In the next few posts, I would like to build on some things that Elizabeth Cannon and I wrote about here and here. Elizabeth wrote about two women—Anna Parkes and Susan Castle—who were owned by Joseph Henry Lumpkin and Thomas R. R. Cobb respectively.
Lumpkin (1799-1867) is my great-great-great-great grandfather. He was the first Chief Justice of Georgia’s Supreme Court. Cobb (1823-1862), my great-great-great grandfather, was a legal scholar who ended up serving in James Longstreet’s Corps as a brigadier general in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. He led his regiment, Cobb’s Legion, at the fighting in the Seven Days’ Battles, Second Manassas, Antietam, and Fredericksburg (he was killed at Fredericksburg in December 1862). Cobb was also Lumpkin’s son-in-law.
Together, Lumpkin and Cobb founded the law school at the University of Georgia. Cobb authored the Inquiry into the Laws of Negro Slavery in the USA, in which he provided one of the most comprehensive pro-slavery arguments of the late antebellum period.
Lumpkin and Cobb were well known men in their day. They were wealthy and influential; they were respected, honored, and were deferred to as authorities in the South. Their names are immortalized in two Georgia counties.
But I can’t help thinking about Anna Parkes and Susan Castle. They were small children at slavery’s death, but my grandparents owned them and their families as property. They were barely literate, while my grandparents were scholars. They were dependent on their masters, while my grandparents amassed much wealth. They lived in slave quarters, while my grandparents lived in the “big house.” Theirs was a life of toil, degradation, and bondage, while my grandparents fared sumptuously every day.
These grandparents of whom I speak—they were not my mother’s or father’s parents. They are distant grandparents. They died a century before I was born. I never knew them, except in stories and as a part of family mythology. As Elizabeth said, we are neither complicit in Anna and Susan’s servitude, nor are we complicit in the servitude of any of the other scores of men and women that my ancestors owned.
But I am, at least indirectly, an inheritor of their labors and the system that discriminated against them after emancipation. Some people don’t like the term “white privilege”—but like it or not, I cannot deny that I was born into it. Indeed, how could I?
What can I do? This is not some false dilemma, where the only options are to either 1) fully and satisfactorily atone for the sins of my people who owned slaves, or 2) nothing. I can at least admit that I am a beneficiary of white privilege. I can face my family’s history and role in the peculiar institution honestly and openly. I do not have to repudiate my ancestors, or turn my back on them. I can honor my ancestors’ memory by affirming that they were sinners. What they did was wrong. The consequences of their choices and actions were not limited to their own generation. Those consequences did not cease at the end of the war, they were not wiped out at their own deaths. What they did had consequences that have cascaded down to my generation.
As a Christian, I can live out and share the gospel of Christ, who died on the cross to atone for human sin. I can share His expansive love with every person I meet, knowing that every human being is created in the image of God, and every human being is a valuable person for whom Christ died.
One other thing I can do: I can remember Anna and Susan in particular. They left the world a record of their experiences as the slaves of my ancestors. They talked openly about what it was like to be a slave in the homes of the Lumpkins and the Cobbs.
They were interviewed as part of the Federal Writer’s Project between 1936 and 1938, and their words were recorded and archived in the Library of Congress. In the next several posts, I’d like to hear Anna and Susan’s words once again. Because they blessed us with a record of their lives, perhaps they are something like Abel, who suffered at the hands of his own brother, but “though dead, [they] still speak.”
Is it possible for someone to divest himself of his white privilege? The only way to find out is to first admit that one has benefitted from it.
Speak, Anna Parkes and Susan Castle. I want to hear what you have to tell me.