I was born and raised in Tyler, Texas, where sweet tea and football reign supreme, and the ghosts of the Confederacy still linger, whether we choose to notice them or not. Civil War monuments still dot the squares in nearby towns, and my high school alma mater bears the name of Robert E. Lee.
The reality of Tyler’s history — as well as my own — came rushing back to me about a month ago, when I was contacted by a woman who said she knew something about my great, great, great, great, grandfather. Something that in all my years of listening to family stories, I had never heard of. Or chose not to remember. I’m not sure which.
Her Facebook message said she believed that he owned one of her ancestors: Her five-times great grandmother.
I was stunned.
For one, I had no idea that any of my ancestors even owned slaves. But since I’m from the South by many generations, I should have at least taken the time to think about that reality for a hot minute.
When I first read her message, I didn’t respond for several days. It was a lot to take in, and I needed to sit with it. I also needed to hop on my computer and look up the ancestor she was mentioning, just so I could be sure. But the truth is, I already knew he was mine: His first name was Royal — a name you don’t forget.
When I finally did respond, a hasty apology tumbled out first. It was the day after the tragedy in Charlottesville, an incident that reminded me she was still sitting there in my inbox, waiting to be answered.
Shame on me for not taking the time to do it sooner.
Shame on me for waiting for a horrible event to nudge me to answer her.
She just wanted to know a little bit about her family history, but I was somehow afraid to admit it to her. There is a chance, since many of her ancestors share the same last name as mine (a common practice among slaveowners in those days), that we might actually be related. That my ancestor actually fathered one of hers while in slavery. I couldn’t shake that thought from my head.
And so, I started with an apology. I apologized for my whiteness.
Oh, I know that’s going to make some people angry to hear, but it doesn’t make me angry. It has taken most of my adulthood to realize that white privilege is definitely real, and something I’ve lived the majority of my life giving no consideration to whatsoever. That was my luxury.
So yes, I apologized for my whiteness; and for the actions of my ancestors. The response that came back was sweet: No need to apologize, she told me. But oh, how I felt the need; especially now. Part of me can’t believe what I’m seeing in the news every day, but part of me can. I’ve been a witness to racism my whole life — I just didn’t always recognize it for what it was.
My hometown high school, Robert E. Lee, was predominantly white. The mascot used to be the Rebels (aka the Confederates). And, you guessed it, they used to fly the rebel flag (which looked a whole lot like the Confederate one). By the time I got there, the mascot had been changed to the Raiders. But that didn’t erase the racial tension that was there on a daily basis. You could feel it rising up at every football game, when we played the predominately black high school across town. Cops were called to police the campus, racial slurs were shouted, and riots broke out — especially the day one kid showed up to school in a rebel flag T-shirt.
This was in the late ’90s, when racial tensions were still high in the South and hearing the N word being tossed around wasn’t exactly a shock. I lived with it, but didn’t really need to give it a thought; because I was white. Instead, I compartmentalized it. What a shame this is happening at our school, I’d think to myself. But I’m sure it didn’t feel so simple to my black friends. I wish I would have taken the time to talk to them about it.
Now here we are, 22 years since I graduated high school, and racial tensions in America are just as fever-pitch, if not more so. The N word is still being tossed around freely in some parts of America, and there are white supremacists holding marches, chanting that they “will not be replaced.”
Many people across the U.S. are surprised and outraged by what’s happening, but as anyone who grew up in the South can tell you, racism has always been alive and well. It’s just that now, people don’t feel compelled to hide their ugly anymore.
I guess that’s why I feel drawn to this woman who contacted me. I want to know her story, because it is intertwined with mine. The other day, I spent an entire afternoon pouring over old slave census records and messaging her back and forth trying to get as much information about her ancestor as I could. I’ve never really felt a pull to dig into family history too much before this, but now, I want to know all about them.
As I dug, all the dots began lining up. I was researching what she already knew. My ancestor has his name listed on the slave census record as owning slaves, although he didn’t list his slaves’ names (making uncovering this truth even more difficult). But her ancestor lived in the same county, and there’s a good chance that we’re related — although we may not actually know until a DNA test is done. Her relative who was a slave, had a son who identified himself as half black, half white on the census after emancipation.
She told me recently that when my ancestor moved from Georgia to Texas, he let her five-times great-grandmother stay behind in Georgia. In fact, she still has relatives living on the plantation property today. “I will be forever grateful that he let her stay,” she told me in a Facebook message.
And I’ll be forever grateful that she contacted me, so I could learn more about where I come from, too.
It may have taken me a while, but I’ve got my eyes wide open now. I see my privilege when I didn’t before. I see the racism that I was able to ignore while basking in that privilege. And I see the hate for what it is — not a grasp at tradition, but a deeply-rooted evil that really has no place in this world I want to raise my kids in.
My hope is that one day, I’ll drive past my old high school and see that it bears a different name. That the last Civil War monument, erected in honor of the fight to defend slavery, finally comes down. And that sooner rather than later, the wounds that have so bitterly divided our country for decades will start to heal again.
But none of that will happen if we don’t start learning from our past, and walking into the future with eyes wide open.