Race is a funny thing in the South. Most of the time, it’s confusing and hard to navigate. If you’re a (sort of) progressive, white man, even more so. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been digging into my family history and found that I was a little off base about my background (and by “a little off base”, I mean “not even in the fucking ballpark”). I’m still sorting out what these revelations mean to me.
You see, a couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post titled, “I Am Not Ashamed Of My Heritage…, Maybe” in which I said:
“I’m not exactly what you’d call “proud” of my family’s history. But I don’t walk around with my head hung low, beating myself up because my ancestors owned other people. The truth is, there was only one of them (my great-great-grandfather) who could even have had the means. Whether he owned anyone or not, he wasn’t exactly a pleasant fellow (known as “the laziest man in Chatham County”, he somehow found the energy to cross the street and beat up a black man for speaking to a white woman). By and large, however, the men of my family in those days were yeoman farmers and tradesmen, just like the majority of the men who made up the Confederate Army. In other words, my family were rednecks and, for them, the war wasn’t about slavery.”
As it turns out, that’s not exactly true
I have spent most of my adult life, believing that my ancestors were part of something called the “yeomanry”. That social class occupied a level between the gentry and the poor. They could be farmers who owned the land they worked, tradesmen and craftsmen, artisans, etc. In other words, middle/working class. But, digging into my family history has shown that not only were my ancestors members of the gentry, they were one of the prominent farming families in Chatham County.
This little jaunt through the ages began several years ago when my brother found an old book in the Siler City library called “Reliques of Rives“. It was a reference copy and he couldn’t check it out, so he made copies of the relevant sections (well, what he considered relevant, anyway). I read it, but the information didn’t stick; probably because it’s not that well-written and really hard to follow. Then, about a month ago, Jeff sent me a link to another book he’d found that mentioned our family, titled “History of North Carolina: North Carolina biography, by special staff of writers” that said our great-grandfather was born on a plantation. And, then it got interesting, because it also said my great-great-great grandfather was a “planter”. Now, if the word “planter” (in all it’s forms) had occurred only once, I could’ve chalked it up to differences in the language that develop over the course of almost 100 years (it was published in 1919). But twice? I couldn’t see that being a coincidence. It wasn’t.
Digging through all the piles of crap in my office, I found that copy of “Reliques” my dear brother had made. Settling down on the porch with it and a cup of coffee one morning, I reread it and it was an eye-opening experience. That grandfather (times 3) that was mentioned in “History of North Carolina”? Well, it turns out he inherited a plantation called “The Barrax” from his father, along with “one negro man named Anthony”. In all, Thomas (grandfather X4) parceled out around 24 slaves in his will, seeming to give them about as much thought as the land, livestock and furniture mentioned in the document. Going back even further, I found that my family was part of the gentry in England, with impressive titles and holdings in that county. The first Rives (the only spelling of the family name back then) came here in the Cavalier migration of the mid-to-late 1600’s. There’s not much to be found about him in the records, which are pretty scarce (destroyed by fire, etc.), but his descendants did pretty well for themselves, as is evidenced by Thomas’ will.
Saying all this was quite a revelation for me is an understatement. But, don’t worry, I haven’t become filled with white liberal angst over the fact that my ancestors probably weren’t the most progressive people of their day. The truth is, I came to grips with the idea that they were probably assholes a long time ago (see story about great-great grandfather a few paragraphs earlier). As for the fact that they owned slaves, well, all I can say is that ended 150 years ago and there are plenty of other, more recent things in my family history to feel all angst-ey about.
In the post previous to this one, I said that I wasn’t ashamed of my heritage “because it is a history of good people doing the best they could with what they had; which, most of the time, wasn’t very much.” And, I’m still not because they were doing the best they could with what they had. It just turns out that what they lacked wasn’t material goods. A working moral compass, though? That may be a different story.