Researching one’s family histories has its ups and its down.
When I joined a genetic genealogy service ten years ago, I was delighted to almost instantly have my known paternal lineage extended a century into the past to my great great great great grandfather Labourn Clark Phillips, (above left) born in 1794 in Randolph County, North Carolina.
A few years later I was able to trace Labourn’s ancestors back to the Philipps family of Picton Castle in western Wales, though the castle docents were pissy when I visited three years ago: “You don’t have a ‘pp’!”
Based on research conducted for one distant cousin King George III of the United Kingdom, I can trace further back to tribal leaders expelled from Ireland over a thousand years ago.
My mother’s mother’s family held its own surprises, too. Dills purported to be from Ireland were really Diehls from The Netherlands. I share a third great grandfather with a man raised in Kansas named Barack Obama.
Amid the interesting findings like heavy inter-marriage among families -- though, seriously, who else were they likely to marry as they settled together territories not seen by Europeans before? -- and over several years, I avoided probing one question until the last month: did my ancestors claim ownership over other humans, namely, slaves or benefit from the slave trade?
Like many white North Americans, I had simply lived in blissful ignorance as to whether my ancestors had been active or complicit in the forced African diaspora and associated atrocities. Knowing that ancestors were nobles three hundred years ago and had settled areas near Jamestown and throughout the South, I should have suspected their involvement, but I chose not to know.
In the wake of the racially motivated murder of none descendants of slaves in Charleston, South Carolina, I needed to know. I needed to acknowledge that, while the grandparents who raised me made certain that I understood equality and common humanity, there were not-so-distant ancestors who were inhumane and benefited from the suffering and servitude of others based solely on the color of their skin.
The search for those forebears might also explain the family connection between me and a genetic fifth or sixth cousin, an American woman of African descent, who had written a month ago describing a female ancestor who had been a “runaway slave.”
Once resolved to know, I needed less than five minutes to identify Labourn’s father’s father, Joel Sr., a veteran of the revolt against England, as the most recent slave owner. Wilkes County, Georgia (west of modern-day Atlanta) land records show him owning 730 acres and four slaves before his death in 1792. His wife owned five slaves for most of the next twenty years until her death.
Local historians offer a colorful account of the couple’s resistance against English control, even as they dominated the lives of several other human beings:
One story goes that Mrs. Joel Phillips - wife of the man at whose grist mill Phillips Church was organized - had just made her husband a new white shirt. She had raised the flax, spun the thread, and then woven the linen cloth, bleaching it in the sun. She had just washed the fine shirt and hung it to dry when a passing Tory saw it and began taking it off the line.
With an angry cry, Mrs. Phillips ran out of her cabin and seized the tail of the shirt. In the tug-of-war which followed, she realized that the Tory was winning so she dropped the shirt and yelled at him. 'Sir, was you mother a woman?' In deference to his mother and women he left the shirt in the irate lady's hands.
I wonder if she ever thought of the mothers of her slaves as a woman, too.