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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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The idea that my friend’s ancestor was a jockey was an intriguing possibility. We continued to dig and discovered that there very well may have been a child produced  between the two families, and since learning this we have fondly called each other “Cousin.” This is the kind of complexity that can pop up like a Jack-in-the-Box if you start delving into southern history. (The Custis family, to whom Martha Washington was related by marriage, was known for what was termed "miscegenation," a fact which brought me to the interesting knowledge of a person my family tree called "Mulatto Jack," who was used as a messenger by George Washington).

None of this is to discount the brutality of the system, or the infinite suffering it visited upon the people who were denied their freedom. It is a terrible thing to look at family wills and see people disposed of along with silverware and land titles.

PARRAMORE, THOMAS - 21 October 1821 / 30 July 1832: To daughter Harriet Darby Parramore... 1/2 of the mill called Coleburn's Mill situated on the head of Wachapregue Creek & 2 Negroes Melinda and Patience, now in her possession.

The word "possession" is striking, carrying on its flip side, "dispossession." That I have the luxury of viewing such documentation is rarely vouchsafed to those whose ancestors were traded and bred like horses and whose labor was regularly extracted under the most appalling conditions and threat –and execution -- of grotesque violence. Those who treated their slaves with barbarity did not generally record the fact, though occasionally there was an outcry when killing and torture reached proportions that even those inured to the system could not ignore.

The history of slavery is perplexing, shocking, and confounding. Contemporary xenophobes who spew Islamophobia by suggesting the religion’s foreignness to America would be shocked to learn that a substantial portion of slaves were Muslims, weaving their culture into the American tapestry from the beginning. This fact has been obscured, partly because it was inconvenient for slave owners to admit that some of their chattel were highly literate “God-fearing” people -- a threat to the paltry justification of bringing enlightenment to savages. And yet history reveals people like Omar Ibn Said, an Islamic scholar who wrote his memoirs in Arabic while enslaved on a North Carolina plantation and whose education far surpassed that of most planters (my father was the historian who discovered that the “myth” of Omar was a reality).

It is also disorienting for many to learn that thousands of slaves bore arms for the Confederacy. On a black history tour of a cemetery in Missouri, my otherwise wonderfully informative African American historian guide could not consider the possibility, only admitting that slaves participated in the war as body servants. My guide was the same person, Angela Da Silva, quoted at length in Mr. Birkenhead’s article. She was a powerful resource on slave history. And yet even she was stuck on an inconvenient historical truth.

The fact that there were slaves who bore arms for the South understandably angers those for whom this truth seems too repellent to accept. And yet it is so. No less a figure than Frederick Douglass reported musket-bearing slaves at Bull Run who defended the South (see “ Black Confederates” in the Harvard Gazette). The motivations were complex. Some were promised freedom. Others ordered to fight at gunpoint. Some were loyal to their masters. And some were likely more afraid of an unknown enemy from the North than a known enemy from the South. What would you do if you were an African American confronted with a Confederate flag that had been draped over your ancestor’s grave for heroic service to the cause of defending the South? Quite possibly, such a thing has happened.

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