Recently, my wife and I were watching the television series, One Thousand Years of Slavery, on the Smithsonian Channel. There were many parts of it that brought sadness to our spirits, heartache to our emotional state, and even some tears to our faces.
In the late 1950’s my grandfather, Monroe – a man of significant white privilege and wealth (which did not get passed down to me) – hired a professional to research our “Family Tree.” A copy was passed down to me. For many years, I held it in high esteem, for it goes back to centuries prior to 1000 A.D. Now, some of those names bring a sadness to my spirit, heartache to my emotional state, and a few tears to my face.
Roelof Duytser, my grandfather 9 generations back, was born in the Kingston, NY area in 1670 and became a farmer of some wealth. He and his wife, Jannitji, of French descent, had 8 children. A part of Roelof’s will reads, “Moreover, I give my Negroes, Men, Women, and Children .. to my children, to be divided equally among them.” He must have had quite a few slaves to have enough to divide them equally among his 8 children!
One of the inheritors of some of those slaves was Gabriel, my grandfather 8 generations back. There is no record of how many he received. However, records indicate he received 4 more slaves from Oliver Wolcott, sheriff of Litchfield County, in 1757. They were “Tom, aged about 50; another named Mary, a woman, and aged about 50; another named Zach, aged about 11; another named Adam, aged about 6 years.”
Supposedly, Roelof and Gabriel were good, upstanding members of the Dutch Reformed Church. But, now, the ancestors whom I once held in high esteem cause me to feel much sadness and shame.
A friend of mine recently said to me, “it was a common way to get the work done. I’m not sure you can assume they were treated unkindly, maybe just the opposite. … You certainly can’t be counted responsible for your ancestors or what was common practice so long ago.”
My response, in part, was to say, “There were, surely, many people who chose not to choose the way of slavery. I know you know that. … Still, people who came to this land to be free, themselves, found a way to justify taking away the freedom of others, who also yearned to be free. … Isn’t it ironic – though very positive – that a descendant of slave owners now unites in a common cause with descendants of slaves? We’ve come a long way, but have so far yet to go.”
“Yes, it is very disturbing, unsettling and unexpected (to learn this about my ancestors). The latter because I chose not to want to consider the possibility (of MY ancestors owning slaves). But I can say that my ancestors were a part of supporting and keeping slavery in existence. So sad and disturbing. A little painful for me, too.” … In fact, more than a little. They participated in that evil venture and grew wealthy because of it. Shameful!
We live with the vestiges of slavery’s horror and evil in our lives, community, and nation, with its systemic racism, hatred, injustice, and proponents of white supremacy so weighted against people of color. We cannot change the past, but we sure can help determine the future.
Submitted by Donnley Dutcher