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Slavery An Integral Part of Nation's Shared Ancestry
Published on Thursday, March 22, 2007 by Atlantic Journal-Constitution
Slavery An Integral Part of Nation's Shared Ancestry
by Jay Bookman

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.

The 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.

But 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.

He 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.

Over 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.

Blue 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 him.

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 himself.

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.

That 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 comfortably discussed.

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


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