My great-great-great grandfather was a slave in Maysville, Kentucky. He eventually escaped slavery and made his way to Canada (most likely because of the Fugitive Slave Act) and then returned to Ohio to enlist in the Union Army – as a free man.
This past weekend I stood, as a free man and proud citizen, on the same land in Maysville where, over 140 years ago, my mother’s great-great-grandfather and several other ancestors worked and toiled.
I was there with almost two dozen relatives, who spanned multiple generations, to walk the land our ancestors had worked and trace back our slave roots. The history lesson, and reunion, was made possible because of a Herculean effort of research and digging by my cousin, Leah. And because of her persistence and diligence, we all stood toeing the line of the private property that held the whispers of our family’s history.
There was an inherent dichotomy in the air not lost on me or my relatives. I had arrived after a comfortable three-hour journey from a home, in an air-conditioned car, under the guidance of a GPS device, and clothed in attire that I chose, and purchased. I stood there looking at land my ancestors worked, probably in wool clothes – or whatever they were permitted to wear — and walked by foot, escaped from (by foot), and navigated (probably at night) without the assistance of so much as a map. The 90-degree weather was sweltering, but there was relief for me just a few yards away in the car I arrived in, and I could pick what food I wanted to eat as soon as I returned back to my home.
I admit I felt conflicted. I felt a swirl of emotions as my eyes took in the beautiful rolling Kentucky hills. History can be a fickle dance partner who can flirt with you, stroke your ego, and shame you in the course of the same song.
As we walked the land searching for the remains of what my cousin believed were our ancestors’ slave quarters, I thought about the stories from my mother’s side of the family that resonated with me. How my great uncle was a “patient” in a now infamous radiation experiment (that relied on blacks as its primary subjects) and later died from his “treatments.” How my grandmother was told that my mother and aunt couldn’t be a part of a Brownie troop because of the color of their skin. How my mom navigated racist taunts and statements while attempting to earn her education. I will admit that I thought of these stories and felt angry, hurt.
But then I realized these weren’t simply stories of sorrow; they were instead stories of resilience. Yes, my ancestors were slaves, but they didn’t allow someone else to determine their worth. They escaped and fought. My grandmother didn’t accept “no” for an answer and started her own Brownie troop. And while other students may not have accepted it, my mother and aunt not only navigated the racial barbs, but did so with grace.
There is a rich tale in this country of racism, discrimination and denigration. But if you look close enough you will also see a tale of resilience and self-worth, of acceptance and respect, of overcoming and uniting. That is the tale to which we should endeavor to continue, to add on to with our own footnotes. Not to say that we should neglect or forget the troubles of the past, but we should groom and cultivate that which is good.
As a parent, I see it as an opportunity, a gift, to pass on to our kids. A legacy of sorts in which we can all take pride. I doubt very much that this middle school teacher has done anything of note to add to this legacy, but sometimes our role is simply to pass the history, and its lessons, on to the next generation. That is a burden that I will gladly shoulder.
It would be a perfect ending to say that we definitively found the remains and were able to stand exactly where our ancestors stood. We believe we did, but they were overcome with trees, poison ivy and other weeds. A physical obstacle in addition to the one created by time.
In some ways the sight we beheld of a structure drowning in growth was symbolic of history itself — some of it is poisonous, some of it is beautiful, but despite the pain and the years of overgrowth it is something we should not soon forget.
A version of this first appeared on Tales from the Poop Deck.