My Slave-Owning Ancestor, Part X

After the end of the Civil War, my great, great, great grandfather Daniel Hackney, Jr., no longer “owned” 14 human beings as “property.” Their new status as free persons had been guaranteed by President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which was issued on January 1, 1863, and freed slaves within the borders of states in rebellion and by the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which was ratified by the states on December 6, 1865, and abolished slavery throughout the United States. Hackney, a former politician and former Confederate Home Guard officer and now also a former slave owner, would spend his post-war years devoted to the work of Baptist churches. He had served as a deacon at Love’s Creek Baptist Church in Chatham County, North Carolina, since 1833. But he was granted a license to preach in the Sandy Creek Association of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1866. Eventually, he was ordained as a preaching elder in that association in 1871, serving as a pastor, without seeming to regret the past or even noticing its dissonance with Christian faith, until his death on December 28, 1884.

My great, great grandfather David Williard and his brothers, having been drafted to fight for the Confederacy, returned home to Forsyth County, North Carolina, after the war to resume farming. These men born to Moravian parents didn’t own slaves before secession, so nothing about that reality changed afterwards. However, the economic ruin that had been wrought by the rebellion was obviously different. And so was the psychological trauma of having participated in wartime violence that their Moravian grandparents and great grandparents would have found abhorrent as members of an originally pacifist Christian community. A line had been crossed. They were now Americans who happened to belong to the Moravian Church (or Primitive Baptist churches), and not Moravians who happened to live in America as in previous generations.

Elkanah, William, Benjamin, and Lee Willard — my second cousins, fourth removed — returned home to Yadkin County, North Carolina, after remaining Unionists throughout the war and actively opposing the Confederacy in the Old North State. It was suggested that they were members of a secret resistance movement known as the H.O.A. or Heroes of America. There was a warrant for the arrest of William, Benjamin, and Lee Willard and 11 other Unionists for murder “with malice aforethought” after an attempted arrest that led to a shootout with state militia. And Elkanah Willard, who can be seen in this photo with his prophet-like beard, was the subject of conversations with North Carolina’s wartime governor and chief justice because of his brash defiance of the authorities. Even though the arrival of the Union army ensured that the murder case would not be pursued, it’s astonishing these brothers just resumed their old lives.

So my ancestors represented at least three of the groups of people who were living in the “Quaker Belt” of the central piedmont of North Carolina during the Civil War: The wealthy who encouraged young men to volunteer to fight in a war that would mostly benefit slave owners; the yeoman farmers who were drafted into the Confederate army, many of whom deserted or resisted passively; and those who actively rebelled against the rebellion for the sake of the Union. However, when monuments were raised in the 20th century in Chatham and Forsyth Counties to commemorate the historical events of 1861 to 1865, the speeches that accompanied their unveiling glorified ordinary citizens who stepped forward to fight for the Confederacy with patriotic zeal, ignoring, in a real sense, all three of these groups.

The monuments themselves ignore these same groups and the African Americans who were enslaved by the rule of law, beginning with the Constitution of the United States, with the imagined blessing of God in the Bible. Those slaves were the human subject of “property rights” that Christian people like Hackney wanted to protect for themselves and their own economic gain by talking about the equal rights of states rather than individuals. However, African Americans were very much on the minds of men who gave speeches that praised these monuments before cheering crowds.

After 20 children unveiled Chatham County’s new Confederate monument before a large crowd in Pittsboro, North Carolina, on August 23, 1907, Chief Justice Walter Clark of the North Carolina Supreme Court was introduced as the guest speaker for the occasion. In his remarks, which the Raleigh Times newspaper published, Clark suggests the possibility that the 14th amendment to the United States Constitution “to secure the rights of the newly emancipated colored people” was not adopted legally.

Clark would later give the 1920 commencement address at St. Augustine’s School (now St. Augustine’s University) in Raleigh, North Carolina. It’s a historically African American educational institution that was founded in 1867 by the Episcopal Church for the education of freed slaves. Unbelievably, his remarks included these words:

 It is true that our colored people wear “the shadowed livery of the burnished sun” and there is no social equality between the races, but the latter condition exists in every country where there are two or more distinct races of people. The colored people do not wish social equality, and the white people would not tolerate it, and there the matter ends. It is not a matter of debate, but is settled and not a cause of strife like the divergence in language, in religion, in national aspirations which exists in nearly every other country. . . .

There has been some times complaint as to what is known as the “Jim Crow cars,” which are established by law. At the North, where there are few colored people in proportion to the population, the railroads cannot afford to furnish separate cars for them. With us, where nearly one-third of the people are colored, and probably one-fourth of the travelers by rail, it is better for them and the whites that separate cars should be furnished for them. The real objection is that sometimes these cars are inferior to those furnished the whites. This is contrary to the law, which requires the same rate to be charged for fare and the same and equally good accommodations furnished for both races. When this is not done it is not because of the law, but in violation of it, and the remedy is by application to the Corporation Commission to require better accommodations.

As to suffrage, which I do not intend to discuss in any way, I think that the wiser heads among the colored people have discouraged any attempt to intermeddle in politics and that the colored race has lost nothing but gained much by abstaining from doing so against the wishes of the white people, notwithstanding the decision of the United States Supreme Court that the “Grandfather Clause” is void.

Forsyth County’s new Confederate monument had been unveiled in Winston, North Carolina, on October 3, 1905. The guest speaker that day was the Honorable Alfred Moore Waddell, Mayor of Wilmington, North Carolina, who said, “I thank God that monuments to the Confederate soldier are rapidly multiplying in the land.”

Wadell had been a lieutenant colonel in the Confederate cavalry and was a United States representative during the 1870s. He also participated in a coup d’etat known as the Wilmington Race Riot of 1898, when white Democrats overthrew the legally elected officials of the city and expelled black Republican leaders. Emboldened by Democratic election victories in the fall of 1898 throughout most of North Carolina, an armed white mob seized control of the city. Before sunset, they had forced the mayor, the board of aldermen, and the chief of police to resign.

Waddell, who began his term as the Mayor of Wilmington under these violent and racist circumstances, had made clear his unvarnished white supremacist views in a statement before the election that was published in the Constitution newspaper in Atlanta, Georgia, on November 21, 1898. This was part of the intimidation of African American voters that, together with at least one city precinct in which the ballot boxes were stuffed, contributed to the wide election margins by white Democrats:

So I do not believe those monuments truly reflect or honor the historical events of 1861 to 1865. They certainly are not honest about the white supremacist ideas that undergirded the celebrations after they were erected. Not even General Robert E. Lee thought these “enduring memorials of granite” were a good idea. He wrote a letter in 1869 to decline an invitation to return to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, with officers who had participated in the battle there for the purpose of marking on the ground where such memorials should be placed. This is how he ended his letter:

I think it wiser, moreover, not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered. Very respectfully,

Your obedient servant,
R. E. Lee.

W.E.B. Du Bois was a historian, civil rights activist, and the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University. He was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, also known as the NAACP, and wrote these words in 1931 in a publication of the NAACP called The Crisis:

The most terrible thing about War, I am convinced, is its monuments, — the awful things we are compelled to build in order to remember the victims. In the South, particularly, human ingenuity has been put to explain on its war monuments, the Confederacy. Of course, the plain truth of the matter would be an inscription something like this: “Sacred to the memory of those who fought to Perpetuate Human Slavery.” But that reads with increasing difficulty as time goes on. It does, however, seem to be overdoing the matter on a North Carolina monument: “Died Fighting for Liberty!”

Last summer I happened to read an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times newspaper that was written by a self-described “black daughter of the Confederacy.” Her name is Lisa Richardson, and, like me, she’s the descendant of a Confederate soldier. The difference, as she notes in her essay, is that she finds herself in that category most likely “through coerced sex and rape,” which was tolerated within the institution of slavery. Also like me, a victory for one side of her family meant defeat for another side of her family. In Richardson’s case, however, the end of the rebellion brought an end to the institution of slavery and, therefore, freedom to her slave ancestors. With her, I rejoice that the rebellion did not succeed in its aim to deny that freedom to millions of human beings whose ancestors came from Africa. With her, I lament that white supremacist ideas have survived the fall the Confederacy, emerging renewed as those statues were dedicated and, sadly, continuing into our own day:

History isn’t being erased, but it is being corrected. Relocating a Confederate statue to, say, a museum, is an acknowledgment that we see the naked emperor; we see through the contorted logic that it is possible to separate the Confederacy from the institution of slavery . . .

As for my Confederate ancestor, [Jeremiah Dial, who enlisted in the 31st Regiment, Arkansas Infantry,] I consider him without bitterness. He was a man of his time, his family, his community and his culture. He probably wasn’t particularly evil — just an ordinary man, without the advantage we have: [more than a century and a half’s] perspective on the Civil War. I have met a few of his white descendants — my cousins — and we regard each other with genuine affection.

To those who would keep Jeremiah Dial frozen in time, forever trapped at the moment he chose a cause on the wrong side of humanity, I believe you do him a disservice. To those who use him as an excuse to fly the flag of modern-day anti-Semitism, racism and bigotry, you have no right.

To all the bronze Confederate soldiers, in whom I see the image of my great-great-great-grandfather, I would extend this grace. Without resentment or rancor, I would move them into museums and there tell the story of their lives. I would end their utility as flashpoints for racism and division, and, once and for all, allow them to retire from their long service as sentries over a whitewashed history.

I’m grateful that recent scholarship is filling in the gaps in the history of the world that surrounded and shaped the opinions of both my slave-owning and non-slave-owning ancestors in the 19th century. In 2014, for example, Cambridge University Press published Rebels against the Confederacy: North Carolina’s Unionists by Barton A. Myers, and McFarland & Company published Civil War in North Carolina’s Quaker Belt: The Confederate Campaign Against Peace Agitators, Deserters and Draft Dodgers by William T. Auman. I’m also grateful that I’ve been able to learn details about the connections that my great, great, great grandfather Daniel Hackney, Jr., had to the institution of slavery, both personally and politically, thanks to the resources of Ancestry.com and its affiliates. Even when I disagree with them, it’s amazing to read his thoughts about the events of the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s in local newspapers.

From my point of view, there is nothing to fear about shining a light on the shadows that have been ignored for too long. As for this particular series, this is probably my penultimate post. I’m pondering a final post that imagines a conversation, centered on reconciliation, between me and Hackney. However, that will necessitate some time and some prayer to do honestly. So perhaps it will appear in the season of Easter. That would seem appropriate since I am, like Hackney was, an ordained minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The promise of Easter is that God will one day make all things new, including the conflicted and sin-wearied hearts of Hackney and me with our prejudices, our imperfections, and our many mistakes. As the First Letter of John in the New Testament reminds those of us who are called Christians:

If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts . . .

To that, I say, “Amen, amen, and amen.” The Lord is merciful to all. This I believe.

Click here to read all of the reflections in this series.

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