Kristy Celebrates Black History Month

I read a post at Mrs. G’s place today regarding celebrating Black History Month, and reminding us that we white folks can celebrate too. So I’ve decided to paste up a few posts about how my family’s long American history intersects with black American history. Why the hell not?

Slavery. That, of course, is where it starts.

In 1685, my first American ancestor was back home in Scotland, persisting in his Presbyterian ways despite instructions from the British Crown to convert. He treacherously felt a greater allegiance to his God than to his king. And he certainly wasn’t alone in holding these treasonous ideals. He was one of many Scots who became known as the Covenanters. (By the way, there is a Covenanter cemetery in Scotland that is notoriously haunted by famous spooks—but that’s a story for another day).

Along with several of his countrymen, he was loaded onto a British convict ship bound for the “American Plantations” (Australia had not yet been opened for the purpose of disposing of undesirables). The idea was to land in New Jersey and to sell the Covenanters into indentured servitude. The proceeds of their labor over the next several years would be collected to pay for their passage, after which time they would be forbidden to return to civilized Britain, but would otherwise live as they might in the far off colonies.

In the course of the Atlantic crossing, fever broke out on board. As many as half of the passengers perished, including the man who had been charged with the supervision of the Covenanters. In his absence, the ship’s captain attempted to negotiate a “deal” with the son-in-law (and evident heir) of the deceased supervisor. Wouldn’t it be better, he proposed, to change course slightly and dock in Virginia? There, they could sell the surviving covenanters into outright slavery. The higher price they would realize from the sale could then be split in some amicable fashion between the ship’s captain and the son-in-law. A deal with struck.

This story, when I discovered it, astounded me. Slavery was something I always associated with black Americans exclusively. I think it comes as a surprise to most of us that it could, and did, happen to any number of undesirable white people too. In the earliest days of America’s settlement, landowners were in no way picky about whom they bought to accomplish forced labor.

In the case of my unfortunate ancestor, a vagary of the weather decided his fate. As the ship approached the Virginia shore, a storm blew up and pushed the ship up the coast, forcing it to dock first in New Jersey as originally planned. The Covenanters, upon arrival, protested that neither the Captain nor the son-in-law had authorization from the Crown to negotiate their indentures. In the ensuing confusion, sympathetic colonists agreed to billet them until the matter could be heard by the court. And once the court decided in their favor, they quickly made an escape into the western wilderness before the case could be reconsidered, thereafter avoiding any populated British settlements.

This story has led me to wonder why it is that we think of slavery only in terms of African Americans. Is it simply because the numbers made them such an obvious majority? That slavery, as it impacted other races, amounted to occasional anomalous footnotes to our shared history? Or is there a subtle racism at work here too? That, by persisting in the belief that only black people were victims, that the white majority can maintain the notion that slavery could only happen to an “inferior” race of people—not us. And, therefore, believing that slave=negro helped prevent us from feeling any empathy for the early plight of Africans in this county. What would have been the history of slavery in this country if it had happened regularly to other races? How would the history of slavery turned out differently if my ancestor (and many more like him) had been auctioned on arrival at a Virginia dock?

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4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Op
    Feb 08, 2010 @ 13:57:21

    Wow, amazing story. Thanks for sharing. You are really talented; but I always told you so.

    Reply

  2. Danger Panda
    Feb 08, 2010 @ 15:31:54

    OP Where have you been?

    Reply

  3. Trailhead
    Feb 09, 2010 @ 16:22:42

    Fascinating story. I'm also intrigued by your idea that the legacy of slavery was a mechanism to "other" African Americans long after the Emancipation Proclamation.

    Reply

  4. Margaret
    Feb 09, 2010 @ 18:51:05

    My grandfather, an Italian, was veyr sensitive to the word wop, which he said meant without papers. Many immigrants were put into near slavery in sweat shops and other hard, low paid labor. Interesting post!

    Reply

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