Yesterday, I posted a question to my new African-American Genealogy and Slave Ancestry Research Facebook Group, asking how many over the course of their research, had identified and attempted to contact the descendants of their Ancestors slave owner(s).

There were several responses citing the positive and sometimes, not so positive exchanges that occur when our research leads us back to the descendant of a long-gone slaveholder. Our hope? That the descendant is willing to engage us and moved to share any documentation/information that might shed light on our once enslaved Ancestor.

These dialogues can be awkward and unpredictable. As a family historian who’s outreached many white descendants, I still never know what to expect when I hit my “send” button.

I’ve been appreciative of the WINGFIELD and CODY support received over the years to push my research further. Angered when it became clear I might never fully know Catie’s Story due to the unwillingness of the DICKEY family to share with me what information exists about her in the bibles/journals of Rev. James Madison DICKEY, her Washington-Wilkes owner. And disappointed beyond words to find the Southwestern Claude CARR CODY Collection — which contains hundreds of original documents belonging to Catie’s first owner Madison Derrelle CODY — completely purged of ANY reference to the family’s abundant slave holdings.

Yes, engaging white descendants in an attempt to identify your lost family lineage can be a mixed bag! There’s a lot of ugly history to sort through, and even after 15+ years of researching, I still struggle to make my peace with it — as well as its cultural, genealogical and economic impacts.

And there are days like today, when I’m reminded of just how ugly our shared history really is, and why so many descendants researching Slave Ancestry struggle with the decision to contact a slave owners descendant. Without question, I understand the strong feelings [and oft times anger] that comes when a discussion turns to the topic of reparations for slavery.

In 2011 I learned via Twitter and a widely socialized press release, that Bill Grimke-Drayton, a genealogy acquaintance whose family once owned the Magnolia Plantation in Charleston, SC, had discovered slave documents in the attic of his family’s UK home, and negotiated the sale of them to the College of Charleston for the sum of $60,000.00.

Without rehashing all of the “fun” details, I went in on Bill. Part due to his role in the genealogy community and work in advocacy for historical preservation. Part due to my knowledge of the generations-old [tobacco] wealth already yielded from the work of DRAYTON slaves, and inherited by Bill as a descendant. But mostly because of the boastful, proud manner in which a press release was marketed online, as if the selling of HIS FAMILIES slave documents was something he was entitled to profit from!

Honestly, at the time this act by Bill felt very much like a betrayal, and a blunt reminder of how little consideration has been afforded to the descendants of once enslaved Ancestors.

I’ve included a snippet from the 2011 Bill Grimke-Drayton reminder that came my way this morning via Donna Hay of Hay Genealogy. I honestly don’t recall ever reading Donna’s sentiments and only find issue with one point raised — this IS the time to discuss monetary reparations for the descended of families of slaves.

Will that conversation ever happen? No, not in our lifetime but that doesn’t mean it isn’t long overdue.

Yes Donna, Bill and anyone else in doubt – I believe monetary and non-monetary reparations should have been afforded generations ago!

I applaud especially the efforts at the Magnolia Plantation (previously owned by the Drayton family) and Low County Africana to preserve the slave history as well as the planter history, as well as the publication of the 2300 slave narratives by Bruce Fort of UVA. I excoriate the traffic in slave artifacts by planter descendants such as Bill Grimke-Drayton who was paid $60,000 by the College of Charleston for 18th and 19th century papers (see Luckie Daniels). What is our heritage from all of this? Is restitution deserved by the slave descendants? I think non-monetary restitution is long-overdue, and needed for us as a country — we need to embrace this part of our past and firmly repudiate it; I speak not as a Yankee but as a 21st century American. We need to realize that slavery is not just a history lesson — there are still 12-27 million people in bondage today world-wide, mostly debt-slaves in South Asia who can be in bondage for generations. There is also human trafficking primarily for prostituting women and children. Although slavery is at its lowest level in recorded history, the scourge is still being practiced today. As far as monetary restitution, that involves stickier questions. Who should pay? How do we calculate a person’s worth? How do we locate the right descendants? But I morally object that descendants of planters should make money off the sale of slavery artifacts, genealogical or archeological, passed down from their ancestors; surely would not the donation of this material to Lowcountry Americana and/or the Magnolia Plantation have been a better route? Could not you argue that these papers deserved to have been part of the sale of the plantation itself? If I feel I need to apologize for slavery, as a descendant of Union families, why would not plantation-owner descendants? Given that the slave traffic in America was uniquely race-defined, I think that without an overt White Americans apology to Black Americans, we will never put our racial biases behind us. I see the fact that the 50 years between slave-trade outlaw in 1808 and the start of the Civil War in 1861 did not abolish slavery in the Lowcountry; nor did the 50 years between the Civil Rights of the 1960s and today abolish racism. The fact that we have a Lowcountry slave descendant in the White House (First Lady Michelle Robinson Obama) I hope indicates we are making progress. — Donna Hay, 2011

For all the reasons both Donna and I took issue with Bill Grimke-Drayton’s $60,000 artifact profit in 2011. For the legacy of gaps, loss and endless questions that’s our inheritance as descendants of enslaved Ancestors. For all the devastating economic, cultural and communal impacts that bombard us daily, a mere 47 years beyond being afforded American Civil Rights.

As difficult a conversation it is to have and economic/ownership mess to sort, I feel COMPLETELY entitled to monetary and non-monetary reparations for the impacts of the U.S. Chattel System that spanned 400+ years.

If descendants of emancipated slaves are not deserving of monetary reparations, then how was it determined Native Americans and Holocaust survivors should be entitled to the same? What was the rule of measure for defining which victimized ethnic group was/is entitled to compensation?

If we slice through the core of this very uncomfortable dialogue, what’s really at the root of America’s resistance to acknowledge the ramifications of slavery and to accept accountability for righting this historic wrong?

And if I’m not entitled to reparations, then how in the world can the [seen and unseen] Bill Grimke-Draytons still be allowed to profit from my history and Ancestors oppression?

Hell yes, almost 3 years later and the sting from Bill’s slap remains fresh!

Luckie