Season 3 of Who Do You Think You Are? sponsored by Ancestry.com with Reba McEntire last night was exceptionally good. That episode brought many issues to the surface not the least of which was the fact that one of Reba's ancestors owned 10 slaves. Reba was shown documents detailing the selling and acquisition of a few of his slaves, one of them a 3 year old boy, another a 14 month old toddler. Reba was understandably shocked and dismayed on learning this.
The historian assisting in this phase of the research pointed out that many of us will find that we had an ancestor who did own slaves. It's not something many of us want to admit to, and perhaps we don't even know about it (yet) but we may be faced with that hard fact as we research further. I myself was quite dismayed to learn that one of my ancestors Hendrick Meesen Vrooman owned slaves in Schenectady New York before 1690.
I also found my 3rd great-grandfather Levi Peer with a slave in his household in 1830 in Pennsylvania. His brother Edward also owned slaves, but I had no idea this existed in our family. I understand the historical perspective but I still felt great aversion to accepting that one of my ancestors was involved in human trafficking.
I'd never thought of the possibility that my family were slave owners. We aren't from the southern United States which is where I naively thought all slave owners resided. Too many "Gone With the Wind" type movies left me unaware of the deeper impact slavery had and the far-reaching consequences.
I was glad that Reba's episode brought this to light. It's important to remember that slavery existed and it was horrific but it existed. And many of us may be faced with learning that one or more of our ancestors participated in it.
My husband has not found slave owners in his family lines but rather the opposite. He is a descendant of a fugitive slave named Jonathan Butler. We've not yet discovered where in America Jonathan lived before fleeing to Canada so we have no historical context for his life before 1817.
In what to me shows human nature at its less than best, the fact that my husband has black ancestry was hidden for many years by a generation that made the decision to pass as white. One branch proudly proclaimed their black heritage, one branch deliberately hid it (and still hides it), and my husband's branch simply lost the knowledge over the passage of time.
All my husband's grandmother knew was that her grandfather Joseph disappeared in 1900 over a "scandal" of some kind. We believe the "scandal" was the fact that Joseph's grandfather was the fugitive slave Jonathan Butler, a fact that was not known to the woman who married him. It may be mind-boggling to us in this day and age but prejudice existed and lay hidden or sometimes blatantly exposed for many of our ancestors.
If you are not yet caught up in watching Who Do You Think You Are? you might want to reconsider. Watch an episode and see how it impacts on you. Many of the episodes raise questions and any discussion that follows can be very helpful. Raising awareness is always a positive outcome as far as I am concerned.
How about you? If you found out your ancestor was either a slave owner or a runaway slave, would you hide that fact? Or would you accept the fact and learn more about it and about the historical events surrounding it?