprise me as we generally had a black person who worked in our house. There was Inez and Creasy and others whose names I don’t recall. My mother treated them kindly and didn’t much seem to care if they cleaned as long as she could leave the house and her six children to go do things. I do remember my mother picking me up once at the library on her way to taking our maid to the bus stop in Buckhead. I had checked out a book on slavery and started asking her about it. She turned around and shushed me. I guess she thought that the maid may not have known that she likely had ancestors who were slaves! The message that I got is that it must never be mentioned in front of someone who was black. Maybe they didn’t know! But it did give me the feeling that slavery must be something shameful and not something kind as I had believed.
I started to wonder if maybe my ancestors weren’t larger than life. Maybe they were just people. But then there was the current generation of family to worship. My uncle Charles Weltner ran for Congress for the first time when I was 11. I thought that it was wonderful to have another relative in Washington (three of my aunts already lived there) to visit. And he won!
And again the subject of black people came back to me. Charles voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And lots of people called him a “n***r lover.” I had never heard that word mentioned in my house. I knew that the n-word was a very, very bad one and might even have worse consequences than having my mother wash my mouth out with a bar of soap. It was just something that I knew was wrong.
Then I grew up. Blacks were continuously mistreated. White people who weren’t coarse clearly looked as them as people to be pitied in the best case and people to be despised in the worse. My mother leaned toward the camp where she thought they deserved special and very gentle treatment. I must stand up and give my seat to any black person on the bus. I dutifully complied.
As I grew older, I came to realize that some black people really didn’t like white people. And it didn’t take a whole to figure out why. Their ancestors had been stolen from their country, thrown into ships full of pestilence, and brought in chains across the ocean to be sold the highest bidder. From there, they were forced to work long hours and, generally, treated pretty poorly. I realized that my mother wasn’t trying to hide the truth of slavery from our maid. She was embarrassed.
When I got a little older, I became interested in finding out more about my ancestors. I wasn’t particularly interested in the topic of slavery. I was more interested in finding out why I was so different from what I perceived them to be. I wanted to find villains and pirates. I tried, really hard, but I just couldn’t find any. I was very disappointed. The closest I came to outing any of my ancestors as a bad person was that I found that the father of the Rev Hope Hull was born as a result as a liaison between a woman who seemed to have many such affairs and Hopewell Adams, a resident of Somerset County, Maryland. A loose woman! Finally, someone who felt more like a human being. She had illicit sex, when married! I was proven by DNA evidence! And it was known by all as she was brought before the court for bastardry.
One thing I became very aware of, during my period of whatever the opposite of ancestor worship could be, is just how many slaves my ancestors had. Right there in the 1850 and 1860 slaves censuses were the names of the slave owners, and a list by age, sex, and color of their slaves. Confederate General T.R.R. Cobb had more than 100 between his plantation and his house. Joseph Henry Lumpkin (first chief justice of Georgia’s supreme court) had quite a few. But Henry Hull (physician and mathematician at the University of Georgia), the son of the Rev Hope Hull had too many to count. He took up the role of gentleman farmer and had slaves and two plantations.
For the first time I felt personally responsible. All these vaunted ancestors owned people. By the Slave Narratives available at the Library of Congress I found that two slaves, owned by these ancestors, who had given narratives of their lives as slaves.
One of Joseph Henry Lumpkin’s slaves, named Anna Parkes, said that they were not mistreated. They had store-bought clothes which were hand-me-downs from the Lumpkins. She said that the slaves loved Judge Lumpkin and worked as hard as they could for him because they never wanted to be sold. They never were whipped. This is what they considered good treatment. I also looked for mulattos in the slave narratives and found none who could be attributed to Judge Lumpkin or his many sons. The mothers who had children during the time that Lumpkin owned them did not have mulattos unless they themselves were mulattos. That eased my conscience a little bit
One of General Cobb’s slaves also gave a narrative. Her name was Susan Castle. I did the same analysis and found no mulattos which could be attributed to General Cobb. Susan also had no complaints about her treatment by the Cobbs. She said that Cobb didn’t whip his slaves but did say that her grandmother was sold for bad behavior.
I realized that not being whipped, sold, or raped is a pretty low bar for good behavior. These people were owned. They had no control over their lives. They had no choice. I can’t imagine how much anger must have built up from these very facts and, even though Susan Castle and Anna Parkes appeared to be complacent, it could be a learned behavior. When your possibilities are very narrow, maybe you just can’t afford to be angry.
So where does this leave my personal responsibility? I can’t be held accountable for the sins of my ancestors. These ancestors died more than 100 years before I was born. And even the succeeding generation either treated black people as those to be pitied in the best situation to those to be despised in the worst.
I realized, though, that I did have a huge advantage over the children of slaves of my ancestors. Whether or not I could get a good education was never in question. The schools in the all-white neighborhood where I grew up were wonderful. Because my parents had not had to overcome pity or hatred, they could pretty much be completely in control of their destiny. And they were.
So, with little trouble, I could go to school, do well, had great jobs and so forth and so on. I didn’t always choose to live as fully as I could have, but that was because of my poor choices and not the result of something foisted upon me by anyone else.
Having the resources I have to be able to trace people for generations, I decided that I would trace the slaves of my ancestors and apologize. That’s extremely weak as payback, but what could I do? It was the only thing I could think of. A simple apology sometimes goes a long way.