My South Carolina ancestors profited greatly, in wealth and influence, from the institution of slavery.
Let’s get this naming of plantations dispensed with. Here are those I’ve found on my tree so far. Each is listed after an ancestor of mine who bought the land, supervised the building, sold the house, lived in the house, or was related to someone who did one of those things.
Linked to my 8th great-grandfather, Nathaniel Johnson (1644-1712), Governor of South Carolina from 1702-1709:
Linked to my 7th great-grandfather, Jonas Lynch (1650-1691):
Linked to my 6th great-grandfather, Edward Croft (1696-1756), is Bermuda or Belleview Plantation on the Wando River. No photos available.
Linked to my 6th great-grandfather, Thomas Boone (1696-1759) and my 5th great grand uncle Thomas Lynch, Sr. (1727-1776):
Linked to the wife of my 6th great-grandfather Thomas Lynch (1675-1738), Margaret Fenwick (1680-1716):
Linked to my third cousin four times removed, Robert Boone Jenkins (1821-1884 ):
Ensconced in homes like these, my ancestors became influential in their local and national governments. A first cousin six times removed, who lived at Hopsewee, even signed the Declaration of Independence.
The residents of such great houses may have gained their whole world. Yet after admiring these buildings, I must ask myself: Did they lose their own souls?
No one can know another person’s heart—not even in the present, much less the past. And it’s not up to me to judge my ancestors or anyone else. Yet I have to wonder Why they lived as they did. I wonder How they felt about creating and sustaining their lifestyles with slave labor.
Here is the hypothesis I’m now testing: My ancestors and the people of their class, without realizing it, swallowed a profound guilt for the unnatural act of owning other human beings. That guilt lodged in them so deeply that they couldn’t even feel it as such, much less admit it to themselves.
Meanwhile, their psychological defense systems were silently working overtime to deny and palliate that core of guilt, so as to distance all hints of guilt from their conscious thoughts.
I’ve found some support for my hypothesis by getting to know my ancestors and their white antebellum culture. These characteristics stand out to me:
They worked hard to prove to themselves their own goodness. My ancestors and their fellow planters were avid churchgoers: Anglicans, Baptists, Presbyterians. At services and in assemblies they would rehearse overlapping arguments that slavery was God’s will, that the sons of Ham were cursed, that the slaves were better off on plantations than in the wilds of Africa, that as a group they were good slaveholders who treated their slaves kindly (except for “necessary” discipline, of course), and that teaching their slaves to be Christians was the Lord’s work. In letters, they insisted that their own slaves loved and respected them, no matter what might be the case on a neighbor’s plantation.
They held fast to their belief in themselves and their virtues. Looking back, we might well be convinced (as I am) that slavery was an evil and inhuman institution, which inflicted immeasurable devastation and despair upon hundreds of thousands of human beings. My ancestors and their class, caught up in the daily workings of this evil system, could not realize its magnitude and survive at the same time. Tied to their communities, they would be hard-pressed to have “Amazing Grace” moments. Their psychological defenses automatically supplied them with attitudes that were insular and delusional, beliefs in the graciousness and courtesy of a slave-based society. These beliefs held back the self-doubt that would have destroyed them.
They blamed the victims. This mechanism is commonly used throughout history, mainly without conscious intent, to keep groups of people from blaming themselves. It seems that this unconscious strategy is built into our neural software, for our own psychological protection. As if by magic, we look at those who threaten our self-image and see our own imagined worst faults, magnified, in them. It’s not us, it’s them.
Because the very presence of African slaves threatened the good self-images of white owners, a host of negative stereotypes about slaves arose and took hold in Southern culture—to deflect unspeakable guilt away from slaveholders. We carry the legacy of these stereotypes about blacks to this day.
- Stereotype #1: Slaves are poor, dependent, childlike, and unintelligent. This stereotype reassured white owners that they themselves were truly intelligent, rich, and in solid control of the plantation. They could believe they acted like kind and generous parents to their slaves.
- Stereotype #2: Slaves are unreliable, dangerous, and savage, ready at a moment’s notice to kill their white masters. (1) This stereotype reassured white owners that they themselves were blameless, that there was no violence inherent in slavery, and that slaveholders were not the barbaric ones.
- Stereotype #3: Slaves are lazy and deceitful and shiftless, a burden to manage. This stereotype helped convince white owners that they themselves were hard workers who labored constantly for the good of the household. Others might tend the crops, but whites did the real work.
Except for the abolitionists, the whole country—looking the other way—colluded to preserve the institution of slavery until the Civil War erupted. This de facto acceptance of slavery may well have caused widespread, unacknowledged guilt in the “land of the free.” For that sufficient reason, the nation in general may have hastened to adopt these negative, guilt-allaying Southern stereotypes of blacks. Even now, too many people believe them.
In Reconstruction, Eric Foner explores the ways that many whites in power after the Civil War ignored the needs of the emancipated slaves for education, jobs, and suffrage.(2) I would imagine that the more completely our citizens became aware of past wrongs, the more they had to deny their own complicity, and therefore the more they dismissed the pain of the newly freed black population. We can recall Ronald Reagan’s infamous fiction of the “welfare queen,” now a staple of popular culture. That myth has been quite useful in helping white citizens deny their historical guilt.
- “The Negro is always with us, as we are with him. There he is before our eyes, the symbol of our sin, the living reminder that our words are wrong.” (3)
We are in the same story still. As a nation, we seem unable to confront our history of slavery and its continuing effects. My parents never mentioned slavery, probably for shame—though they would never have admitted to shame. I thought all my ancestors were poor—and they were, after the Depression. Yet I did not learn about my slaveholder ancestry until I was in my 50s.
Here is an artful, ironic documentary film about our national dilemma: Moving Midway. A contemporary Southern family, still feeling attached to their old plantation home, choose to move the entire structure, in one piece, away from city traffic and into the nearby countryside. During this project, African-American relatives and descendants of the family’s former slaves appear and weigh in.
This film includes many soft-spoken and carefully nuanced conversations that are amusing, sad, and bristling with loose ends.
(1) Of course, enslaved people want to break free. The American Revolution bodied forth that truth for the new nation.
(2) “Rehearsals for Reconstruction,” in Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution. HarperCollins: 1988, 35-76
(3) James McBride Dabbs, The Southern Heritage. Alfred A. Knopf, 1958. 267-68. He is speaking about desegregation here, in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, 1954.