Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Ancestors

I spent the afternoon going through a file cabinet that's been sitting in our carport for well over a year.  I thought it was full of research my grandfather did for a naval history he intended to write in his retirement.  Unfortunately, death snuck up on him one snowy evening, a mere block away from his newly built home where he'd pulled over his car at the sudden chest pain that stopped his heart before he even had a chance to turn off the car's engine.

Beve has been after me to go through his papers, so I took a chair out and opened the first drawer, only to discover it crammed with my dad's records from the almost 30 years of being a scout master.  I found the paper Beve filled out (in legible cursive!!!) when he joined the troop in 1967, and another Dad kept on Beve's progress.  Among the merit badges Beve earned on the way to becoming an Eagle were Ahtletics (not surprising!), Cooking (and I've sampled his expertise over the years!), Sewing (What???) and my favorite, Basketry.  Basket weaving--like the kind of class we've always made fun of college athletes for taking!  I pulled out photos of my Dad with many of his 67 eagles, including my brothers.

In the next drawer down, however, were piles of my grandfather's stuff.  His genealogy records, mostly.  I now have paper after paper listing my ancestors.  Thompsons back to the 1500s (David Thompson was the first one to come to this continent--sometimes between 1616 and 1622; he was granted by the crown 6000 acres and an Island, named, appropriately enough, Thompson Island, which is now an Outward Bound School in Boston Harbor), O'Haras back to the old country (Kean O'Hara came over when he was a young tyke, in the early 1800s.  His son, James fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, while his brother, Kevin, was a Union Soldier).

There was an odd old clipping in one of the myraid manilla envelopes, about a graveyard near Louisville, Kentucky that had just been discovered.  It was in this article that I felt the ground shift beneath my feet.  Another ancestor, by the name of Andrew Evans, was one of the graves uncovered  (Evans was my maternal grandmother's maiden name).  Here's the sentence: "In 1817, Evans, a veteran of the War of 1812, came from his home about 75 miles south of Louisville, bringing with him his slaves...on the banks of the Patoka River in the south end of Jasper, he and the slaves began to construct a dam and grist mill."

Slaves. I have an ancestor who was a slave owner.  Now I realize that most of us who have been in this country for several hundred years have some connection or another to this bloody, vile institution.  But I never knew this about my own heritage.  I just never knew.  And now the questions swirl-- How could he justify owning--OWNING--human beings as if they were cattle or dogs? Like they were beasts of burden. What kind of slave owner was he--was he kind, was he brotherly (though it only eases my conscience slightly to think of a kindly slave owner. By definition those words are diametrically opposed, aren't they?)? Andrew Evans died before the Civil War, but would he have set them free of his own accord--by his own conscience--or would he have fought to the end for his right to own other human beings?  I'm more than a little overwhelmed by it.  As horrified by it as by the story I read yesterday.

The thing is, though I hate admitting this: sometimes I just want to say to all the disenfranchised people in our country what Rodney King said, 'Can't we all just get along?' Can't we move past what one segment of our citizenry did to another segment of us?  But that's easy for me to say.  I come from the oppressers, not the oppressed.  But I've usually thought, being from primarily northern stock, that it is only my skin color that connected me to the ruling class.  I come from a long line of educators, engineers, professional people.  With a sprinkling of Kansas farmers thrown in. Not plantation owners, southerners, tobacco or cotton farmers.  But it turns out those Kansas farmers went west from Kentucky, west from slave-owning.  So my heritage is as tarnished as any's.

 Were we able to go far enough back in our genealogy, I suppose all of us would find at least one person they'd be ashamed of.  Just as I've been saying for the last several days.  Even if everyone we researched was a model citizen, if the paper trail went back far enough, we'd find ourselves at Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel.  It's the human condition.  The condition of the flesh.

Still, I wish I could make amends to the descendents of those men who helped my ancestor build a dam and grist mill (whatever a grist mill is!).  I'd just like to know where I go to say I'm sorry.

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