The Sins of the Fathers
“The secrets of slavery are concealed like those of the
Inquisition.” – Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
When I spit into a vial and sent my DNA to a popular company to determine my ethnicity, I hoped to find some exotic ancestors. I didn’t. What I did find was a fair number of distant cousins whose majority ancestry was African. As I had no African ancestry myself, I slowly began to understand they were descendants of slaves owned by my male forebears.
Finding out my family enslaved people—and realizing that the males in my family procreated with some of them—was like a kick in the stomach. For several days I went around in a daze, muttering, “I’m descended from a bunch of damn rapists.”
I’ve seen names of the enslaved in my forebears’ wills, parceling out Sally to a daughter, Tom to a son, sometimes with specific instructions that one should not be sold, but that her “increase” could be divided among the heirs. The passage of many years and many miles is part of the reason my family has been blessed with amnesia. Otherwise, the understanding might be unbearable.
When I tell people about my discovery and the feelings evoked by that discovery, they are quick to discount their own connection. Their family was too poor, or came to this country too late, or didn’t live in the South, they say. “I must admit I don’t dwell on the slave issue,” said an Alabama-born friend of mine. “I didn’t own slaves, and neither did my parents or grandparents and probably only one of my great-grandparents.”
One by one, she counted off the reasons why most people in this country want to believe the issue of slavery and its aftermath are no longer relevant. She said she knew enslaving other human beings was wrong and she had sympathy, but after all, that was generations ago. Slavery was legal then and had existed all over the world, she said. “There are too many real problems today to dwell on what can’t be changed,” she added.
In my mind, I whispered that she was using historical sophistry, deceptive words applied as a balm to assuage an uncomfortable although dim awareness. Yet before my journey into the past, I would have mouthed the same words. I really can’t blame her.
So what changed? Simple. As I began to realize that my real family consisted of multicolored strands creating a web stretching from Virginia to California, I hungered to understand. And the more I learned, not only about my family but about the unique American brand of chattel slavery, its inextricable links to capitalism and the growth of U.S. wealth, and the“capitalized womb,” the more I realized how little most people know.
Almost everything I thought about slavery was wrong – and I’m a reasonably intelligent and educated person who grew up outside the Deep South, so I wasn’t spoonfed comfortable myths. You can’t talk about race until you fully understand America’s past, yet most people don’t really want to talk about race. When they understand how closely we are all connected, they may have no choice. But white amnesia prevents the knowing, prevents the understanding, and prevents real healing.
As I sought understanding, I reached out to some of these distant cousins. One of them, a woman by the name of Paula Whatley Matabane, responded. Paula wasn’t my only distant cousin with majority African DNA, but she’s the only one who answered my email. I’d still like to hear from the gentleman whose roots go back to southeast Kansas, like mine, and whose grandfather was the first black pediatric resident at the University of Kansas medical center. Or the black attorneys in Texas whose surname, Godsey, is the same as my mother’s maiden name. Or any one of the others.
Paula was just as interested in uncovering our tangled history as I was, and because of the relatives we shared we knew our common forebear was from my mother’s side of the family, probably a man with the surname of either Godsey or Elam. My ancestor and Paula’s produced a child between four and five generations ago, probably in the early 1800s.
Our common ancestry goes back to the very earliest Virginia settlers who went on to become prominent and, often, wealthy. Intermarriage among the landed class was so common that Virginia society has been called “a vast cousinage,” so it is difficult to know if Paula’s and my connection was really four to five generations ago or longer. The Godseys hadn’t yet arrived in the 1600s, but they intermarried with the illustrious Branches (Christopher Branch was an early member of the House of Burgesses and an ancestor of Thomas Jefferson) and even more with the Elams, who were among Virginia’s earlier settlers.
Paula is a slender, active black woman with golden skin and a close-cropped Afro. Like me, she seems to have shown a taste for the exotic when she married a man from South Africa and acquired the mellifluous surname “Matabane,” a contrast to the surname Whatley that is so common in east Alabama and west Georgia. As for me, I hated my oh-so-ordinary surname of White and married a full-blooded, albeit second generation, Ukrainian. We have daughters of about the same age, hers named Mashadi Matabane and mine named Natalya Kochak. With names like those, neither one of them was particularly aware of their very deep Southern roots.
Also like me, Paula is a storyteller. I am a journalist and she is a documentary maker who taught communications at Howard University, the historically black institution in Washington, D.C.. While my daughter is an artist, hers is a writer. The parallels seem eerie.
“We are two sides of one coin, exemplars of a narrative that has been buried by controversy and a shame in American history that has yet to be fully acknowledged,” my daughter wrote this summer in her master’s thesis at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which explored our connection.
Paula was on the cusp of retirement from Howard University and intended to leave Washington D.C. to return to her hometown of Atlanta, just an hour-and-a-half from my home in Alabama. The four of us, mothers and daughters, began sharing our stories in person and via Skype and email. As we shared, I read obsessively about the 200-year history of American slavery. I recognized that our own family stories were a microcosm of our country’s history, some of it a hidden history of the U.S. not taught in school. That history included the ugly story of white men and their black concubines.
Slavery was inherently and undeniably exploitative, and concubinage was based on the man having power and the woman having no power, a circumstance that has defined the place of women throughout much of history, even when they were not enslaved. In recent years, several films have shown the experience of slavery in horrific detail; nevertheless, they miss the extraordinary complexity of the human relationships between slaveholders and enslaved, and the moral dilemma slavery posed for some whites.
When I first saw the evidence of my ancestors’ sexual exploits written in the indisputable code of DNA, I was distraught. I imagined my forebears physically overpowering enslaved women and taking them in the field. Several men I respected insisted it might not have been that simple, and it is true that women have always been able to use their appeal to extract favors from men. In fact, I learned from my reading that some white men considered “black” or “yellow” women their wives, sent their children north for schooling, and sought to free them.
Paula says she believes that the men who did honor their black consorts and children were an almost uncountable fraction of the total, however, and I should note that.
“As to your friend who suggests relationships between white men and black women might be more nuanced than rape, we go back to the Me Too Movement — is there any parity or possibility of love or saying no where the power differential is so stark?” Paula asks.
I admit to wondering the same. Indeed, the system was brutal. Harriet Jacobs, a runaway slave who told her extraordinary story in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, describes it this way: “When she is fourteen or fifteen, her owner, or his sons, or the overseer, or perhaps all of them, begin to bribe her with presents. If these fail to accomplish their purpose, she is whipped or starved into submission to their will…resistance is hopeless.”
An 1850 Georgia Supreme Court case contesting ownership of a 39-year old enslaved woman and her four mulatto children reveals the woman’s painful journey through slavery and hints at some of the complexity. The woman, Minerva, was Paula’s great-great grandmother. When Minerva was just seven years old, her master in Virginia died and she became the new property of the master’s daughter, Catherine, who had married and moved to Georgia. Minerva left her parents and home, likely never seeing either again.
Ten years later, Catherine’s husband sold 17-year-old Minerva in violation of the terms of Catherine’s father’s will. Minerva’s new master had used his wife’s substantial inheritance from her first husband to make the purchase, and he soon made the young woman his concubine, giving her a house of her own on his frontier Georgia plantation while his white wife occupied another house. The man fathered four mixed-race children with Minerva, their birth dates interspersed with the birth dates of the seven children conceived with his white wife.
“Minerva was the house cook, so by day she shared the same space as the master’s wife,” Paula says. “Can you imagine the toxic atmosphere and humiliation for both women?”
Thirteen years later, Catherine’s children demanded Minerva’s return, along with her “increase,” as part of their rightful inheritance. Fortunately for Minerva and her children, their legal case failed. The father of Minerva’s children won on a technicality but still repaid Minerva’s original purchase price to keep her as well as his own children.
After hearing Minerva’s story, my daughter said, “I would never have let my husband do that!” Gently, I asked her what she could possibly have done. Southern society was intensely patriarchal, and white women—though placed on a pedestal—had very few rights themselves. Paula admits, however, that she also is puzzled by the role of white women.
“The buyer’s wife tolerated her husband’s public adultery and humiliation of her,” she says. “Why didn’t she stand up for herself or for children, black or white? Surely this man’s children were shamed by his immoral, gutless behavior.”
Paula says a living descendant of Catherine’s used information in the Georgia Supreme Court file to support her documentation to join the Texas Daughters of the Confederacy or another similar group. The woman posted her findings online, noting that she got her info from a court case about “ownership of some slave.”
“I blasted her out about her apparent lack of horror and shame and empathy at her forebears separating a seven year old child from her family,” Paula says. “They, of course, took my post down.”
I am separated from Paula by a mere five generations, and my mother is even closer to her. My grandfather was closer still. We both are aware of the history that made us distant cousins, and that is another thing I ruminate upon. How could I, in my amnesiac present, not know that my family owned slaves? Many slaves, apparently, depending on which family and what time.
I thought I came from a long line of poor white farmers. I was born in Dodge City, the former cowtown in western Kansas, and my family propagated in the small towns dotting the High Plains stretching toward the Continental Divide. I grew up in a harsh land of short-grass prairie and endless, sun-bleached sky. Living in such a place gives you a sense of your importance in the universe. You’re just a speck on Mother Earth, and pretense seems silly.
After college and working in Kansas City, I moved to the New York City metro area with my soon-to-be husband when he accepted a job with a large pharmaceutical firm. I loved the big city and freelanced from home while I quickly gave birth to five babies, like my mother. Although I loved the place and the people, I never quite fit in. I felt like I didn’t know the secret handshake, and my mode of speech was less direct. I used idioms and figurative language that left acquaintances shaking their heads. People often asked if I were from the South, which puzzled me.
After nearly two decades in the Big Apple, my husband took a job at Auburn University in Alabama. When we moved, I expected to see Ku Klux Klansmen lounging on the street corners, because my impressions were formed by the killings of civil rights workers in the 1960s. Yet I felt more at home here than I ever did in the Northeast.
About the same time, the genealogy bug bit me. I wasn’t so much interested in filling in spaces on a chart as in learning where I came from, and I soon realized most of my family migrated west from Virginia, Tennessee and Alabama in the 1880s. I didn’t know they were planters, as in my mind that would have made them of a higher social class than I fancied myself to be.
Nevertheless, today I’m an outsider, a transplant. Judy Sheppard, an Alabama native and a retired Auburn University journalism professor, told me my status as an outsider in Alabama might be the only way the story could be told.
“People try to deny this exists,” she said. “I know better. I have heard the anecdotes.”
As I said, you can’t talk about race until you fully understand America’s past—so here is a very abbreviated, rewritten version of U.S. history as I have come to understand it, shorn of the romanticism and the larger-than-life heroes, and with the vicious institution of American chattel slavery taking the central position it deserves.
In the very earliest years of the American colonies, slavery was legal and commonplace in the North as well as the South. In Virginia and Maryland, where my forebears lived, slavery had made tobacco farming profitable. I knew that both the Godseys and the Elams, whose blood Paula and I share, traced back to Kentucky and before that to the French Huguenot settlement of Manakintowne in what is now Virginia’s Chesterfield County.
The first Godsey slave mentioned in the records is an Indian boy owned by my ancestor Thomas Godsey. Virginia settlers and traders at first enslaved Native Americans, sold to them by enemy tribes. The practice continued from shortly after the founding of Jamestown until the end of the 18th century, peaking late in the 17th century when the Atlantic slave trade was flooding Virginia with African labor.
The American Revolution, however, cost the new states their European markets. The institution was on its way to dying a natural death, which is what happened in the northern colonies and England. Then, in 1793, Eli Whitney improved the cotton gin (he didn’t actually invent it), and cotton became very, very profitable because cotton plantations in the Deep South supplied the textile mills in New England and Great Britain, and the expanding frontier of the Deep South provided cheap land suitable for cotton production.
At the same time, cheap land and grants for military service enticed Virginians to move west, and my forebears were among the pioneers who spread out through the Valley of Virginia and south onto the North Carolina piedmont, or settled west of the Blue Ridge mountains in Watauga and the State of Franklin. They were viewed as rough frontiersmen, but they soon put down roots and built homes.
By 1860, my great-great-great grandfather Jesse Roberts was the wealthiest man in Overton County, Tennessee, and enslaved 40 people. Despite his status as a planter, he was a Unionist when war came. Some 15 years after the Civil War, his son John moved his family west to Kansas. John’s son, Albert Houston Roberts, went back to college in Tennessee, later becoming governor of the state.
Like any family, mine consists of many strands. Some were Quakers from North Carolina, part of the sect that spearheaded formation of the Underground Railroad that spirited fugitive slaves north to freedom. Another forebear provided money in his will to provide ship’s fare to Liberia, as well as lifetime stipends for the enslaved servants he intended to free. Still others were tradesmen, not planters. One is said to have ridden with Jesse James.
In the Deep South, the combination of an improved cotton gin, fertile land, and mills hungry for cotton to spin into thread caused a “gold rush,” attracting thousands of white men seeking quick fortunes as land opened up to the west. There are many myths about the Deep South, supposedly the land of magnolias and mint juleps and a gallant and benevolent aristocracy. The idea that the planter class in states like Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi was descended from the gentry of Virginia and their elite English forebears is one of the most cherished myths.
In reality, the Deep South planters were ambitious capitalists who came from all over. That’s one of the many things Gone With the Wind got right about Southern culture; Scarlett’s father Gerald was a scrappy Irishman, not a hoity-toity aristocrat. In 1850, for example, 25 percent of the population of New Orleans was from the North, and 10 percent of the residents of Mobile, Alabama, were transplanted New Yorkers.
The descendants of the Virginia gentry often just percolated west and ended up as people like me, moving westward until they hit the Pacific Ocean. The slaveocracy of the Deep South was born of opportunists from all kinds of backgrounds who thought they could get rich quick. Then they emulated what they thought was the Virginia Cavalier lifestyle—or that is the impression I’m getting.
Another myth is that only Southerners benefited from enslaving other human beings. Cotton was the basis for wealth in both the North and the South. By 1860, New York had become the so-called “capital of the South” because of its importance to the cotton trade. That bumptious metropolis received an estimated 40 percent of all cotton revenues because the city supplied insurance, shipping, and financing services, while New York merchants sold goods to Southern planters.
And oh yes, those planters did prosper, although none of mine got rich off King Cotton. In the antebellum South, the single largest concentration of America’s millionaires was gathered in plantations along the banks of the Mississippi River, with the single wealthiest county in the wealthiest state being Adams County, home to the slave-trading center of Natchez. As a separate nation, the South alone would have been the world’s fourth wealthiest in 1860, ahead of every European nation except England, with which Dixie’s fortunes were inextricably linked.
It is easy to demonize the planters, to gather them collectively into historical quarantine and remark upon their sin, absolving others of blame. In truth, however, the system put into place in the Virginia of the late 1600s was very difficult for the white planters to escape—and it was all about money.
This was capitalism, remember. Banks provided the money that fueled the early 19th-century rise of capitalism and the throbbing engine of the Industrial Revolution, creating the wealth to fund the industries that later attracted millions of immigrants to our shores. There is no denying that they, too, ultimately benefited from the institution of slavery.
Banks lend money, and they require security in case the loan is not repaid. Farmers are always borrowing against the future, and perennially cash-strapped planters could use slaves as collateral for loans. That is what is meant by “chattel”—slaves were tangible, moveable personal property, more easily converted to cash than real estate. Since the enslaved represented a family’s wealth, they were sold to pay off debts or bestow an inheritance. I assume that is what happened to most of my family’s human chattel.
Bankers didn’t hesitate to sell off a planter’s property in the event of default, casually destroying families. That, to me, is how the American institution of slavery differed most profoundly from what came before. No one would have thought of breaking up a Russian serf’s family to pay off debts or award an inheritance, but shattering American slave families was commonplace.
Paula’s father’s paternal progenitors, Jacob and Phyllis Whatley, were enslaved by Shurley Whatley of James County, Virginia. They are listed in Whatley’s 1778 will in North Carolina, where he died. Whatley’s human wealth was divided up among his children; Jacob and Phyllis’ daughter, Fannie, was awarded to Wharton Whatley of Oglethorpe County, Georgia, while her siblings were divided among various other white Whatleys, all of whom also lived in Georgia.
The Industrial Revolution and the triumph of King Cotton caused another tragic dislocation for the South’s enslaved population. In the Upper South, plantations tended to be smaller, and “natural increase” meant, in real terms, more mouths to feed. The Upper South became the breeding ground that supplied slaves to the Deep South, causing the largest forced migration in American history, far larger than the infamous Trail of Tears that sent Native Americans west to Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma..
Tobacco slaves in the Upper South were sold off and marched south, chained together in “coffles.” Louisville was a major gathering point for enslaved individuals being sold down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to vast cotton and sugar plantations, where conditions could be very harsh. That’s where the phrase “sold down the river”—signifying betrayal—originated.
White women, of course, saw what was happening between their husbands and the enslaved women ostensibly under their care. The more literate expressed their anger in writing. One of them was Mary Boykin Chestnut, a wealthy South Carolina woman whose husband was first a U.S. senator and then a Confederate officer.
“But what do you say to this — to a magnate who runs a hideous black harem with its consequences, under the same roof with his lovely white wife and his beautiful and accomplished daughters?” she asked in her diary. “He holds his head high and poses as the model of all human virtues to these poor women whom God and the laws have given him.”
Because Virginia’s passage of the doctrine of partus sequitur ventrem in1662 had established that children were born into the status of their mother, many mixed race children were among the enslaved. The doctrine was a departure from English common law, which required fathers to take responsibility for illegitimate children.
“Southern women often marry a man knowing that he is the father of many little slaves. They do not trouble themselves about it,” Harriet Jacobs wrote. “They regard such children as property, as marketable as the pigs on the plantation; and it is seldom that they do not make them aware of this by passing them into the slave-trader’s hands as soon as possible, and thus getting them out of their sight.”
Jacobs noted that there were “some honorable exceptions,”but less scrupulous men could increase their net worth by selling their own children or putting them to work. Ned and Constance Sublette, authors of The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry, coined the term “capitalized womb” in trying to describe this dynamic. For the sake of brevity, just think of slaves as money and their offspring as interest.
And consider this: The fragment of DNA that is passed only from father to son, known as Y DNA, shows that a staggering 35 percent of African-American men descend from a white ancestor who fathered a “mulatto” child. As for Paula, her DNA shows that about a quarter of her ancestry is European, which is typical.
Generations of concubinage sometimes resulted in children who looked white and who were, in modern terms, white. But the “one drop rule” meant any African ancestry made a person “black,” no matter the skin color. The mother of Solomon Northrup, the subject of the recent film Twelve Years a Slave, was a quadroon, meaning that only one of her grandparents was of African lineage. So was Thomas Jefferson’s alleged mistress, Sally Hemings. These “white slaves” were highly desirable and often sold as “fancy girls” in New Orleans. Later, they were used effectively for propaganda purposes as abolition fervor peaked in the North.
Other white women took out their rage physically on the black or mixed-race women who they saw as stealing their husbands. I think the shame of the white planters’ wives is one of the reasons these relationships between white masters and black slave women were hidden and unacknowledged for so long, and that their children—our own kin—were denied.
“These family ties were created through force and abuse, then denigrated and hidden, creating shame within families on both sides publicly and privately for generations to come,” Paula says.
By 1850, my branch of the Godseys had moved to what would soon become Taylor County, Iowa, part of the “Disputed Territory” between Missouri and Iowa. When my great-great-great grandfather Edward Samuel Godsey moved north, the area was wilderness recently vacated by the natives.
Taylor County’s early settlers mostly came from the South, thinking they were settling in Missouri, a slaveholding state. So a few years later, Edward Samuel Godsey moved across the border. Although Godsey was not a slaveholder and local histories describe him as a poor man who made good, members of his family were still part of the planter class. In fact, one of theSlave Narrativesrecorded as part of the Federal Writers Project in the 1930s hit much too close to home.
Minnie Foulks was just a small child back in Chesterfield County when she was emancipated in 1863, but she remembered an overseer who used to tie her mother up in the barn and beat her with a horsewhip. When Minnie asked her mother why the overseer whipped her, her mother said she did nothing but “refuse to be a wife to this man.” Minnie was owned by Betsy Godsey, the wife of Edward Samuel Godsey’s brother Branch Godsey.
After the whipping, the overseer bathed the woman’s wounds in brine. Although “rubbing salt in an open wound” is an idiom for making things worse, the painful treatment was the common way to stop infection in the gashes from the equally common, brutal whippings meted out to the enslaved. Minnie Foulks explained that if Betsy and her husband Branch had known what their overseer was doing, there would be trouble. If an enslaved woman dared to tell, however, her life would be forfeit.
I also think it is ironic that an outsider like me has to be the one to tell this story. This suggestion comes from a friend, a born-and-bred daughter of the Deep South: “I wonder if you can emphasize perhaps the odd circumstance of you, the ‘Yankee,’ discovering here in the South— a place where, outsiders assume, most whites have ancestors guilty of rape—that you may have more reason to feel inherited guilt than many Southerners?”
There were no blacks in the western Kansas of my childhood. None. I never interacted with a black person as a child. Actually, it was more than never interacting; I never saw a black person as a child in western Kansas. I read voraciously—way above my age— so in some books I ran across references to “colored people.” I thought this was a reference to the few Mexicans who lived in our town, and asked my mother about it. That’s when I learned about “Negroes.”
In Dodge City’s Wright Park, there was a big bathtub-style pool that had to be drained once a week, and the Mexicans were only allowed to swim in it the day before the vast pool was drained and refilled. And they were only allowed to sit in the balcony of the one movie theater downtown. I remember my Dad shaking his head and saying, “I just can’t believe it. We thought it was normal in those days.”
In a way this “sheltered” upbringing was probably good, because I didn’t grow up in a miasma of negative stereotypes or expectations. I wasn’t taught anything at all about “race,” other than to never use the “N-word,” as only low-class people did that. To me, African-Americans were another kind of exotic people like Ukrainians or Chinese. I was naive in a lot of ways.
Unlike me, Paula has long been intimately acquainted with the mores and prejudices of the Deep South. She grew up in Atlanta, a city with a vibrant black middle class despite the imposition of Jim Crow laws in the early 20th century. In the South of the 1950s, she said, there were only two kinds of people — blacks and whites. In Atlanta, everything was segregated, from the schools to the churches and the social events. She saw middle-class whites when her mother took her downtown to shop at the fabulous Rich’s Department Store, but they had to eat at a “colored” cafeteria in the basement. There were no African-American sales clerks.
I’m glad Paula and I met and together embarked on a journey of discovery in hopes of identifying our shared ancestor. She has helped me to see the world through her eyes, and she has lent me her articulate voice. In these days when political correctness lambasts “cultural appropriation,” Paula says simply, “We invited you in.”
“I deeply respect your willingness to be open and vulnerable in exploring an ugly side of family and social life — almost like someone looking into family incest,” she said. “How painful. You risk censure and even social isolation from family, friends and your community.”
I said I wasn’t worried.
As William Faulkner wrote in Requiem for a Nun, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” When I sit in the choir at church and look out at a sea of white faces, I realize I’m more closely related to Paula than to most of them. I want to own this history, these stories, these living roots that grew into the tangled thicket of today’s society.
“It is most unsettling for the average black person to acknowledge that he or she has blood relatives among former slave owners, knowing the abuse associated with that,” Paula wrote to our little group in an email. “And it is most unsettling to the average white person who wants to see his or her family as racially pure, genteel and moral during the slave era.”
And, still, she wonders about the white women.
-Jacqueline White Kochak