In doing genealogy research, I’ve made many connections to American history, some of it quite dark and much of it not that far back in time. It is something that has been bothering me for a while. I had a longer series of posts I was writing about it, but I got bogged down with the topic. It’s overwhelming and hard to grapple with. So, let me keep this post simple and to the point.
Possibly the earliest line of my family that came to America was the Peebles. They were Scottish and, maybe for siding with the king, they arrived in the Virginia colony (1649 or 1650) during the English Civil War. David Peebles, the patriarch, came with some help (either indentured servants or slaves) and built a plantation. Later generations of the Peebles were definitely slave owners and they fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War.
The family across the generations drifted further South and West, ending up in Texas. That is where my paternal grandmother was born in 1912, well within living memory of slavery and the Civil War. The last Civil War veterans died in the 1950s, the last known survivor of the Atlantic slave trade between Africa and the United States died in the 1930s, the last American born into slavery died in the 1970s — the latter happening just a few years before I was born and about a decade before my grandmother died. None of this is ancient history. It’s possible that if my grandmother had bothered to ask that there were people in the family who still remembered owning slaves.
Also, the early twentieth century was a time of the last of the Indian Wars. There were major battles that happened in that part of the country when my grandmother was a child. The last significant altercation in the United States happened in 1924 when she was twelve years old and that is the age when kids begin to gain awareness of the larger world. But there were Indian holdouts who kept fighting in Mexico and weren’t defeated until nine years later in 1933. My grandmother was twenty-one years old at that point and so this was part of the world she was entering into.
David Peebles himself had been an Indian fighter, a captain in the Virginia militia. He was a well respected man. As reward, he had been given a Native American captive and I’m sure that person was treated as a slave. It’s assumed that David Peebles received an injury from fighting and he slowly disappeared from the records. Between those first Peebles in America and my grandmother, I’m sure there were numerous Indian fighters in my ancestry. After all, that part of my family was involved in the push Westward, as Native Americans retreated or were forcibly removed. And then they ended up in the region of the last battles with the last free natives.
All of this national history is intimately intertwined with my family history. And much of it was still living memory into my grandmothers childhood and even into her adulthood (in some cases, even into my parents’ adulthood). More importantly, it was an ongoing history. The struggles of blacks didn’t end with the Civil War any more than the struggles of Native Americans ended with the Indian Wars. I could understand how much of this history was hidden at the time, even as the suffering and oppression continued. Native Americans, after all, were forced onto reservations that made their plight practically invisible to the rest of the country. It was a problem that wasn’t seen and so didn’t need to be thought about. But the problems facing blacks would have been impossible to ignore for those living in the South and also in the North.
In the South my grandmother grew up in, Jim Crow was in full force and blacks had for decades faced re-enslavement through chain gang labor. My grandmother was a few years old when the Second Klan was founded. The Klan was a growing force during her childhood and was at its height in her teenage years: “At its peak in the mid-1920s, the organization claimed to include about 15% of the nation’s eligible population, approximately 4–5 million men” (Wikipedia). I have no doubt that many generations and many lines of my family were involved in the various incarnations of the Klan, along with other violently racist organizations and activities; but there is no family stories about any of this, as it’s one of those things that people don’t talk about.
When my grandmother was eight years old, a short distance from her childhood home the Tulsa race riots occurred where white mobs rioted and terrorized the black population. It was an actual battle with whites and blacks fighting in the streets (many of them WWI veterans, including black veterans who took their military weapons home with them), snipers were positioned in buildings shooting at people below, airplanes firebombed the wealthiest black community in America at the time (Black Wall Street), and belatedly troops were sent in to restore order. Hundreds of blacks were killed, hundreds more ended up in the hospital, 6,000 black residents were arrested and detained, and in the detention centers blacks were forced to do labor. In the aftermath, most of the black population became refugees who had lost everything and thousands of white residents in Tulsa joined the Klan.
It was one of the most violent and destructive events in American history. Yet it was erased from public awareness almost instantly, as if it had never happened. “The Tulsa race riot of 1921 was rarely mentioned in history books, classrooms or even in private. Blacks and whites alike grew into middle age unaware of what had taken place” (A.G. Sulzberger, “As Survivors Dwindle, Tulsa Confronts Past“, NYT).
This was just one of many race riots and other acts of mass racial violence that occurred in the decades before and following what happened in Tulsa. Violence like this, including lynchings, would have been common events for the first two-thirds of her life. After her family left Oklahoma, they moved to a part of Mississippi that was a major center of the Second Klan. Then as an adult in 1940, she moved her own young family to Indiana, the headquarters and epicenter of the Second Klan, during a time when the last vestiges of the organization were still to be seen. It was in the 1950s and 1960s when a splintered KKK reasserted itself in fighting the Civil Rights Movement.
Indiana is close to the South and not just geographically. It’s been culturally and economically connected to Kentucky from early on. This area is sometimes referred to as Kentuckiana. Much of Indiana’s population originally came from Kentucky and that has made Indiana the most Southern state in the Midwest (my maternal ancestry includes Indian fighters who came to Kentucky shortly after the American Revolution). A generation after my mother’s family left the border region of Kentucky and Indiana, she grew up in a large industrial city in central Indiana and yet she maintained a Southern accent well into her twenties.
Indiana was a destination of many white Southerners looking for work. Yet Southern blacks knew to mostly avoid Indiana, except for Northern parts of the state closer to Chicago. This wasn’t just a vague notion that blacks had about Indiana. The local white population, Klan and otherwise, made it overtly clear they weren’t welcome in most parts of the state.
My father was born in small town Indiana and then moved to another nearby small town. They were both in an area of much racism, but the second town where he spent most of his early life was a sundown town. When my father and his family moved there, a sign warning blacks to stay away was still visible on a major road into town. My father would have been too young to understand, my Southern grandmother could not have missed something so obvious. They had to have known they moved into a sundown town. Did my father know about this? No. Did his mother, my grandmother, ever talk about it? No. It wasn’t talked about. As my grandfather was the town minister, he could have challenged this racism from the pulpit. Did he? No. The reason for this is that my grandfather My was a racist, although like many he softened his prejudiced views later in life. Still, that doesn’t change the moral failure.
My grandmother was always a religious and spiritual person, moreso than my grandfather despite his being a minister. She grew in that old time religion, Southern Baptist church. When she moved to the West Coast, she became quite liberal and joined extremely liberal churches, such as Unity Church and Science of Mind. It was because of my grandmother that I was raised in the same kind of liberal churches. This led me to become the liberal I am today. Even so, my grandmother never spoke of our family’s ancestral sin of racial oppression, even though she had spent so much of her life right in the middle of it.
My father went off to college at Purdue. The city, Lafayette, had been a sundown town at one point. The systemic racism was lessening there by the time my parents attended, but the black population remained low. While they were at college, the Civil Rights Movement was growing and violence was happening. Professors and college students from Purdue even joined in some of the major events of that time. The world was changing all around my parents, but they apparently were oblivious to it all. When I’ve asked them, they had only slight memory of what was happening at the time, other than some brief news stories that they paid little attention to. It didn’t seem all that important to them, as white conservatives in a white conservative state with a hopeful future before them.
Systemic and institutional racism continued in some parts of the country long after the death of MLK. Blacks were still fighting for basic rights and demanding that laws against racism be enforced, well into my own lifetime (in fact, the struggle for justice continues to this day). For my parents, living in Ohio after college, that was a happy time of their life. As their children were born, protests and riots were going on around the country (including nearby), but it all seemed distant and insignificant, maybe a bit incomprehensible. After that, during the 1980s, our family moved to Deerfield, Illinois — a Chicago suburb with a history of keeping blacks out, something my parents were also unaware of. Then we headed to Iowa, which at the time was a demographic bubble of whiteness.
In my own childhood, I don’t recall my parents or other adults talking about race and racism. I also was oblivious to it all, until we moved to South Carolina when I was thirteen years old. It was a shock to my system. I didn’t grow up with that world and so I saw it with fresh eyes in a way someone wouldn’t have if they had grown up with it. Even then, amidst obvious racism and an overt racial social order, few people talked about it. I saw blacks at school, but no blacks lived in my neighborhood or went to my church. Black kids didn’t come home with me nor did I go home with them.
I was facing generations of denial in my own family. No one gave me any tools to deal with any of it. If not for genealogy research, I might never have realized how close to home all of this comes. Even now, I live in a liberal college town where at an earlier point in time a racist mob chased out of town the radical abolitionist John Brown, shortly before his execution. And a muted form of that old racism lingers still.
How do we deal with the legacy of centuries of oppression when it’s almost impossible to even publicly acknowledge what has happened within living memory? How do we come to terms with the fact that the legacy continues with systemic and institutional racism? How do we open up dialogue? How do we move forward? If more people simply dug into their own family histories, what might they find? And if they put that into context of the larger national history, what understandings might they come to?
My eternal refrain: Then what?
I’ve gained this knowledge and it was no easy task, as I had to find it for myself through decades of obsessive research and intense study. Generations of my own family have avoided this knowledge, built on centuries of ignorance and denial, supported by a vast social order designed to maintain the status quo. So, here we are. Many others like me are looking at these hidden truths now brought to light. What are we supposed to do with it all? How does a society come to terms with collective guilt?
William Faulkner spent most of his life a few counties away from my great grandmother’s home in Mississippi, the last place my grandmother lived before adulthood and the area she returned to after college to work a teaching job for a couple of years, around 1935. That is where my father would visit as a child and where he saw his first “colored” water fountain. Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun was set in that part of Mississippi, as were other of his novels. The events in the story were fictionally placed in the years immediately following my grandmother’s departure. The world that Faulkner described was the world that shaped my grandmother, a world she couldn’t leave behind because she carried it with her.
One of Faulkner’s best known lines comes from that novel. He wrote:
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
My grandmother was an educated woman, a teacher in fact. I wonder. Did she ever read those words? And if so, what did she think of them? Did she ever look to the past, her own past and that of her family? Or was she trying to escape the past by getting as far away as possible, ending up in the Northwest? It’s ironic that she spent the last years of her life in Oregon, the only state in the Union that was once fully sundown, excluding blacks entirely.
From what I gather, my grandmother was a kindhearted woman, but that could be said of many people. Few white Americans are overtly mean-spirited. People simply try to live their lives, and yet their lives exist along a moral arc bending from the past into the future. How often do any of us consider our place in the larger scheme of things and wonder about what future generations will think of us?