I’m a native of the Old North State and received my undergraduate degree in religion from Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, which is not too far from the town of Kernersville where I was raised. My next adventure was in New Haven, Connecticut, at Yale Divinity School, as I prepared myself for ordination in the Episcopal Church. Other than a semester overseas in London and a summer of archeology in Israel, it was the first time that I had ever lived out of the South.
Those of us seeking ordination spent at least one year working at a field placement during our three years of theological studies. That was usually a church where we would help out a couple of times a week. Only a few of my peers drove further away from New Haven to get to their field placement than I did. Mine was a West Indian, Anglo-Catholic parish in Stamford, Connecticut. Most of the parishioners were people of color from Jamaica and Haiti and other islands of the West Indies. They loved joyful but formal high church liturgy with sanctus bells and lots of incense.
The vicar, who was a New England man through and through, and about 10% of the congregation were white. He had roots in neighboring Rhode Island. Unknown to me at the time, he also had the same first, middle, and last name as an 18th-century sailor who came to Bristol, Rhode Island, and whose family is highlighted in the documentary Traces of the Trade. That sailor went into business as a privateer and slave trader. The family business eventually included not only the ships used to bring slaves from West Africa to America and to the Caribbean but also their own plantations and slaves in the Caribbean. The sugar cane from those plantations was made into molasses and then sent to their own rum distilleries in America.
The circle was completed by loading their rum onto their ships that sailed back to West Africa, where it was traded for slaves. Later, they continued the dismal trade after the importation of slaves became illegal in 1808, first by smuggling slaves into the United States and then by focusing on their international holdings.
It seems counterintuitive to suggest that not only the Southern seminarian but also the Northern vicar might have shared historical ties to the institution of slavery in this country. We tend to think of the evils of slavery as somehow contained within the borders of slave states, both Union and Confederate, at the time of the Civil War. But slavery was legal for more than 200 years in the North, and the mere fact of the abolition of slavery doesn’t mean that racism had also magically been abolished.
In New York City, for example, the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862 confirmed the worst fears of Irish and German residents because the Democratic Party had warned them that freed slaves would flee north and take their jobs away from them. Antiwar newspaper editors fanned those flames, referring to the “[n****r] war” as an overreach by the federal government. The result was several days of draft riots in the city in July of 1863 that included attacks on black people, lynching deaths, and even “[the] sport of mutilating the black men’s bodies, sometimes sexually.”
Traces of the Trade showed me the extent to which ordinary Americans were also entangled in the institution of slavery. Townspeople in Bristol, Rhode Island, for example, invested in the business empire there with its vertical integration of slave trading, Carribean plantations, and American rum distilleries. And the Episcopal Church invested in it too. So profits from slave labor were shared far and wide.
My great-great-great-grandfather, Daniel Hackney, Jr., certainly shared in those profits. He owned slaves just like his father before him. The most slaves that Daniel Hackney, Sr., who died in 1835, is known to have owned is seven according to the 1820 United States Federal Census for Chatham County, North Carolina. His son owned nine slaves that are recorded on the slave schedules for that same county in the 1850 United States Federal Census. As I’ve described in detail previously, the younger Hackney then owned 14 slaves that are listed on slave schedules with the 1860 United States Federal Census. He doesn’t rank, however, on the list of top 100 slave owners in Chatham County. Six more slaves would’ve made him a “planter.”
In 1860, slaves comprised 33% of the total population of Chatham County, which is located right in the middle of North Carolina. That happens to be the percentage of slaves in the total population of the whole state in the same year. The reality, of course, is that some far western counties in the Blue Ridge Mountains had a very small percentage of slaves and many counties to the east and far south of Chatham County had a much higher percentage of slaves with respect to total population.
Compared to Virginia, which had more slaves than any other state, “North Carolina had a slightly higher proportion of slaves and a slightly higher proportion of slaveholding families.” In Chatham County, “one in three people . . . was owned by someone else, and one in three families had slaves.” That is just astonishing to me, although I know it really shouldn’t be. Nearly 4 million human beings were enslaved within the borders of the United States. I’m embarrassed by these truths from 1860.
But I am not embarrassed to learn about this history. Katrina Browne produced and directed Traces of the Trade and founded The Tracing Center on Histories and Legacies of Slavery. She’s also one of the descendants of the family that created the business empire in Bristol, Rhode Island, which profited from slave trading, slave smuggling, and slave labor. Here’s something that she said in the documentary:
Once you really start to face the history and open your heart — now that I’ve done that — I can say it actually becomes very natural to want to make things right, not out of personal guilt, but out of grief.
The Most Rev. Michael Curry is the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church and the former Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina. He is also an African American whose Baptist father came to church with his Episcopalian mother when they were still dating and living in the heart of segregated America in the 1940s. His father watched his mother walk to the front of the church for communion, kneeling beside white people and drinking from the same cup that they did. His father had never seen whites and blacks drink from the same glass or even from the same water fountain. Bishop Curry recently spoke at the dedication of the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing in the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta and said this:
We need not live the past again. We do need to know what it was.
Earlier I described a church in New England that brought together people from different regions with diverse cultural backgrounds and histories. It was, in many ways, a glimpse of the heavenly banquet that I believe we all get invited to join. Only then will all wrongs have been made right. That does not mean, however, that we can’t take a step in the right direction to address some wrongs in the present. What that requires is for us to see things not as we wish them to be, but as they really are. And as an Episcopal priest, it seems fitting for me to let Jesus have the last word:
. . . the truth shall make you free.