“Slaves of My Ancestors”–Guest Post by Elizabeth Cannon


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.


9 responses to ““Slaves of My Ancestors”–Guest Post by Elizabeth Cannon

  1. Interesting article to read, but I would question the notion of an apology. Outside of this particular race issue, in what other area of life would we ever feel the need to apologize to the descendants a person our great-great-great-great-whatever offended maybe 50, 150, 200 or more years ago? From reading her story, I can appreciate why she would feel some need to apologize, but I would question if one can truly apologize for something in which you played no role and if it is then of any value to the one to which it is extended.

    Sorry for the length of the following, but coincidentally, Thomas Sowell, who spent his early life as a poor black growing up in Harlem, writes a column related to some of this (5/5/15):
    “That vision is nowhere more clearly expressed than in attempts to automatically depict whatever social problems exist in ghetto communities as being caused by the sins or negligence of whites, whether racism in general or a “legacy of slavery” in particular. Like most emotionally powerful visions, it is seldom, if ever, subjected to the test of evidence.

    The “legacy of slavery” argument is not just an excuse for inexcusable behavior in the ghettos. In a larger sense, it is an evasion of responsibility for the disastrous consequences of the prevailing social vision of our times, and the political policies based on that vision, over the past half century.

    Anyone who is serious about evidence need only compare black communities as they evolved in the first 100 years after slavery with black communities as they evolved in the first 50 years after the explosive growth of the welfare state, beginning in the 1960s.
    We are told that such riots are a result of black poverty and white racism. But in fact — for those who still have some respect for facts — black poverty was far worse, and white racism was far worse, prior to 1960. But violent crime within black ghettos was far less.

    Murder rates among black males were going down — repeat, DOWN — during the much lamented 1950s, while it went up after the much celebrated 1960s, reaching levels more than double what they had been before. Most black children were raised in two-parent families prior to the 1960s. But today the great majority of black children are raised in one-parent families.

    Such trends are not unique to blacks, nor even to the United States. The welfare state has led to remarkably similar trends among the white underclass in England over the same period.
    You cannot take any people, of any color, and exempt them from the requirements of civilization — including work, behavioral standards, personal responsibility and all the other basic things that the clever intelligentsia disdain — without ruinous consequences to them and to society at large.
    One key fact that keeps getting ignored is that the poverty rate among black married couples has been in single digits every year since 1994. Behavior matters and facts matter, more than the prevailing social visions or political empires built on those visions.”

    I find Sowell’s column applicable here because it takes history (and his history of research on this subject of poverty in various cultures and nations) and applies it to issues that now get framed using the term “privilege”.

    If we as Christians are going to address the ills of society, let’s at least get a clear vision of what is going on and why instead of buying into terms such as “privilege” that are nothing more than buzzwords for political empires that are built upon them.

    Again, sorry for the long post.

  2. Ed, thanks for reading and for your comment. Really appreciate your engagement.

    I think that Elizabeth is writing a personal account about grappling with her family’s role in an institution that degraded an entire race of people for centuries. I don’t think that she is implicating “white people” as a whole. She is reflecting on the fact that her grandparents–only two generations removed from her–owned other human beings and were made wealthy by their labors. She is also reflecting on the fact that as a youngster, she had no social or economic obstacles to overcome in her personal development, and is thereby asking the question–how do I account for my own blessings that were not within reach for other people whose ancestors were owned as slaves by my own ancestors?

    Elizabeth also grappled with the fact that an apology comes far short, that she does not consider herself responsible for the actions of her dead ancestors, and that her efforts to come to grips with the sins of her family are “weak.”

    To focus on whether or not there is anything we of the present can “do” anything to atone for mistakes made in the past misses the point. I don’t think that Elizabeth’s purpose was to “address the ills of society.” And she made it clear that her poor attempts to address her family’s role in the institution of slavery were destined to fall far short.

    Perhaps we do need, as you say, “a clear vision of what is going on and why” when it comes to our society’s problems. But that is not going to happen unless we all do what Elizabeth is doing. Instead of seeing racial injustice as a distant problem to be faced by someone else, she is doing the hard thing and facing up to it personally. What personal stake do I have–me–in racial injustice in the past and present? Elizabeth’s grapplings may not get anywhere toward national “racial reconciliation.” But wrongs cannot be made right until people own up to those wrongs honestly, intentionally, and sincerely.

  3. Elizabeth Cannon

    Ed, you certainly make some interesting points. But John probably understands my post, perhaps because he is also a child of the south and descended from some of the very people who wanted the south to secede from the union. My mother used to say it was because of states’ rights but I would probably bet large sums of money that it was about slavery. My great-great-grandfather, TRR Cobb, who wrote the original draft of the Confederate Constitution made a point of considering any black person a slave no matter what, although he did not want any more slaves being imported.

    But I’m not really a historian. I’m actually a scientist. So I’m not sure that I could really speak to your points on present-day race relations because I know so little about them. I suspect that having a more equal distribution of resources overall in this country would go a long way to ending a lot of the social problems that we have. But that’s my inner socialist speaking.

  4. Pingback: Can I Divest Myself of My White Privilege? | To Breathe Your Free Air

  5. It’s funny, I want to say “Good Job” on this article, but having read it and the responses, I think I’m a little hyper-sensitive about how that sounds. I know that I’m not sitting in judgment, evaluating a performance – you’ve shared your experience and your heart in light of your close encounters with one of America’s deepest, painful realities; Slavery. I appreciate your willingness, your honesty, and the way you’ve obviously addressed a discomforting issue in such a public and exposing way. Good Job. I can also appreciate your logical advancement to “what’s next – an apology?” While I can understand where Ed Thompson went with his comments, I also understand where you’re coming from with yours. Slavery was such a sad state of affairs and even though this is not a situation where we can put people on trial for crimes against humanity; it still feels really bad that it happened. In that case, I don’t think showing remorse, or desiring to express sorrow in light of it means that it’s an admission of guilt to all that’s wrong with the black community today. Being black, I can appreciate the strength and enduring spirit passed on to me by my grandparents that I’m sure was passed on to them by grandparents well acquainted with all of the realities of slavery. In recalling how you felt about how ‘these people were owned’, I think many people tend to see the ‘painful forfeiture of an independent self’ as one of the worse things about being a slave – I think that may have been true earlier in slavery, maybe for the first generation that had a life of comparative freedom before slavery, but once slavery was really understood as “the way things are” , slaves born into it simply had an entirely different reality that was probably more about what good their day could bring and less about personal dignity and the question of why slavery was real. It was just real.

  6. John/Elizabeth – I’m a child of the South, also. I was born and raised in Memphis, have been exposed to and endured race issues and debates my whole life and, from the family history I know, have roots on my paternal grandmother’s side that puts at least one ancestor fighting in “The War of Northern Aggression” **grin** in the Tennessee 19th Calvary under N.B. Forrest.

    Based on census data, the families in one county near the TN river in southern TN didn’t own any slaves. Was I relieved to discover that? Yes. Would I have felt some sense of remorse and maybe even felt some measure of guilt like Elizabeth if I had discovered that either family had owned other human beings? Even though I can logically make the case that I have no guilt in the matter, I don’t think I can say that I wouldn’t have felt emotions similar to Elizabeth’s had I discovered they had.

    If we are accounting for our blessings and those denied to others as it relates to America’s slavery issue, then I think I’d have to argue that this whole discussion does take us to addressing the ills of our society with implications for social/governmental policy. If not, then why have the discussion? Sure, maybe some personal growth, but from a Christian perspective, I think that personal growth would require us to consider how we might use it to show love for others.

    Elizabeth admits to channeling her “inner socialist” when speculating that a more overall equal distribution of resources in our country would go a long way to addressing those social ills. While we all probably have a bit of “inner socialist” in us that dreams of a more equitable world, how to achieve that goal then becomes the next question. Even then, I have to decide between whether I am after equal opportunity for achieving the blessings we all desire or if I am after a predetermined outcome that I consider “fair” (this group should have no more than X, this other group should have no more than Y).

    I believe that the best “apology” that could be made would be to work for a just society that removes as many barriers as possible to enable those with less to achieve as much as they are willing to work to achieve. There are too many stories out there of people of all races that have overcome tremendous obstacles to succeed (4 black Americans in this article on CEO rags-to-riches stories: http://www.cnbc.com/id/43758413).

  7. Pingback: Anna Parkes on “Negroes,” Food, and Being a Child in Slavery | To Breathe Your Free Air

  8. Ed, totally agree. Thanks again!

  9. Elizabeth Cannon

    I can imagine your relief when you found no slaves. I found that my three great-great-grandfathers owned 120. I tried to work out a system which would tell me how many living descendants those 120 slaves would have. Assuming 60 families and only 2 children per generation, I came up with 37,000,000 living descendants. I don’t think I can find and then apologize to that many people.

    What I have tried to do is follow my mother’s Christian advice to help others in my professional life. I think I’ve been successful in that; more importantly I have raised four children, three of whom are also in the helping professions. Leaving the earth better than you found it may not directly cure the ills of slavery, but it’s all I can think of to do.

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