(This is part 2 of my journey researching my family’s history of owning enslaved people. You can find part 1 here.)
Jean pointed out the passenger side window off into the distance.
“Can you see it?” She asked.
I looked in the direction she indicated and couldn’t see anything.
“The family plot is back there.”
I squinted and looked harder. “I’m afraid I can’t see it.”
For almost as far as my eye could see there was nothing but stumps, small underbrush, and broken tree limbs scattered here and there. But in the middle of what was clearly a large logging project was a grove of trees left standing in place. The logging road wound its way through the stumps and past this grove of trees.
“I think it’s in that grove of trees back there,” Jean guessed.
I was beginning to feel uncomfortable – like an unwelcome guest. It wasn’t Jean making me feel that way. It was, well, I just felt like I was beginning to turn over stones some people wouldn’t want overturned.
“We can come back another time,” I tried, getting a bit nervous about potentially trespassing on somebody else’s property in gun-lover country.
“Oh, just pull off up here.” Jean said, pointing off to the right of the snake-like, two-lane road we were on. “There’s a road you can walk up if you’d like.”
Jean was the epitome of a sweet, southern belle. Well into her 90’s she’d had decades of practice getting it just right. So when told me there was a road I can walk up if I’d like, she did so in a way that disallowed any thought that I would not walk up that road. Of course I’d “like.” How could I refuse?
I pulled off onto the entrance to the timber company access road. There was just enough room to park. Blocking my way was a locked gate, with a yellow sign that deepened the foreboding feeling that I was sticking my nose where it didn’t belong.
POSTED- Private Property…Hunting, fishing, trapping or trespassing for any reason is strictly forbidden. Trespassers will be prosecuted.
I’d seen signs like this dozens if not hundreds of times throughout my 44 years. But this time … this time there was a certain amount of poetry in the moment. The no trespassing sign was there to send a message to outsiders. “You don’t belong here. We don’t want you here. Go back where you came from. NO. HUNTING. HERE.”
I was indeed, hunting.
Hunting for answers.
There I stood. A guy from the northeast, visiting Victoria, Virginia to see if my family had a history of owning other people.
I wanted to know if “we” owned slaves. This little forest foray was part of my journey of discovery.
Following Jean’s directions, I walked up the dirt road, rocks crunching beneath my feet in the otherwise quiet timberland. Juxta positioned against the red dirt, the gray pee-gravel below my feet looked as awkward and out of place as I surely did. It had been brought in to shore up the dirt road. It stone was clearly from somewhere else, but at least it was invited. I was sure I was about to be shot by some trigger-happy landowner. But I pressed on, because disappointing Jean seemed to be a worse fate.
Even as I came close to where I thought the plot was supposed to be, I saw nothing. But then it gradually appeared off to my left, the forest acted as a sort of fog, and I couldn’t see it until I was almost upon it.
It was a small plot of graves camouflaged by the oaks which had grown up around them for decades and the leaves they’d deposited over the same amount of time. There was a short, iron fence roughly three and a half feet surrounding the plot. The top of the fence was lined with ornamental spikes which served the dual purpose of looking both fancy and menacing. Had I any desire to hop the fence, I’d have thought better about it.
I could have walked right in if I’d wanted to. The gate was broken, hanging in a crooked manner, and held closed only by an out-of-place bicycle lock with a chrome chain. It was awkward looking against the black iron fence. I had no intention of entering the plot. I could see everything I needed to from where I was standing.
Most of the grave stones were weathered and somewhat difficult to read. Years of wind and rain had taken their toll on the limestone. But they all remained in place, upright and straight.
I looked for the oldest stone there. It belonged to “Charles Madison Hardy” who lived from 1836 – 1921. Not far away was a second stone for Chaz. The second was a bit more formal looking, with a symbol like an iron cross with a wreath in it carved into the top. I’d later discover this was the symbol of The Daughters of the Confederacy. Also engraved where the words –
CO G 9 CAL VA CAL (Company , 9th Virginia Calvary)
Confederate States Army
It was an interesting stop for me. I hadn’t expected to be able to view these graves. The fence was beginning to show signs of disrepair, but wasn’t as bad as it could have been. Interestingly, one of the grave markers was for a man who was buried in the family plot as recently as 2015. Jean would later tell me that cousin Keith’s dying wish was to be buried with his ancestors. I also learned the legacy of the Confederacy was important to him.
But as interesting as I found the gravestones, it didn’t answer my question-
Did my ancestors own slaves?
I wasn’t sure what I was asking, exactly. I wasn’t even sure why it was important to me.
As I returned to the parked car I took a moment to turn and look at the No Trespassing sign. I wondered if it might have been directed right at me as I hunted for answers. It was as if I was digging for some dirt on people I never knew, whose descendants I barely knew, and on a legacy I wasn’t sure I wanted to know about.
But I did want to know. I’d wanted to know for a long time.
Initially, my question was little more than curiosity.
Growing up, my mother liked to decorate our home with antiques she’d collected wherever she could. Sometimes these were items from our family’s past. These were the things we held most dear. Little trinkets mom might have played with as a kid, or perhaps a butter churn a grandparent had used decades ago. Looking at – or more so, holding – these items always felt like a tangible way for me to connect to the past.
For as long as I can remember, two artifacts sat on the hearth of our fireplace in each and every home we occupied throughout the years. They were rustic, though unspectacular bricks. The story as told to me was that these bricks had come from the land my ancestors owned and had been made by enslaved people.
Dad reports that he and mom were visiting the ol’ stomping grounds of my maternal grandmother – the very grounds where I stood that June 2020 morning, decades later.
These days Victoria, Virginia is a sleepy has-been of a back-woods community. It was once a railroad town that probably would never have been described as “bustling.” And now, with the need for the railroad all but gone, it’s the kind of place people move away from looking for work in more populated areas. The current population is less than 2,000 people.
On the trip my parent’s made decades ago, they’d stopped by what they knew to be ancestral property on mom’s side. Grandma had been Christine Hardy, and they were visiting the land of the Hardy’s.
They’d stopped by the site where the home once stood, long gone by then with a few piles of rubble here and there. That’s where dad picked up the bricks.
Two bricks, made by slaves.
That was all I ever really knew about them. They were placed on the hearths of our fireplaces throughout the years next to wooden butter churns and pots mom used on occasion to make Boston Baked Beans.
There they sat.
It’s not hard to believe the bricks were hand made. They don’t look as crisp as the factory-made bricks upon which they sat, and one of them even had a slight indentation in it about the size of the tip of a finger – as if the craftsman made their mark for us to see years later.
I never look at that particular brick without taking time to place my own finger in the little indentation. It gives me a sense of connection. I’d imagine the person making it using their hand to compress the soft clay down into the form without a thought about the indentation from their finger. Having no idea that the impression they left on the brick would leave an indentation on my conscience generations in the future. The fingerprint – if that’s what it is – is a tangible link to my family’s past, nefarious or not. As I type now, I consider if perhaps this connection, this gentle whisper from a voice in the past, is what motivates me to seek answers.
If anybody asked about the bricks we’d tell them what we thought we knew. Nobody ever asked for more details. They were an interesting footnote in our home decor. Nothing more. We didn’t give them a lot of thought until it was time to … do whatever it is you do with two bricks possibly made by your ancestors’ slaves.
My maternal grandparents died in the early 2000’s. My mother was the oldest child and took on most of the responsibility for their care and the estate clean-up. When I say “clean up,” I refer to the painstaking process of sorting through their lives. It took years and she mercifully decided she’d not encumber her own children with the same task.
So, upon finishing her parents estate, she immediately began on her own. She threw things away, sorted and stored some others, and distributed yet more to her children and grandchildren.
Eventually this meant she had to figure out what to do with the bricks.
My two siblings and I were all grown with kids of our own and had different ways of perceiving the bricks. My brother wanted nothing to do with bricks that might have been made by enslaved people. He wasn’t trying to hide anything, but I think he thought owning and displaying them would in some way perpetuate the actions of our ancestors. I understood the perspective, but I didn’t share it. My sister couldn’t understand why anyone would want a couple of old bricks. The fact that they may have been made by enslaved people was lost on her. She just didn’t want a couple of bricks as home decor. She had other things to think about. It was also a position I also understood.
But me? I couldn’t bring myself to allow the bricks to be thrown away.
I claimed them as my own, without much thought that I might be claiming more than just a couple of crumbling bricks.
As I placed them on a bookshelf in my office I told myself someday I’d look into their history a bit more.
In late February of 2020, before COVID-19 locked us all up, my wife and I visited the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park. The same park I’d visit months later to record a podcast. In February however, I was there as a tourist.
The visit was about 4 hours shorter than I like. I’m one of those people kids hate to visit museums with because I want to read each and every sign on each and every exhibit. I was with my wife, and in regards to reading everything…well, let’s just say she’s a kid at heart.
As I took in the exhibits, I was slapped in the face with a hard truth. It was an old posting from Boston, the city I grew up near and where I developed a good part of my identity. This sign, however, was not something to be proud of.
The message was clear. While owning slaves was unlawful in Boston, black people clearly weren’t exactly welcomed either. Escaped slaves would be legally rounded up by police and sent back. And, as history would show, oftentimes free blacks would also be captured and sent south. It wasn’t a sign I wanted to see. I didn’t want my northern ancestors to have played any part in chattel slavery. I felt better casting that responsibility elsewhere.
I’d learned to do that growing up. It wasn’t something I was taught outright. It just kind of happened.
I’d grown up in New England – even called Boston home – and had developed a sense of self-righteous pride being a northerner. I liked being on the right side of history when it came to the American Civil War and slavery.
When I say that out loud, it doesn’t even make logical sense. The civil war ended almost a century and a half ago. Generations of my family would live and die after the Civil War before I arrived on the American scene in 1976. In terms of American History, my lifetime was far removed from the Civil War, and I only knew what I’d been taught by my teachers in the north. I learned the history written by the winners – which to me meant “us” – and I’d developed the tendency to look at the south as “them.” Not us. They had slaves, we did not. They lost the war, we won.
So we’d tended to push aside any thoughts that our family had anything to do with owning slaves. Except it looked like my family did.
We had those bricks.
COVID-19 helped provide me with the opportunity to begin the research. We’d planned a two-week family cruise which was cancelled due to the pandemic. My wife and I had the genius idea to rent an RV and quarantine with the kids as we drove across the good ole US of A. The closest available RV for a one-way trip to California was located in Dinwiddie, VA, about 40 minutes or so from Victoria.
When we made the reservation for the RV I knew immediately that the first stop on our trip would be to visit Victoria and start getting some answers.
That’s how I ended up in Jean’s car on that day in late June 2020.
No Trespassing! I returned to the car where Jean was waiting, and as we left for her home where she’d fill me in on the details of that branch of the family tree, I began to get the sense it would be a poor choice to let on that the source of my sudden interest in our family’s history was my curiosity about the family’s participation in slavery.
Maybe I was just a coward.
I’d prefer to say I was just being polite, but this wouldn’t be the first time I’d avoided a difficult conversation by “just being polite.”
Eventually I was able to muster up the courage to pop the question.
After an hour or so of looking at pictures of my distant family members, and looking at even older pictures of my American ancestors, I believed we had gone far enough back in the timeline for me to interject an innocent question.
“Jean, did our ancestors ever own any slaves?”
“Oh, yes, we know that Jim Bob Hardy owned 90-some slaves.” There wasn’t a Jim Bob Hardy, but I honestly forget the name of the person she mentioned.
“Really.” I replied deadpanned. No sense in letting on my true interests.
Over 90 slaves.
Fact is, I was surprised by what I thought was a large number.
When I began this little inquiry, I had a romantic notion that I might meet an ancestor of one of the enslaved people my family had owned. You know, if I could by some miracle find one.
But 90 enslaved people…
I’d learned by looking at our family tree over the years that historically speaking, family trees grow faster than we might think. I imagine that a group of 90 people would have offspring measuring in the thousands now.
Victoria, Virginia is a small town. It’s actually decreasing in size. Given the way families expand, and the size of the town, I had a hard time imagining there’d be any black people there who weren’t offspring of my family’s enslaved people.
I left that visit with Jean not sure if I wanted more information.
But Jean promised me more information complete with census data and genealogical information another one of the family had collected. And, as southern hospitality rules dictate, I’d have to receive what she wanted to provide for me.
Which I did.
I took the reams of paperwork home. There was a lot of information there. It was clear to me the history was meticulously collected and to be honest, I was in a bit over my head. I haven’t done much with the charts and all. I need to find an experienced guide to help at some point. But I was desperate for answers about the possibility that one of my ancestors owned 90 people.
I glanced through the charts and what I found was different than what I was told.
I learned there were two ways of collecting census data for people in the south. There were the census records, and then there were the slave schedules.
Census data included the names, ages, and genders of everyone in the home.
Slave schedules included genders and ages. No names.
From what I could tell, my ancestor owned 8 people, and most of them were children which led me to believe they were children of the adult slaves in the home.
The answer to my question was “yes.”
My family owned slaves.
Perhaps not 90, but still…it was part of my family’s history.
Sometimes when I tell people about my search for answers about my family’s history with slavery, I’m asked what I’d say if I ever met a descendent of an enslaved person my family owned. I wasn’t sure how to answer.
There is a large part of me that wants to apologize. I want to look them in the eye and say, “Hey, I’m sorry for the fact that my ancestors owned some of your ancestors.” Sounds easy, right? Like there isn’t a lot to lose by apologizing for something someone else did years years ago. They might even look at me and say, “It’s ok, it’s not like you owned the slaves yourself.”
I’ve had people say that to me. People who care about me and don’t want to see me carry around undue guilt and shame.
But I do wonder what I might have done if instead of being born when I was, I was instead born in the 1830’s or so. Would I have fought to end slavery?
Would I have spoken up to members of my family telling them to stop doing what they were doing? Would I have worked to end the unfair treatment of fellow human beings?
I think what makes me most uncomfortable about meeting the ancestors of my family’s enslaved people is that while they might be willing to forgive the sins of my ancestors’ whose slave ownership placed them in a position of financial strength, they might also ask me if I’m working today to ensure equality for all citizens. Ending slavery in the 19th century meant the end of a financial system which benefitted whites. Abolition would have certainly had a negative financial effect on my ancestors.
Working to bring equal justice today may cost me too. This is the question I don’t like to face. It’s easy to point my fingers at the ancestors of my distant relatives. But what happens when fingers point back at me?
I feel a certain amount of guilt for my family having owned slaves. There’s no way around it, though people I know have tried to make me feel better. They offer things like, “You know, a lot of slave owners were good to their slaves and treated them like they were part of the family.” I’ve had other family members re-assure me that certainly our family would have been “good” to our slaves.
Jean did her best to reassure me that our family most certainly would have been good to them and treated them well.
Those remarks don’t do a lot to make me feel better. The fact is, an enslaved person could not leave if they chose to. The bondage is an important defining characteristic of what makes a slave a slave. Bondage. You may not leave, even if you so desire. This is what makes an escape from slavery, well, an escape.
It can be easy to have circular arguments about what it was like and so on. My friends can try to reassure me, and I can have my doubts. Really, all I can control is how I act today.
So I pick up the brick and gently place my finger in the indentation.
And I continue my journey for answers.