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What You Didn't Know About the South: Surprises from a White Southerner

“The South” is an idea too often wrapped in a fog that emanates from the left as well as the right.

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Truth and memory work in mysterious ways. For in addition to being the child of civil rights activists, I am also descended from planters. And if I were to tell my northern friends that I even take some measure of pride in the fact, I imagine the polite conversation would abruptly end. Yet it is so. Like many southerners (though certainly not the majority), the history of slavery is wrapped up in the strands of my very DNA. It’s a history rife with paradoxes, inconsistencies, and buried truths. I will share a few of them, if I may.

The first Parramore arrived in Virginia in the early 1600s as an indentured servant, a fact which often surprises. An Englishman? An indentured servant? Yes, such was commonly the case for early English arrivals, and they were sometimes given tasks more brutal than those assigned to slaves. The master was required to hand over money or property at the completion of the servant’s term – often seven years – and clever capitalists could avoid payment by killing off the servant first. John Parramore managed to survive, acquire property, and become the first in a line of Eastern Shore planters. Interestingly, he was observed in 1641 drunkenly brawling while socializing at the home of a free black who owned two indentured servants himself. Black planters were not unknown, including the Angolan Anthony Johnson—possibly the first legally-recognized slaveholder in Virginia.

In any case, John the Servant became John the Master. A paradox from the get-go.

That my ancestors benefited greatly from the forced labor of human beings cannot be doubted. But there remains the fact that not all early southerners were pro-slavery. Indeed, not all planters were pro-slavery. How’s that for a paradox? An example from my family tree bears witness.

Robert Carter III is a name you do not know. He was a Virginian “founding father” buried by history due to a certain inconvenient truth concerning his attitude towards slavery. Unlike his contemporaries George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, with whom he socialized, he had a profound call of conscience and decided to free his slaves – all five hundred of them. He went to the courthouse, took out a deed of gift, and set them free—the largest liberation of slaves by an individual in American history prior to the Civil War. He had to do this in stages because his neighbors were frightened out of their wits that a rebellion would ensue, and in the end, he was ostracized by his fellow Virginians and driven to Baltimore, where he died, writing to his daughter before passing that "My plans and advice have never been pleasing to the world."

Carter is a historical thorn in the side of those who claim that slave-owning founders like Jefferson were just “men of their time” and thus incapable of committing to eradicating slavery. In truth, they knew Robert Carter. They heard his arguments against slavery. They saw his bold actions. And they chose to remain slave-holders anyway.

As I have gone along in life, the paradoxes of my southern background have continued to pile up. I have an African American journalist friend whose name I was surprised to find on a family history web chatroom. In a moment of frisson and embarrassment, we subsequently discovered that his ancestors were slaves on a plantation owned by my ancestors in Lexington, Virginia. To put it more bluntly, his ancestors were owned by my ancestors. Even stranger, the two families seem to have been on curiously good terms, evidenced by the fact that his ancestors handed down given names after those from my family – an unusual practice. As it turns out, Lexington was an early horse-racing center, where slaves became jockeys and even sports celebrities. The most successful were cheered by thousands, earned hefty wages and attained high status – in some cases forming relationships with their masters that resembled business partnerships. Some earned enough money to buy their own slaves. (See “ The Lost History of Black Jockeys” in Ebony Magazine).

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