Let me tell you a story. My father's people come from western
Virginia, near the headwaters of the James River. For 250 years they
have lived in that valley, making their living as hunters and
frontiersmen, then as farmers, later as railroad workers and tradesmen.
first of our line to settle there was Jacob Persinger. As a child of
two or three, he had been kidnapped by the Shawnee and raised as a
tribe member, adopted by a mother who had lost a son of her own.
in 1763, a treaty ending the French and Indian War required the Shawnee
to return all white captives. Jacob, then a teenager, was handed to
authorities, given a white name and told to live as a white man.
wasn't having it. Twice, young Jacob ran back to the Shawnee, traveling
alone more than 200 miles on foot from Virginia to Ohio; each time, he
was returned to the white settlement by Shawnee elders afraid of
violating the treaty.
"If you care for your Indian mother, you
will not cause trouble for us again with the white man," the great
chief Cornstalk told Jacob as he banished him the final time.
Or so the story goes.
the years I had heard bits and pieces of that tale, but when I started
looking a little deeper, the story got richer. Among other things, I
discovered that Jacob later owned two slaves, a female kitchen worker
and a field hand known as Blue.
We cannot judge the past by the
standards of today, but I imagine Jacob knew slavery was wrong. The
contrast between the way white Americans treated captured Africans such
as Blue, and the way Jacob had been embraced by the Shawnee, would have
been hard to ignore. Later, when the Civil War came, the Persinger
family took the Union side. And in Jacob's will, he stipulated that
both of his slaves were to be freed when they turned 31.
never knew that freedom. One year during haying season, the 22-year-old
slave got into a dispute with Jacob's son, John. (Both parties are
rumored to have been sipping from the family still.) Blue grabbed a
sickle and slashed John behind his knee, cutting an artery and killing
Surprisingly, Blue was given a trial with a semblance of
fairness. The state of Virginia even hired a lawyer to defend him.
After his conviction, on Aug. 12, 1842, he became the first man legally
hanged in that county, riding to his execution on a coffin he built
The state then paid our family $320, compensation for
destroying our property when it killed Blue. But first, it deducted $15
to pay the lawyer.
Recently, the state of Virginia has tried to
make amends of a different sort, passing a resolution formally
apologizing for the enslavement of Blue and many others. A similar
resolution has been proposed here in Georgia, but judging from comments
by legislative leaders, its chances are slim. In following the debate,
you get the sense that for some white Southerners, an apology will cost
them something they can't quite articulate, but know they aren't
willing to surrender.
So let me take a stab at explaining it.
Irrational beings that we are, we humans like to believe that stories
about our ancestors in some way reflect who we are today. Sure, it's
romantic claptrap, but we're all susceptible. That's why I went poking
into Jacob's history — I liked the idea that an ancestor had been
raised by Indians.
Likewise, when white Southerners boast of
ancestors who fought so well and so stubbornly in the War of Northern
Aggression, they too bask in their forefathers' glory. But when they
are asked to apologize for the slavery those ancestors defended, that
pride is in some way diminished.
I speak as an outsider, but it
would only be natural if at a deep level black Americans felt something
similar — not a sense of pride but a gnawing sense of shame that their
ancestors had been held so long in slavery and treated as inferior. If
so, that shame would be no more rational than the pride felt by members
of the Daughters of the Confederacy, but it would feel just as real.
may be why, for many black Americans, slavery is still something raw
between us. On the two occasions that I've mentioned the story of my
slaveholding ancestor to black friends, their instinct has been to
recoil and try to change the topic. It's not something to be
A couple of years ago, I took my children
to Jacob's grave, on a hill overlooking the Persinger homesite. I
pointed out the emblem on his gravestone marking him as a veteran of
the Revolutionary War, but I also pointed out the spot where Blue
killed John, and I told them that story, too.
Because, in the
end, our history really is like DNA. We inherit it all, the good with
the bad. If I embrace Jacob Persinger as a symbol of family pride, if I
want to think that in some way his story says something about me, well,
that story turns out to be complicated.
© 2007 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution