A Personal Apology for Slavery
The two houses of the North Carolina General Assembly ratified a joint resolution on April 12 expressing “profound regret… for the history of wrongs inflicted upon black citizens by means of slavery, exploitation and legalized racial segregation and calling on all citizens to take part in acts of racial reconciliation.”
Such public declarations don’t cause earth-shaking reverberations overnight. Maybe there’s a flutter of debate among the commenting classes that recedes as a faint echo a couple weeks later. Maybe the people’s servants feel better after having unburdened their consciences and allow themselves the luxury of putting this sorrowful history behind them.
I hope not. And I hope all North Carolinians will take to heart the General Assembly’s call to recommit themselves to the principle that all persons are created equal and “to work daily to treat all persons with abiding respect for their humanity and to eliminate racial prejudices, injustices and discrimination from our society.”
I have a personal stake in this apology.
One Sunday morning in the spring of 1997, during a college internship at the Institute for Southern Studies in Durham, I hopped in my car and drove a couple hours east to the town of Jackson in Northampton County. My grandma had told me that our family had roots in this rural backwater community east of Interstate 95, and I was eager to fashion some tangible sense of connection to a state where I had no family relationships.
I found a general store stocked with non-perishable foodstuffs, fly paper and other useful items, and introduced myself to the African-American proprietor. I had a list of names – Jordans, Faisons and Calverts – whose forbearers had landed on American shores before the revolution and made their way down the coast from Virginia to settle here. The proprietor was happy to help me in my search for some illuminating shreds of information about them. He dialed a number on his phone and handed me the receiver.
The woman on the other line was an informal town historian whose name I wish I could remember. Right away she recognized my family line.
I had heard from my grandma that some of our ancestors in North Carolina owned slaves. Amateur genealogists’ efforts describe large landholders, hoteliers, lawyers and representatives of state government in our family line, but aside from an account of a fearful effort to protect townspeople from Nat Turner’s slave revolt, elide the subject of bonded labor. So the anecdote supplied by the town historian sounded plausible but could refer to a distant relative or another of the two Jordan families as my great-great grandfather Doug Jordan.
“They went through some hard times after the war,” she told me.
Hard times? I asked. Why them particularly?
“Oh, everyone did,” she replied. “After the Civil War they lost everything.”
Then she rattled off a revealing anecdote about one of my antecedents who was left with an expanse of unproductive acreage and no bonded labor to work it.
“Old Man Jordan lost a thousand acres to the turn of a card,” she said.
The recklessness, privilege and utter lack of self-awareness in that act took my breath away. The notion that land on which African slaves had performed back-breaking labor and seen their families torn apart and sold on the marketplace like so much livestock could be tossed away in a game of chance seemed… well, infuriating.
I can’t recall my exact words when I handed the receiver back to that storeowner, but I know they contained embarrassment and a fumbling request for forgiveness. About his response I can only say with certainty that it was gracious and reflective of the same hospitality he’d shown me the moment I stepped inside his store.
If I didn’t clearly articulate it then, I say it now: I’m sorry for the brutal system my ancestors participated in, for the indignity they imposed in destroying families, for the theft of those slaves’ best potential to develop their talents and education – and, perhaps most importantly, to enjoy the fruits of their own labor.
Everyone should know at least once in their lives the feeling of liberation that comes from the opportunity to make an apology and have it accepted.
For the sake of accuracy I should note that I called my grandma last week to try to confirm our ancestors’ slaveholding status. After a few hours, she called me back to report that she had a will made out by a Jordan in Smithfield, Va. that referenced the transfer of up to five slaves to his heirs. We have run across no records of any of our North Carolina ancestors owning slaves but, my grandma says, “I’m sure they did.”
There can be no doubt but that I am a direct beneficiary of slavery. When my great grandfather Faison Jordan left Jackson as a young man to go to work for Brown & Williamson in Norfolk, Va., he surely had all the advantages of accumulated wealth, access to education and the business connections that were the inheritance of the slave-owning class. He shipped out to sell tobacco in China before returning to the United States in 1940. My grandmother believes he would have died in a Japanese internment camp if he’d not had to return to the States on sick leave; incidentally, his ship passed Pearl Harbor close enough for him to witness the Japanese bombing.
My grandma, a woman of refinement and education, would soon meet her future husband, who would go on to head the University of Florida’s Department of English. I don’t think I need to trace the next two generations to persuade anybody that educational expectations and cross-cultural competency passed down by parents and grandparents confer distinct advantages on their progeny.
There’s a lot of quibbling and hairsplitting in conversations among white folks when the topic of our collective responsibility for slavery comes up. Some of our ancestors didn’t own slaves. Some of them were immigrants who hadn’t even landed on American shores before slavery was abolished. These are evasions of the basic reality that the appearance of whiteness comes with all kinds of privileges that are not available to those who look brown. That’s a direct result of slavery because the slave-owning society had to cultivate the persistent myth of white supremacy to justify this evil practice.
All of us who look white benefit from the assumption that unless we demonstrate otherwise, we are competent, morally upright and deserving of any success that comes out way. Brown people are conversely treated with suspicion and looked upon as interlopers if they achieve success.
Once you understand something about history and your role in it, you can’t just say “sorry” one time and expect the slate to be wiped clean. Knowing the legacy bequeathed to me by Jordans, Faisons and Calverts in Northampton County I have come to understand that to truly break with the past I must dedicate my life to combating racism and working for a just society.
A better future for all of us requires nothing less.
To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at firstname.lastname@example.org.