Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Racism Then to Now


“Item 2nd: It is my will and desire that all my estate consisting of land, town property, Negroes and all other property owned by me, both real and personal or mixed be sold by my executors either for cash or on time as in their judgement it would seem best.” 
Last Will and Testament of Gideon Barnes [1791-1871] 

Pike County, Barnesville Georgia 

Late 1863 or early 1864 

Sworn to in Open Court 
June 1, 1871 


It’s true that all white people in the US today have benefited from white privilege and systemic racism. Tolerance.org’s article What is White Privilege, Really? offers an excellent overview. But with these above lines penned in a musty county records book, I discovered that I, and all those related to me past, present, and future through my father, benefited directly from the labor of enslaved people. Gideon Barnes was my great great great grandfather.

From what I’ve gathered, Gideon was a big fish in a small pond. He founded Barnesville, Georgia, which was initially just a crossroads between Augusta, Georgia and Montgomery, Alabama, in 1826. With a hotel, mercantile, and eventually receiving the post of its first postmaster, Gideon helped grow the spot to a village by 1852. It’s still only a small town today, at about 6500 people. You won’t see it in the city literature, but clearly, if the town founder had “Negroes” in 1863 to sell along with “other property”, the enslavement of peoples of African descent was a truth and foundation of the growth and development of this community. And that truth led to Gideon Barnes, when he died in 1871, having inheritances to hand out to the five children he named in his will.

Gideon did not run a plantation. Pictures of him and his daughter, my great-great grandmother Sarah Virginia, show them as worn and wiry. She eventually moved to Michigan after her husband, my great-great grandfather William Keifer, died in 1877 in a sanatorium. Records show Wiliam drank excessively, accrued debt, and beat Sarah Virginia at least once. Rough life stories. But the free labor of other human beings- enslaved people- made what they did have possible.

By 1860, there were approximately 44,100 enslaved people-owning white men in Georgia and they “owned” 462,198 enslaved individuals-  44% of the state's total population (Slavery in Antebellum Georgia). About ⅔ of white Georgian males didn’t "own" enslaved people, but they supported the system as many wished to join the ranks for the privileges that “ownership” gave.

So, the average Georgia enslaved people-holder “owned” 10-11 enslaved human beings before the Civil War. I have no idea how many Gideon Barnes “owned”. My guess is he was average. But “owning” humans helped him and the others acquire wealth and property. That was all passed down to their descendants. White skins and systems like redlining and racial covenants in housing deeds enabled future generations to get factory jobs, buy suburban houses, have savings accounts at big banks, get loans at lower rates, and access a host of other goods and services. Just because of their...our... DNA. And generation upon generation, each bequeathed their leftovers to the next generation to benefit from and build upon. Objects, property, money, beliefs. Some did fairly well. Others lost big. Being of European-descent does not protect against wars, accidents, disease, or economic downturns. But this American reality has given advantages to some people, including me. These advantages were not available to Black Americans and because of that, their descendants are at different places than the white ones. I don’t know of any super-wealthy relatives, and many have been “blue-collar”, but I’m left asking: How do we address these centuries of two realities? How do I address these centuries of two realities?

That’s the basis of reparations. There are so many things we could do or should do. I know they won’t make everyone happy. But we must try.

The BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) civil and social justice experts are out there prepared with what needs doing and in what order. What I say next is all based on a “we” where they are in charge and the white voice follows:

What if we all truly participate in and help evolve our democracy? What if we rewrite our legal systems based on modern realities and our combined futures? What if we implement universal healthcare? What if we embrace clean air, water, and land standards for all? What if we invest in healthy homes and schools for all? What if we find a way to invest in something that does give back directly to all the peoples we have wronged through the centuries? What if we drop old things like Columbus Day and get the modern citizenry to define what we celebrate and what we mourn. I’m only scratching the surface of ideas. Whatever is chosen, it’s going to take a long time. But what if we try?

If we’d do all that, then the “we” would end up being close enough to universal that all peoples would truly be together. That is my end goal: seeing how far we can take the term 'we're stronger together'. I used to not see the middle transition ground and wonder why Black Americans scoffed at me on my “we”. I didn’t understand. In their experience, they never were a “we” with people that look like me in any genuine way.

I didn’t understand partially because the idea of owning a person was and is so anathema to me, I had to use the word in quotation marks in my writing here. But I know it was real. I have to own this. No quotations.

Some argue this was all settled in 1865. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is one of many pieces of evidence that prove otherwise. I was recently introduced to a 1966 McGraw-Hill Films documentary called A Time for Burning, produced by William C. Jersey and executive produced by Robert E.A. Lee that captures the push-back of a culture that doesn’t want to change. This film examined how a Lutheran pastor (Rev. Luther (Bill) Youngdahl) tried to integrate his white congregation with a black church in Omaha, Nebraska. While he ultimately failed, I learned that a congregant (Raymond J. Christensen) was so moved by the process that his entire life path was positively altered as a result. Ernie Chambers and his powerful analysis were the stars the entire film pivoted upon, but the Black youth were also incredible to hear, as those voices were not captured much in those times. Watching this film was tough because the responses of some of the white congregants were so similar to things I heard from my mother and the family stories she told me as I was growing up. It was extremely uncomfortable to see and hear people like that again. “I think it’s forced. I don’t think they [the congregants] can accept this.” “I’ve never talked with a Negro.” “We’ve had problems with these Mexicans.” “What happens if a colored family moves in?”  As I watched, the smells of my mother’s mother’s house and the photos on her walls came to my mind. That grandmother died in 1986. The fingers of white privilege are long and insidious.

Speaking of long fingers...did you notice the date of Gideon Barnes’s death? Six years after the end of the Civil War, and they still recorded his wishes as to include selling his Negros. Disgusting. As is the washing of their history that they share with the world.

Old systems die slowly and only with effort and disruption of the norm. I experienced my racist mother and it’s taken my lifetime to understand it and make changes in myself to correct her and our society's influences. Clearly, even if he was nicknamed “The Reverend” by a friend during his military service, at least some of my father’s ancestors were racists, too. And I know that he knew he could do things others could not. He was also the one who noted his ancestors’ real truths in his genealogy work. Every human is a mix of helpful and harmful.

I couldn’t find a smoking gun on my mother’s side like Gideon’s will, but if I found the correct family tree, there’s evidence that some of her ancestors arrived very early to North America from England, settling in what became Maryland. I found a Revolutionary War officer among them. But if those positive connections are true, they probably owned enslaved people, as well. At the very least, Maryland was a slave state, so I’m perhaps doubly guilty as a descendant and inheritor of this mess. Triple if we include the Indigenous peoples all my European ancestors helped kill directly or indirectly.

Now, we find ourselves in 2020, with Black Americans being killed by police officers, many regions deeply segregated, with uneven funding and infrastructure in our public education systems because of the residential segregation, and many Black Americans feeling they are looked at as a threat by white ones. As the BBC wrote on in George Floyd: How are African Americans Treated Under the Law, Black Americans are about 13.4% of the US population but constitute 23.4% of police fatalities, are arrested substantially more often for drug crimes despite similar drug use statistics compared to white Americans, and constitute a much greater percentage of prison populations than they do overall US populations.

The time to act was hundreds of years ago. The time we have is right now. We need to take it. We need to try.

EDIT NOTES June 15, 2020: I replaced the term "slave(s)" with "enslaved person/people" for the most part as suggested by @al0nte on Twitter. It definitely feels better and to me supports why I struggle with the word "owned". 
I retained "Black Americans" because I want to remind that we are all just as "American"- good or bad. The Indigenous cultures white settlers/colonizers killed are the only originals to this land in the bigger sense. I use and capitalize Black because I have heard many voices requesting it. I capitalize Indigenous along similar logic lines. I don't capitalize white because I don't believe it should be- it was a term chosen for control. I think "European-descending" would be more logical.

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