Four years ago, I got a two-inch thick packet of photocopies of genealogical research my aunt had commissioned. One of my Virginia ancestors arrived from England in 1630, and by the mid-1600s, he had become a very large landowner. Yes, he owned slaves.
For some people with European ancestry, genealogical research brings pleasant discoveries: third cousins in Ireland who are eager to connect, perhaps, or cemetery stones in a German graveyard displaying the family name.
For us, however, genealogical research delivered a one-two punch in the gut.
My father’s parents were born in the 1890s in Virginia. My grandmother grew up on a farm, and from the way she talked about the African Americans who worked on the farm in her childhood, I always wondered if we were descended from slave owners. My grandmother was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, so I knew our ancestors had been in America for a very long time.
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Four years ago, I got a two-inch thick packet of photocopies of genealogical research my aunt had commissioned. One of my Virginia ancestors arrived from England in 1630, and by the mid-1600s, he had become a very large landowner. Yes, he owned slaves, the first gut punch.
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Then the second. He owned a slave ship and was the first settler to bring large numbers of slaves to Virginia.
By the standards of the time, I don’t know if my grandparents were wealthy. I do know that they lost everything in the crash in 1929. My father worked 40 hours a week through high school to help them recover.
Despite these challenges, my grandparents had a patrician confidence that they bequeathed to my father. My mother grew up poor on a farm in the Midwest during the Dust Bowl. As a child, I noticed the class difference between my parents and then, over the years, how my mother adopted the same upper-middle-class self-assurance my father had.
While I didn’t inherit wealth from my grandparents, I did receive something of their confidence, a deep certainty that economically, at least, things would be OK for me. And they have been. I know I received some of that confidence on the backs of the slaves my ancestors brought to the New World.
Am I responsible for what my ancestors did? Is there a reason for me to feel guilty? I cannot fix the past, but I can acknowledge and attempt to reverse the ways I still benefit from it.
After several years of pondering, praying and exploring options, I realized that I care about education more passionately than anything else. Hampton University, one of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities that have made a difference for so many African Americans, is not far from the place where my ancestors owned land. My husband and I decided to start donating money to scholarships there.
I am not the only white American with this legacy. For every $100 of wealth white Americans have accumulated, African Americans have just over $5. If every white person left money in their will to an African-American individual or institution, it would begin to equalize this enormous disparity.
The scholarships my husband and I are funding will make only a small difference — not enough, but a start.