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

Human Rights

Yesterday I read an article by Peter Birkenhead, a Californian, who recently visited Louisiana and found “The South” a benighted land dominated by misty-eyed racists in denial of their slave history (See " Why the White South Is Still in Denial About Slavery"). His experience at a slave cabin-turned restaurant leaves him outraged and ready to send back his gumbo, never to return to Dixie.

I know the feeling. The South is my birthplace, and there are times when I'd like to cast it off, too. But my southern drawl and my heritage come along with me wherever I go. So we've had to come to terms with each other, despite an adulthood spent in New York.

I can't deny that in many places in the South, rebel flag-wavers abound, prejudices survive, and memory dissolves into myth. This is a pathology that must be confronted at every opportunity. But travelers have a way of taking a small slice of a place and creating a monolith, and Birkenhead’s account –despite its insights—leaves room for illumination and for recognition of the complexities that make this region of the country –and the history of slavery -- a challenging object of study.

As a white southerner, details of my own history challenge what most of my northern friends envision when they think of “The South,” an idea too often wrapped in a fog that emanates from the left as well as the right.

So pull up a chair. You may be in for a few surprises.

As a child in Raleigh, North Carolina, I could be forgiven for thinking that white southerners were mostly liberal. My father, the historian Thomas Custis Parramore, made it his occupation to knock the rose-colored glasses off the nostalgic “moonlight-and-magnolia” southerners Mr. Birkenhead rightly condemns. My dad spoke candidly about the horrors of slavery in his classes at Meredith College and wrote accounts of the same in his books, two of which were adopted as state-wide textbooks. My liberal Baptist church – yes, I said “Baptist” – was presided over by the Reverend W.W. Finlator, the great liberal preacher and civil rights activist who made Pullen Memorial the bane of racists everywhere. Our close family friend, the newspaperman and columnist A.C. Snow, then editor of the Raleigh Times, was also a foe of prejudice and a believer in the equality of all human beings.

I learned that all white southerners were not liberal when the president of Meredith College took exception to my father’s civil rights sympathies and attempted to fire him. A dark cloud passed over our household. My father considered that his “goose was cooked,” and I later learned that he felt such despair over his situation that he briefly considered suicide. A hard battle was fought. Civil liberties lawyers were called in and prevented the college from firing a tenured professor on such grounds. My dad’s job was saved. But the president froze his salary for, oh, a couple of decades. Many were not so lucky. Mr. Birkenhead writes contemptuously of the need for southerners to speak of white “unsung heroes” of the civil rights past—and indeed defense and denial can play a role in this (I agree with him that "The Help" was absurd). But the reality is that there were whites who fought for truth and justice – at great risk to themselves. This was the exception. But such exceptions are part of history.

I grew up knowing that to speak the truth of history was to invite punishment. And I am grateful to my father for presenting the example of one who did so anyway.

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).

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.

Slowly and painfully, southerners have become more honest and accurate, and by degrees more brave, about facing the past. But the hot button topic is easily politicized, not only by raving right-wingers, but well-meaning liberals. I hope Mr. Birkenhead will return to discover the variety of the region and its people. The sugar plantation system of Louisiana and the Lost Causers who romanticize it are but one manifestation of the South's history. To discount the many places where the past--in all its complexity -- has been brought to light discounts the work of tireless and careful historians, both black and white.

History offers paradoxes to challenge our understanding and force us to put away easy answers and pat narratives. As human beings, we are infinitely complex, and our truth is always much more interesting than fiction, whatever its source.

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