The Fourth of July & Confederate Statues

Photo of Alamance County Courthouse in Graham, North Carolina, by Photojournalist Bob Karp

It’s not uncommon to hear people whose skin color looks similar to mine say that if your family history was deeply rooted for many generations in a small Southern town, you’d understand what the Confederate monument in front of the courthouse for that county represents. Two of my grandparents are buried in Alamance County, North Carolina, as many other relatives have been through the years. I even have a fourth-generation slaveholding cousin who was named in the 1914 dedicatory speech for the Confederate statue that stands in front of the Alamance County Courthouse in the center of the Town of Graham. He led a company of Confederate soldiers from that county, where he is also buried. So I know what it represents. African Americans whose ancestors were only emancipated after the defeat of the Confederacy know too. That’s why I believe there’s a moral imperative to move it.

The atmosphere in which that dedication took place is well illustrated by the front page of the Greensboro Patriot newspaper from May 11, 1914. One article describes a district meeting of the United Daughters of the Confederacy that had recently been held in Guilford County. The chapter from Graham reported that a monument to the Confederate soldiers of Alamance County had been completed and would be unveiled the following weekend. The article trumpets these words like a fanfare:

Nearly every month sees a new Confederate monument erected. A most important undertaking of the various chapters relates to the preservation of the true history of the Confederacy. This feature is to be stressed even more in the future than it has been in the past . . .[1]

The column beside those words has a report about a proposed movie theater that an association of Black churches wanted to establish on property owned by a well-known African American in the City of Greensboro. According to that newspaper article, “a storm of protest arose from the white residents of the community.” They signed a petition opposing the proposal, showed up at a public forum with their “fighting clothes on, figuratively speaking,” and were represented by two attorneys. For example, the article describes at length one public comment, stating that:

. . . one of the good ladies who addressed the commissioners asserted that the common run of negroes care nothing for a moving picture show, anyway, and asked why should they go to see pictures of people cutting and shooting folks when they could engage in this pastime in reality.[2]

That is a very embarrassing but real testimony from the racist world in which the Confederate monument in neighboring Alamance County would be celebrated by a cheering crowd of white citizens five days after those words were printed on the front page of a newspaper. The guest speaker on that occasion was Henry A. London from nearby Pittsboro. A week after the Wilmington “Race Riot” of 1898, in which an armed white mob took control of the City of Wilmington and expelled African American elected leaders, London published these words in the Chatham Record:

Wilmington is once more ruled by respectable white men and all her citizens are now safe and secure in their lives, liberty and property.[3]

In his speech sixteen years later in front of the county courthouse in Graham, London went out of his way to note that the soldiers of the Union army included “186,097 negroes” and that some of the Confederate veterans listening to him in the audience who had been prisoners of war:

. . . may, (I am telling the truth about it), have been guarded by negro soldiers who would shoot your comrades down without any excuse.[4]

In contrast to that, London was standing there in Graham, as the local Ku Klux Klan founder and leader who introduced him put it, to praise “the achievements of . . . our own race and blood,” something “in which we all have a common interest.”[5]

That was a rallying cry for white supremacy.

There’s an irony which should not be overlooked in London’s soaring rhetoric following the introduction of him as he described the “brave and gallant men” who marched off to war in rebellion and “the dangers and the hardships” they endured, which “the young people of to-day . . . cannot imagine.” It turns out that London wasn’t engaging in false modesty entirely when he said at the beginning:

I do not deserve to have been selected to address you on this occasion.[6]

Although described in the newspaper as a major, that rank had been bestowed upon him not by an army but by a veterans’ organization. London had been a private, serving only for the last several months of the war after he was forced to do so. Before that he had been a college student at the University of North Carolina and made this honest confession in a letter which he wrote to his sister in early 1864:

I would not care much if they did [conscript me], as I hate the idea of skulking, as it were, out of the army, when my Country needs my services so much, but yet when an exemption is proffered a man, he can scarcely be blamed for taking it.[7]

This crowd saw an exaggerated man, who sounded like a preacher as he thundered:

. . . and oh! what soldiers they were; men of Alamance, women of Alamance, children of Alamance, remember through all your lives to honor the living Confederate soldiers as well as the memory of the dead ones. Oh! it is a beautiful thing, eminently fit and proper to erect a monument in front of every court house throughout our Southland in memory of the Confederate soldiers.[8]

Those statues would be painful reminders to African Americans passing by that they would not be treated equally under the law inside those buildings, which were supposed to be symbols of justice for the entire community, including them.

Seventy years before those front-page articles were printed in the Greensboro Patriot, that same newspaper published the names of Whig candidates standing for election in various counties throughout North Carolina.[9] One of them was my great-great-great-grandfather Daniel Hackney, Jr., who was a candidate in 1844 to represent Chatham County, where London lived, in the North Carolina House of Commons. Hackney was a slaveholder in Chatham County, as was his father and grandfather. To the immediate right of his name in that list was this public notice:

To those who are citizens of Alamance County or places like it, please think about what you want your courthouse to say about your community. What, for example, will future generations read in archived news reports that are recording how we think about these things today? Is it a “self-evident” truth for you on this national holiday “that all [human beings] are created equal,” including Black lives?[10]

If you proudly display an American flag outside your home every Independence Day, what does that symbol mean to you as you consider the wellbeing of your neighbors, including the American descendants of those whose Black bodies were once sold on courthouse steps? Many of their families, like my own, are “from here,” wherever that might be throughout the South. And they have just as much right to be included in “our” history as people who look like me. Of that I am certain. So take down these statues, and if you decide to move them somewhere else, tell the whole story.

BACK TO POST “Daughters of Confederacy: District Meeting Held in This City Showed Good Work Accomplished,” The Greensboro Patriot, May 14, 1914.

BACK TO POST “Negro Moving Picture Show: White Folks Wouldn’t Stand for Its Location in Their Vicinity,” The Greensboro Patriot, May 14, 1914.

BACK TO POST Henry A. London, editorial, The Chatham Record, November 17, 1898.

BACK TO POST Henry A. London, quoted in “Maj. London’s Address: Presentation of Confederate Monument to County and Acceptance,” The Alamance Gleaner, May 28, 1914.

BACK TO POST Jacob A. Long, quoted in “Maj. London’s Address: Presentation of Confederate Monument to County and Acceptance,” The Alamance Gleaner, May 28, 1914.

BACK TO POST Henry A. London, quoted in “Maj. London’s Address: Presentation of Confederate Monument to County and Acceptance,” The Alamance Gleaner, May 28, 1914.

BACK TO POST Henry A. London, quoted by Adam H. Domby, The False Cause: Fraud, Fabrication, and White Supremacy in Confederate Memory (Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 2020) 48.

BACK TO POST Henry A. London, quoted in “Maj. London’s Address: Presentation of Confederate Monument to County and Acceptance,” The Alamance Gleaner, May 28, 1914.

BACK TO POST “Whig Candidates,” The Greensboro Patriot, June 15, 1844.

10 BACK TO POST The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776. The preamble includes these words that are familiar to many Americans:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

My Last Will and Testament, Part II

Joel Cannon, my fourth great-grandfather, was a farmer in Caswell County, North Carolina. His wife, and mother of their five children, died before he signed his last will and testament in 1829. Joel had the means to leave something for all of them. Each of his three daughters, however, received an extra gift. To his daughter Sally, he bequeathed “One Negro Boy named Patrick,” and to his daughter Dorcas he bequeathed “One Negro Boy named Wilkes.” In each of those cases, his instructions were very clear: After the death of their respective mistresses, the enslaved person was “to be sold and the profits equally divided among all the children of the said [daughter] or their legal representatives.” The rest of his estate was to be sold and equally divided among his children, “except Anne Powell, to whom property has heretofore been advanced.” Anne, the youngest of his three daughters, is my great-great-great-grandmother and had married a man named Thomas B. Powell.

Anne’s father had established for her “sole and separate use” a trust, which owned three enslaved Africans — Peggy and her two children, Milly and John. Anne was supposed to receive the proceeds from hiring them out. For the most part, that didn’t happen. So the proceeds held by the trust grew to about $1,500 by the 1850s. Additionally, after her death, these enslaved persons and any children they might have were to be divided between Anne’s children. Samuel M. Cobb, a distant cousin of mine, became the administrator of Anne’s estate after she died in 1855 without a will. He was also one of her sons-in-law and sought legal advice together with Anne’s other two sons-in-law. The opinion of the lawyer they hired was that Anne’s children were owed not only Peggy, Milly, and John but also the accrued funds in the trust.

Nevertheless, out of an abundance of caution, the lawyer thought it would be best to have Anne’s widower sign a deed to clarify this. So a legal document to that effect was taken by Samuel from the courthouse to the home of a witness about ten miles away. And there Samuel got both his father-in-law Thomas and the witness to sign the deed Old Testament-style, as if reenacting a story about the patriarchs from the pages of Genesis, because “it being night, and there being no light at hand, they were not able to read the paper, and it was never read to or by [his father-in-law] at all.” Truth be told, it didn’t really matter for Thomas. He could neither read nor write.

There would eventually be conflicting testimony in court about who said what to whom that night. In addition to summarizing for his father-in-law the legal opinion that had been given to the children, Samuel thought that, completely separate from the contents of the legal document, he probably told his father-in-law that Peggy would be able to work for him some to do housekeeping. But the witness heard Samuel say “that if he signed that paper he would sign away all of his interest in the estate finally and forever, and we have all agreed to give you the old Negro woman Peggy.” The witness went on to say that Thomas was fine with that because “he only wanted her to cook and wash for him” and that Samuel told his father-in-law that Peggy would have to come back to the children after his death. That was agreeable to Thomas, so he signed the paper, stating his belief that the lawyer would never harm him. The children would later repudiate the way Samuel obtained that signature.

Once it became evident to Thomas that Peggy would not be given to him, he sought out legal counsel, whereupon he came to believe he was entitled to the $1,500 or so which had accrued in the trust. Then, claiming that his signature on the deed had been obtained improperly and that the trustee should have paid him the money anyway, Thomas sued the trustee, his four children by his late wife, and his three sons-in-law. The case went all the way to the North Carolina Supreme Court, which invalidated the deed in 1856, awarding the money to Thomas and declaring that his children from Anne were entitled to Peggy, Milly, and John as their  property.

That was the legal side of things, which was pretty straightforward. But there was a darker side to this story beyond the unseemly fact that it was about profits earned from the labor of enslaved Africans and the movement of human beings from one household to another as property. These details are known only because the North Carolina Supreme Court made another ruling in this case, which was referenced in legal footnotes as late as 1961 in Rules of Practice in the Supreme Court of North Carolina, about the striking of “scandalous, impertinent, and irrelevant matter.”

The four children of Anne Powell believed there were other reasons why their father should not be entitled to the possession of Peggy, Milly, and John. They claimed:

. . . that he had abandoned his family and taken up with women of ill-fame; that at one time he had left his wife and children for eighteen months and gone to Louisiana, not having made any provision for them; that [he] was dissipated, careless and wasteful, and was a spendthrift; that he had beaten his wife with a horsewhip, and that a certain negro woman, named Peggy, had often protected her mistress from the brutal violence of [their father].

They also said that their father was never dissatisfied with the arrangement until:

. . . [he] had married one of his kept mistresses, when he became very anxious to get a negro to wait on his wife, and her children who had the misfortune to be born out of wedlock.

At the beginning of 1856, Thomas had married a woman named Mary Ann Combs, who was 30 years younger than his first wife. The 1860 United States Federal Census shows them living in the same household with an eight-year-old son and a six-year-old daughter. Those children were born before Anne’s death, and both of them had been given the surname of Powell. Also living with them was a 16-year-old “idiotic” boy named William Poteat. While I don’t know what happened to the eight-year-old boy, the daughter, Donna Versa Powell, was definitely alive when Thomas signed his will in April of 1862. In that will, Thomas provides for his second wife Mary to use his property for the rest of her natural life, with everything eventually going to his daughter Donna. He then states the following, as if contrasting his hopes for Donna with his disappointment in his “lawful children,” as he describes them elsewhere:

I wish my Daughter Donna Versa to be respectful, obedient & kind to her mother & that with the assistance and advice of my Brother John to give her such advantages as my circumstances will allow. Now in regard to my children from my first wife . . . I leave them and their heirs nothing more than I have left them before.

I can’t help but wonder, of course, if my great-great-great-grandmother Anne Powell was murdered as a direct result of domestic violence. And I imagine that Peggy, and perhaps her two children, also experienced brutality at the hands of a man who wasn’t really their master but merely the spouse of their mistress. In her book Our Common Affairs: Texts from Women in the Old South, historian Joan Cashin notes the bond between Anne and Peggy because of “a common enemy in the household” and that such an alliance, although created out of shared trauma, was rare for the time.

Thomas signed his will less than three weeks after enlisting to serve North Carolina as a Confederate soldier in the cavalry. Less than two and a half years later, he died in Virginia as a patient in a Confederate hospital during the Siege of Petersburg. My great-great-great-grandfather is one of about 30,000 Confederate soldiers buried in Petersburg’s Blandford Cemetery, and his grave is among the minority of those burials that are known and identified. Would that the graves of Anne, Peggy, Milly, and John were also known so that I could visit them to pay my respects, grieving their suffering in this world and praying for their consolation in the world to come.

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

The Last Supper in a Confederate Hospital

Years ago I arrived early to officiate at a graveside funeral in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia, and had plenty of time to walk alone through a nearby section with more than 18,000 graves of enlisted Confederate soldiers. Even though I do not embrace or glorify the Confederate cause, as some of them who were conscripted also surely didn’t, I just stood there silently, overwhelmed by the tragedy of it all.

South of Richmond, in the City of Petersburg, is a less well-known burial ground called Blandford Cemetery, second in size in that commonwealth only to Arlington National Cemetery. In the section for Civil War soldiers there at Blandford are buried about 30,000 Confederates, of which only about 3,700 have names and other information attached to them. Those burials are grouped by the states from which they came, row after row of mostly anonymous graves, and row after row of grief.

Even the identified graves at Blandford have the same generic headstones as the anonymous graves, without any names on them. They look like this one, which marks the grave of Thomas B. Powell, who is my great-great-great-grandfather. On March 14, 1862, he enlisted and served as a private in the “Caswell Rangers,” which later became Company C, 3rd Regiment, North Carolina Cavalry (also known confusingly as the 41st Regiment, North Carolina Troops). He was buried here on August 23, 1864, which was the same day he died in a hospital during the Siege of Petersburg.

Powell had been a patient at the Confederate States Hospital, only one of numerous Confederate hospitals in Petersburg that cared for wounded soldiers. Inside that hospital were hundreds of beds across three floors of a building that had previously been a tobacco factory. This photograph of it was taken at some point in 1865.

Nearly six months after Powell died in that hospital, a Confederate cavalry officer named George William Beale was admitted there. After the war, he wrote a book that included a chapter about his experience as a patient. This is what he saw:

. . . there were those in every stage of convalescence and others in every stage of physical decline and approaching dissolution. Many from horrible wounds were suffering intense pain, with no heart-rending screams, but with clinched fingers and grim writhings of face and heavily suppressed moans and groans that bespoke horrible agony.

Beale, who later took his meals at his bed, finding that his appetite decreased daily, describes in the quote below his first — and last — communal supper there:

That which impressed me most during this meal was not its poverty, scantiness and meanness, so much as the feeble motions, trembling limbs, wan and cadaverous appearance of those who partook of it. Sidney Smith tells of a corpulent person, who, suffering from the intensity of the heat, wished that he might divest himself of his flesh “and sit in his bones.” Most of my comrades at that hospital table had nearly reached the attenuated state of such a wish. Their cheeks were hollow, their eyes sunken, their countenances dejected and forlorn, and a ghastly pallor appeared in their faces. A few feeble candles lit up the gathering darkness of the long room, cast a pale and sickly light on the group, and made me feel much as though I had entered some dim Plutonian chamber and was breaking bread (that was all there was to break) with pallid shades of the dead.

As an Episcopal priest, I cannot read these words without imagining it as a kind of prelude, however strange, to the heavenly banquet, with an unexpected guest list — all of them wounded and sitting in the shadow of death, many of them very much ungodly and unloving in the cause for which they fought, some of them desiring freedom from earthly tortures while still believing the torture of enslaved Africans was divinely ordained within the pages of the Bible. Good Lord, deliver them and us from ourselves, and be our guest at this table that we, however undeserving, might be guests at your Table, the wrongs within us and around us having been righted.

I know that sounds offensive not only to those who refuse to see white supremacy woven into the fabric of the Confederacy but also to people who are only able to conceive of God’s justice purely, without mercy and forgiveness and the power to dismantle, destroy, and conquer forever the evil that resides within a human heart. Yet this passage from the Epistle to the Christians in Rome often comes to mind:

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person — though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then . . . will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.[1]

Beale observed that when a patient had taken a turn for the worse and was deemed almost certain to die, a yellow card was placed on his cot over his head. When death had become the last visitor to a such a man lying in great weakness, four black men, enslaved or free, would bring a stretcher and bear the body away for burial. He said that once, late at night, a soldier dying near him asked them to sing hymns so that, as Beale described it, he would depart from this life “on the wings of holy songs that he loved.” I have to wonder if those singing could imagine true freedom not only in the world to come but also in this world — for themselves and their families.

Another time, closer to the early morning, Beale was awakened by the rattling of the apothecary bottles that were stored near him on shelves. A delirious man lying on the cot next to his own, with a yellow card hanging over his head, had apparently decided to take matters into his own hand. By morning’s full arrival he was dead. Then, as they did for saint and sinner alike, for patients who treated them well and those who didn’t, the usual crew of four came to take away his body, finally at rest.

I don’t know how my great-great-great-grandfather died within those walls. But I do know a lot of other things about him. That’s because of a legal case, Powell v. Cobb, adjudicated by the North Carolina Supreme Court in 1856. One of the rulings in that case about striking “scandalous, impertinent, and irrelevant matter” appeared in legal footnotes as late as 1961 in Rules of Practice in the Supreme Court of North Carolina. And here’s a reference to it from 1950 in The North Carolina Law Review:

So, yes, it’s true what you’re thinking. There is indeed scandalous behavior by Powell that shall be revealed in my next post, which I am delighted to know you will now read in its entirety. The whole situation was unseemly, even biblical. Yet in the spirit of 16th-century reformer Martin Luther, I think it is important to see things not as we wish them to be, but as they really are, including things in our own lives today.

BACK TO POST Romans 5:6-10.

An Embrace & An Old Confession

Two things happened last Wednesday that have really shaken me. The first was the remarkable scene in a courtroom after former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger, a white woman, had the previous day been convicted of murdering Botham Jean, an African American man. The following day, during the sentencing phase, Botham’s brother Brandt Jean, a faithful Christian, took the stand and, without having told his relatives beforehand, stated that he forgave Amber and said to her, “I love you just like anyone else and I’m not going to hope you rot and die. I personally want the best for you.” Then he asked the judge for permission to hug Amber, which he did.

People are mad. People are mad at Amber. People are mad at Brandt. People are mad that white Christians have lauded this hug while continuing to remain deafeningly silent about police violence against African Americans. People are mad that Botham Jean was slain at home. People would surely have been mad if the members of the jury had convicted Amber of a lesser charge. People are mad at those jurors anyway since they sentenced Amber to only 10 years in prison. People are mad that radical examples of forgiveness, like this hug, simply can’t be untangled from Christianity.

And, yes, I understand that other religions have very different understandings of forgiveness, who can offer it, and under what conditions it works, so to speak. I also understand that many Christians, liberal and conservative alike, would prefer that Christianity only proclaim forgiveness after both remorse and restitution. Jesus, however, forgave his torturers from the cross without their prior repentance. Now I don’t know what happened to those Roman soldiers after they had executed an innocent man in the name of law and order. But either their sins were forgiven or they weren’t. Either it’s true or it’s not. As a Christian, I believe what Jesus declared is true and that their sins were forgiven. I believe it’s true for them and for me too.

The Book of Common Prayer suggests that true repentance comes on the other side of forgiveness. It’s like the embrace of the parent in a famous parable told by Jesus who runs toward his wayward son, embracing him before he even gets to the house and before he can begin the speech of confession that he had practiced while at his lowest point. The son thought he was sorry then, but he’s surely more overwhelmed on the other side of that loving embrace, which was undeserved and unexpected.

Brandt’s forgiveness doesn’t unlock the door of the prison cell in which Amber now sits. And I want to be clear that I don’t think it should alter her sentence. What his forgiveness unlocks is the door of the prison cell in which he could easily have sat — mentally, emotionally, and spiritually — for the rest of his life. As Brandt said in an interview about what he did in that courtroom, “This is what you have to do to set yourself free.” He also said, “We don’t know what’s going to happen [in the future].”

That reminded me of the words of the Christian theologian Miroslav Volf:

Every act of grace is a stepping into an unknown land.

And it’s a great deal more costly for someone like Brandt to take that first step under these circumstances than it would be for me. That’s because of the history of African Americans in this country. I was made painfully aware of that on the day he spoke in that Dallas courtroom not because of his mother’s passionate plea for justice beyond her murdered son’s case, which I only read later, but because of another killing.

Before I fell asleep that same night, I read a disturbingly matter-of-fact confession that was signed by John Green Lea a century ago in the summer of 1919. His father “owned” 58 enslaved Africans in 1860. His grandfather — my 5th great-grandfather — “owned” 74 enslaved Africans in 1830. So we’re first cousins, five times removed.

John supported the Confederacy as a corporal in Company C, 3rd Regiment, North Carolina Cavalry. That fight, however, didn’t cease for him after the end of the Civil War. While he was still in his 20s, John organized and headed the Ku Klux Klan in Caswell County, North Carolina. His sister Ann was also a member of that white supremacist organization. She sewed the robes behind which Klan members hid their identities while performing acts of racial terrorism. Ann stored their robes in secret at Leahurst Plantation, where she and John were both raised as children and where the Klan now gathered, as needed, to put on that clothing of hatred.

Leading up to the 1870 election, there were two notorious political assassinations in the region. The first was the lynching of an African American named Wyatt Outlaw in neighboring Alamance County. Wyatt had gone from being enslaved to having been appointed to the Graham Town Council and later as a constable there as well. He also served as president of the county chapter of the Union League of America. On the night of February 26, 1870, Wyatt was dragged from his home and hanged from a tree outside the county courthouse to show the Klan’s contempt for civil law.

The other was the murder of North Carolina State Senator John W. Stephens on May 21, 1870. This white politician was, like Wyatt, a member of both the Republican Party and the Union League of America. His popularity among African American voters in Caswell County and his work on their behalf are what angered the Klan. So the senator was assassinated, not outside the Caswell County Courthouse but inside it, and not under the cover of darkness but during the day. The confession that John Green Lea signed a hundred years ago contains no hint of remorse because it wasn’t written to ease the burden of his conscience nearly a half century after he had arranged and participated in the murder. Astonishly, it was written at the request of the North Carolina Historical Commission and sealed until his death in 1935. Here’s how he describes in great detail what happened to the senator in that courthouse:

To the right is the obituary for John Green Lea that appeared on the front page of The Bee newspaper in Danville, Virginia, on September 30, 1935. John’s confession is mentioned in the second paragraph. A separate notice at the bottom of that front page heralds in large print the solving of a 65-year-old mystery, stating that “a group of Ku Klux Klan members who knew the truth agreed never to tell until the last one was dead” and promising to publish John’s “hitherto sealed affidavit” the next day.

The obituary goes on to praise John’s devotion to the Confederacy and the fact that he “died a rebel.” His funeral in Danville was presided over by not only the Pastor of First Baptist Church but also the Rector of the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany. Note that there was a wreath of flowers provided by the United Daughters of the Confederacy for John’s “flaming spirit” both during the Civil War and during Reconstruction. They clearly saw that his fighting as a Confederate soldier to continue the enslavement of Africans and his later fighting as a member and leader of the Ku Klux Klan to minimize the freedoms of African Americans were part of the same brutal political philosophy.

And the cherry on top of the sundae, so to speak, was the fact that “upon the bier reposed the battle flag of the Confederacy.” One can see here the roots of how that symbol would become weaponized in the 1960s in support of white supremacist ideology and in opposition to racial desegregation. And there are people who are still using that symbol in this way to intimidate their non-white neighbors.

In the midst of the trial of Amber Guyger, and more than a thousand miles away from Dallas, protesters who are upset that the Board of Commissioners in Chatham County, North Carolina, voted to remove a Confederate monument on the front lawn of the old county courthouse erected a large Confederate battle flag directly across the street from Horton Middle School. It was previously a high school for African Americans during Jim Crow segregation, and it is named for George Moses Horton, a formerly enslaved man whose poems were published before his emancipation.

So when Brandt Jean walked across that courtroom in Dallas to embrace Amber Guyger, he was also walking across hundreds of years of white supremacy and racial hatred that have, unfortunately, continued into our own day. There was a great cost to the forgiveness that he offered. It was certainly unmerited. But he knows that he has received forgiveness in his own life, and he hopes that she might receive the gift of true repentance, which is a gift of the Holy Spirit, in the next chapter of her life.

My Last Will and Testament, Part I

When Cornelia “Nealie” Dunevant was about 17 years old, she became pregnant by the son of a wealthy, slave-owning planter in Caswell County, North Carolina. It was a very likely scenario that I described in my earlier post “Bright Star and a Family Tree Secret,” which has been updated to reflect the fact that DNA testing seems to have confirmed the story. Nealie is my great-great-great-grandmother, and Weldon Edwards Williamson is my great-great-great-grandfather. About a year after the birth of their daughter Telula in 1855, Weldon, having moved on, married another woman. This man who lived to see the 20th century had 27 slaves in 1860, when he was 27 years old, and then fought for their continued enslavement as a Confederate cavalry officer.

Weldon’s father was “Royal George” Williamson, who “owned” 142 enslaved Africans as his personal property according to the 1850 United States Federal Census. The slave trade that began in British America and was enshrined in the United States Constitution, where each slave was to be counted as three-fifths of a whole person, had flourished. Royal George’s great-great-great-grandfather Arthur Allen I created an estate in Surry County, Virginia, that illustrates well the growth of that awful trade in the buying and selling of human beings over nearly two centuries.

Arthur appears in Virginia in the middle of the 17th century. In 1665, as one of Surry County’s wealthiest men, he built a magnificent house that still stands today and would later become known as “Bacon’s Castle.” It’s the oldest brick dwelling in North America and one of only three surviving examples of High Jacobean architecture in the Western Hemisphere. The other two examples are on the island of  Barbados.

It was Arthur’s son, Arthur Allen II, my ninth great-uncle, who inherited this house. After the son had served for a second time as Speaker of the House of Burgesses, he was reelected in Surry County to that lower chamber of Virginia’s General Assembly but did not take his seat there in the spring of 1691 because he refused, “through Scruple of conscience,” to take the oaths of allegiance and supremacy. Since William and Mary had ascended the English throne after the Glorious Revolution, Arther Allen II wouldn’t take those oaths that were required of all public officials until 1702, after the death of the deposed King James II, when he was sworn in as a member of the governing body of the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg.

Something that apparently did not trouble his conscience was his shift from the use of indentured servants to enslaved Africans on his estate. According to Preservation Virginia, which now owns Bacon’s Castle, there were four slaves on this plantation in 1675, 13 in 1700, 76 in 1830, and as many as 300 at the outset of the Civil War.

Although the Virginia roots of America’s original sin of slavery go back 400 years ago to Jamestown, with the arrival there in 1619 of “20 and odd” Africans who had been captured from a Portuguese slave ship, slavery as an American institution that was based on racial identity was really fueled by Bacon’s Rebellion. That was an armed rebellion, which included both poor Europeans and poor Africans, against the royal governor of Virginia in 1676. For four months of that year, Arthur Allen II’s house was occupied by 70 of these rebels, who plundered his belongings and destroyed his crops. So that is the origin of the nickname Bacon’s Castle. This video explains what all of that has to do with the history of chattel slavery and, in a real sense, the forging of the idol of white supremacy in British America and the United States:

While the title of this series of posts is “My Last Will and Testament,” I didn’t quote from anyone’s legal will, although I did refer to the large inheritance of a plantation. A future post, however, will contrast the will of Royal George Williamson and his great-grandfather William Eaton. One contains nary a word of religious language, while the other includes an introduction with some beautiful theological statements that I embrace wholeheartedly as a Christian. Yet both of those documents pass on human beings as property to the next generation. The one with Christian language does so, without any hint of conflict, as if dealing out cards in a game of poker.

Interestingly, my wife is a graduate of the law school at the College of Willam and Mary, and for six and a half years I served as Associate Rector at Bruton Parish Church, where we were married in 2003. We had wanted to do something a little different for our rehearsal dinner on the night before the wedding. So our family members and wedding party guests drove with us in a caravan from Williamsburg to the small town of Surry, taking a car ferry across the James River to get there.

I always found it impossible not to think about American history on that ferry ride. On one side of the river was the site of the Jamestown settlement. On the other side was Surry County, which, at least back then, had a landscape that surely didn’t look much different than it did in the 19th century. Eating and laughing at the Surrey House Restaurant, we were sitting about seven and a half miles from Bacon’s Castle without a clue about the history of that place and my connection to it (and without a clue about my wife’s connection to Jamestown), both as a member of the family into which I was born and as an American whose real white privilege is a result of that.

The next time I’m on that ferry and feel the wind in my face, I’ll be thinking about our rehearsal dinner and our wonderful years in Williamsburg, but I’ll also be thinking about all of this. I hope and pray that, by God’s mercy, my conscience will still be troubled by the latter and my love for others will have been shaped by it.

There’s a temptation to read the opening stanzas of William Cullen Bryant’s 1866 poem about the end of slavery’s “cruel reign” and believe the empty fields that still surround Bacon’s Castle, “seem[ing] now to bask in a serener day,” symbolize a promise fulfilled to African Americans after the Civil War. That freedom, however, eroded rapidly after the end of Reconstruction as the sun set on the 19th century. The effects of widespread lynching and other forms of violence inflicted upon African Americans, the voter intimidation and disenfranchisement of African Americans, and the white supremacist ideology frequently praised in the words of guest speakers before cheering crowds at the unveiling of Confederate monuments in the early 20th century sadly remain with us today. Lord, heal us and help us all.

O THOU great Wrong, that, through the slow-paced years,
Didst hold thy millions fettered, and didst wield
The scourge that drove the laborer to the field,
And look with stony eye on human tears,
Thy cruel reign is o’er;
Thy bondmen crouch no more
In terror at the menace of thine eye;
For He who marks the bounds of guilty power,
Long-suffering, hath heard the captive’s cry,
And touched his shackles at the appointed hour,
And lo! they fall, and he whose limbs they galled
Stands in his native manhood, disenthralled.

A shout of joy from the redeemed is sent;
Ten thousand hamlets swell the hymn of thanks;
Our rivers roll exulting, and their banks
Send up hosannas to the firmament.
Fields, where the bondman’s toil
No more shall trench the soil,
Seem now to bask in a serener day;
The meadow-birds sing sweeter, and the airs
Of heaven with more caressing softness play,
Welcoming man to liberty like theirs.
A glory clothes the land from sea to sea,
For the great land and all its coasts are free.

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

No Adjournment on February 22, 1868

Presidents’ Day is officially a federal holiday established by an Act of Congress in 1879 to observe the birthday of the first President of the United States, George Washington, who was born on February 22, 1732. But it’s clear that February 22 was important to many Americans before that honor was mandated by legislation. For example, on Saturday, February 22, 1868, a delegate from Chatham County to the Constitutional Convention of the State of North Carolina introduced this resolution:

Resolved, That in respect to the memory and in honor to the distinguished services of General George Washington, he, who was “first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen,” this Convention adjourn until 10 o’clock, A. M., Monday next.

My fourth great-uncle, Elijah B. Teague, was a delegate from Forsyth County to that same Constitutional Convention. He had been elected to that position in November of 1867 as a Republican. That election was held at the direction of the United States Congress, in which North Carolina was not represented at the time because of its secession during the Civil War, and by the Commanding General of the Second Military District of the United States Army. The purpose of that convention was to write a new constitution so that the state could be readmitted to the Union.

On that Saturday morning, only 16 delegates voted in favor of adjourning to honor our country’s first president on his birthday. 75 delegates, including Teague, voted against it. A differently worded resolution was then adopted by a majority vote:

Resolved, That with profound reverence for the memory of George Washington, we will honor the day of his birth, not by adjourning, but by proceeding to engraft upon the Constitution the great principles of justice and liberty, which have made his name illustrious.

It is fitting, I think, that they immediately took up the Report of the Committee on Suffrage for the rest of the day. In other words, they would eventually have to decide who was eligible to vote in state elections and what would disqualify someone from holding public office. Four days earlier, the delegates had received the Report of the Committee on Suffrage, along with several minority reports from members of that committee. Two delegates, for example, invoking the words “tyrannical and unjust” to describe the demands of the Federal government, wrote that by resisting “negro suffrage and negro equality” until it is forced, “we will not have consented to our own humiliation, and will at least, have preserved our honor and self-respect.”

Another minority opinion had been expressed at the beginning of February in the form of a motion to add the following words to the section of the state constitution that described the Executive Department:

No person of African descent or of mixed blood, shall be eligible to the office of Governor, Lieutenant Governor, or any other Executive office.

11 delegates supported that motion. 83 delegates, including Teague, opposed it. Also rejected by 83 delegates, included Teague, in early February was a motion to add these words to the section of the state constitution that described the state militia:

. . . white and colored persons shall be organized into separate commands, and no white man shall ever be required to obey a negro officer.

The Report of the Committee on Suffrage included a recommendation that anyone who had been elected to public office should be required to take an oath to support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of North Carolina, “not inconsistent therewith.” The final form of the state constitution that would be adopted took that same minimal oath and required voters to take it too. There were several attempts, however, to expand that oath, such as swearing that:

I am truly and devotedly attached to the Union of all the States, and opposed to any dissolution of the same, that I entertain no political sympathy with the instigators and leaders of the rebellion, or with the enemies of the Union, nor approbation of their principles or purposes, that I will neither by word or act encourage or countenance a spirit of sedition or disaffection towards the government of the United States or the laws thereof, and that I will sustain and defend the Union of these States, and will discourage and resist all efforts to destroy or impair the same.

26 delegates, including Teague, voted in favor of that expanded version. 73 delegates voted against it. So my fourth great-uncle didn’t always vote with the majority at this Constitutional Convention. But the end result was a pretty amazing document for its time and the second of only three constitutions in the history of North Carolina.

That second constitution declared that the people of North Carolina are grateful to God “for the preservation of the American Union.” It further stated “that there is no right on the part of this State to secede” and “that every citizen of this State owes paramount allegiance to the Constitution and Government of the United States.” And the list of rights near the beginning of that constitution included these words:

Slavery and involuntary servitude, otherwise than for crime whereof the parties shall have been duly convicted, shall be, and are hereby, forever prohibited within this State.

Universal male suffrage was a major feature of this constitution. Those voting rights, however, would be severely restricted after the Democratic Party regained control of the General Assembly of North Carolina and many public offices across the state in the election of 1898 through violence and voter intimidation. Once in power, conservatives in the General Assembly approved a constitutional amendment in 1899 that would impose a poll tax and a literacy requirement for male citizens to be able to vote. That constitutional amendment was ratified by a popular vote in 1900 that was marked by further violence and voter intimidation to ensure that it passed.

In 1900, nearly 30% of male voters in the state were illiterate, and disproportionally African American. That African American voters were the intended victims of this constitutional amendment is evidenced by the fact that it also also included a grandfather clause. The clause allowed an illiterate male to vote if he registered by 1908 and was a direct descendant of someone who had been registered to vote prior to Reconstruction. Sadly, it would take the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s to restore much of this deliberate erosion of the voting rights of African Americans.

In the meantime, the guest speaker for the 1905 dedication of Forsyth County’s new Confederate monument in Winston, North Carolina, was the Honorable Alfred Moore Waddell, Mayor of Wilmington, North Carolina. I’ve written previously about his white supremacist views and his leadership in the only successful coup d’etat in American history within the borders of the United States. That was in 1898, when an armed white mob seized control of the City of Wilmington, murdering innocent citizens and forcing the mayor, board of aldermen, and chief of police to resign.

Another important figure in the organized plot to exploit racial tensions in North Carolina to benefit the Democratic Party in the election of 1898 was Robert B. Glenn, whom I’ll write about separately. He would become the Governor of North Carolina in 1905, and a high school would eventually be named in his honor. I know that since I was Valedictorian of the Class of 1988 at Robert B. Glenn High School in Forsyth County, North Carolina. I wonder what my fourth great-uncle, Elijah B. Teague, who publicly affirmed “the great principles of justice and liberty,” would think of that.

“Death Strikes Thrice”

69 years ago today, on Monday, August 1, 1949, the front page of the local newspaper in Lumberton, North Carolina, highlighted the opening of the town’s tobacco market on the following morning and included a map of other tobacco markets throughout the Carolinas and Virginia. There was also an update about the planned restoration of Tryon Palace, which was the official residence of the royal governor in New Bern when North Carolina was a royal colony under King George III. Another long article noted the death of J.C.B. Ehringhaus, who served as the Governor of North Carolina during the Great Depression and “often said he was proud of the fact that no public schools had to close during [that] period and teachers continued to get their pay.”

That front page also had a brief article from the Associated Press. Earlier that same day in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, someone who’d been a rural teacher before the Great Depression had “died of a heart attack just after she arrived at the home of her parents.” Her mother had died at 6:00 a.m. that Monday morning, and her father had died over the weekend on Saturday night at 6:00 p.m. That former teacher was my grandmother, Clara Tucker Willard. She was survived by my granddaddy, who was a tobacco farmer, and their eleven children, including my daddy, who turned 15 years old days later. Surely this was a death caused by the emotional stress of a broken heart, weighed down by unexpected grief. It’s such a sad story to imagine.

The next day, on August 2, a double funeral was held for my great-grandparents at Union Cross Moravian Church. That’s also the congregation where I was raised in the Christian faith and where my daddy, like his grandparents, is buried in God’s Acre, which is how Moravians have referred to their graveyards since coming here from Germany in the 18th century. Then, on August 3, my grandmother was buried in the graveyard of the Primitive Baptist Church in High Point, North Carolina, where my granddaddy would be buried. May they rest in peace, and rise in glory.

Because of my grandmother’s Moravian heritage, my daddy and his ten siblings grew up listening to the radio broadcast of the sunrise service at God’s Acre for the Salem Congregation in Winston-Salem early on the morning of Easter Day each year. On their tobacco farm on Willard Road in Guilford County, they would’ve heard the voice of a Moravian minister proclaim in the darkness that the Lord is risen, and they would have heard brass bands playing antiphonally throughout God’s Acre as the gathered crowd walked there from Home Moravian Church.

Finally, they would have heard over the radio that great throng singing chorales like this one about their Christian faith as the sun rose brilliantly in the eastern sky:

I give thee thanks unfeigned,
O Jesus, Friend in need,
For what thy soul sustained,
when thou for me didst bleed.
Grant me to lean unshaken
upon thy faithfulness,
until I hence am taken,
to see thee face to face.

Mr. Mickey and Andy Griffith

There’s a great website called The Bitter Southerner that recently featured an article entitled “The Weird History of Hillbilly TV” by Gabe Bullard. It talks about all sorts of things from “The Andy Griffith Show” to “Duck Dynasty,” including the fact that the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement, although unmentioned, were both taking place while Andy Taylor was sheriff in the fictional small town of Mayberry.

No less than four photographs of Andy Griffith, who died in 2012, are part of that article. That made me smile for two reasons. First, because I was raised on reruns of the black and while episodes of “The Andy Griffith Show.” Yes, I’m among those who consider the color episodes of that show, including all things related to “Mayberry R.F.D.,” to be heretical. But I also smiled because of a connection to Andy Griffith.

That’s because the first pastor whom I remember during my childhood at Union Cross Moravian Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, was the Rev. Edward T. Mickey, Jr. After he had retired from Union Cross, he was elected to be a bishop of the Unitas Fratrum, which is the name of the worldwide Moravian Church.

Photo Credit: NCSU Libraries’ Digital Collections: Rare and Unique Materials

We called him Mr. Mickey, in the same way that Episcopal priests, believe it or not, used to be addressed in past generations in the United States. Mr. Mickey wasn’t only an ordained minister in the Moravian Church but also a very good musician. His grandfather, in fact, had been the leader of the 26th North Carolina Regimental Band during the Civil War. It was from Mr. Mickey that I first learned that liturgy in our worship on Sundays isn’t a meaningless repetition of words but a beautiful act of prayer. He also directed the children’s choir in which I sang at Union Cross.

One of my first memories of Mr. Mickey is of him interrupting our practice of the song “This Is My Father’s World” to ask us if we happened to know what “the music of the spheres” was. He explained that it referred to the harmony of the movement of the planets in our solar system, which were created by God. I loved that thought. Another time he talked to us about part of a missing finger of his. I was so relieved he mentioned it because I could never take my eyes off of it when he directed us.

When I was older, I would sometimes help my daddy mow the grass at the church, which was on a fairly sizable piece of property that was bordered on two sides by tobacco fields. The white riding mower that I first used to do that was a gift to our church from Andy Griffith. He had shown up at the parsonage one day, asking to see Mr. Mickey and wearing a large hat that covered his face as he looked down at the ground. He was there to surprise an old friend who had set him on the right path.

Mr. Mickey had once served as the Pastor of Grace Moravian Church in Mt. Airy, North Carolina, which is located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. There a teenager by the name of Andy Griffith came to visit him, wanting to learn how to play the trombone. Here’s how that teenager later remembered that experience in The Player: A Profile of an Art, which is a 1962 collection of reflections by actors:

For three years, he gave me a free lesson once a week. Ed Mickey taught me to sing and to read music and to play every brass instrument there was in the [church] band, and the guitar and the banjo besides. I was best at playing the E-flat alto horn.

When I was sixteen, I joined the church, together with my mother and daddy. We had been Baptists, but it was all Protestant anyhow, so it didn’t make any difference. I was very happy with the Moravians. All the other band members accepted me. They didn’t ever make fun of me. When Ed Mickey had a call to serve another Moravian church, somewhere else in the state, I became the leader of the band until the church could bring in a new preacher. A lot of the people used to point to me and say, “There’s our next preacher.” I was beginning to get that idea myself. The preacher was the cultural leader of the whole town.

Those lessons were mentioned in Andy Griffith’s obituary in The New York Times, along with a painful memory of having been called “white trash” as a child. The band members at the church, including Mr. Mickey, embraced him with the love of Jesus.

Mr. Mickey recommended Andy Griffith for a scholarship to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he began his college studies with the intention of becoming an ordained minister in the Moravian Church. He changed his major to music, however, becoming a teacher instead and spending his summers as an actor in “The Lost Colony” outdoor drama on Roanoke Island on the Outer Banks.

The rest is history . . .

Bright Star and a Family Tree Secret

When my wife Carrie and I purchased our tickets for the musical Bright Star, which was written and composed by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, we were both excited to hear the music but had no idea what the storyline would be. After we settled into our seats at Houston’s Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, I was very pleasantly surprised to learn that it’s partly set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina during the post-war 1940s with flashbacks to 1923. I grew up in the Old North State within a short drive of those mountains, and we had our honeymoon in Asheville, where the musical also took us after some family drama in the plot that was inspired by a true event. And I had discovered a shadow of that secret in my own family tree.

In the musical, sixteen-year-old Alice Murphy, who sings “If You Knew My Story” as an adult, meets young Jimmy Ray Dobbs in her hometown of Zebulon. The town, by the way, is a real place that’s named for the Confederate Governor of North Carolina, Zebulon B. Vance. Jimmy Ray’s father, Josiah Dobbs, who represents the Old South, is the mayor and a successful businessman. He believes Jimmy Ray needs to marry someone with a higher social status and that college would be a waste of time when he should really be helping with the family business in order to run it one day.

Things get complicated when Alice becomes pregnant. Josiah arranges for that fact to remain a secret, forces Alice to give up her child for adoption, and promises to take his own grandchild to the adoption agency. On the train ride, however, he does something terrible to ensure that all of the problems he envisions for his son will go away forever. But his plan doesn’t work, and the child grows up, loved by others. There’s more to the story in the musical, but this context is sufficient for my story.

As I heard the words “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do” being sung, I wondered if my great-great-great-grandmother Cornelia Dunevant would have heard the voice of “Royal George” Williamson running through her mind. Cornelia was a complete mystery to me as I researched my family history. She never got married, but did give birth to at least three daughters, including my great-great-grandmother Telula Dunevant, who was born in 1855. Cornelia would have been about 17 years old at the time. Telula later married William Cook at 19 years of age, and the best clue to the identity of her father appears on her marriage certificate. She listed her mother as Cornelia and her father as Weldon Williamson, who was a wealthy planter’s son.

But that’s not the only clue. Telula had a son and a grandson who both had Weldon as a middle name and were each listed on the 1930 United States Federal Census as Weldon Cook, implying that both of them went by the name Weldon.

There are also genetic clues. One of the reasons that I had earlier decided to take the AncestryDNA test through Ancestry.com is because I hoped it might offer a bridge to confirm a few things in my family tree that were probably true but not proven to be true. Over time, as more close family members, together with more people in general, take the same test, my DNA matches are mapped in a way that illustrates how they might be related to me through a common ancestor. Those DNA matches reveal connections to more than one child of Weldon Edwards Williamson other than Telula. They also reveal connections to more than one of Weldon’s siblings, more than one of his father’s siblings, and at least one of his mother’s siblings.

Weldon’s father had a nickname, “Royal George,” and owned 142 slaves in Caswell County, North Carolina, according to the 1850 United States Federal Census. When Telula was born, Royal George would have been about 67 years old, and his son Weldon would have been about 23 years old. Royal George died about a year later, and I noticed something interesting about his will. Many of my other relatives from this time period open their wills with either a passing reference to God or a stated desire for a decent Christian burial. There’s not one word about any of that in Royal George’s will. It’s all business, including instructions about what to do if his four children by his second wife object to how he wants to divide their inheritance.

From the bottom of the first page of Royal George Williamson’s will: “If this rule of division is objected to on the part of my children by my second wife then I direct that the value of their property obtained as aforesaid shall be ascertained [and they shall receive an equal share of my estate less that value].”

And there was a lot to divide. The account documents for his estate include more than 30 pages, partly because so many people owed him money. At the time of the next United States Federal Census in 1860, Weldon is listed on the slave schedules as owning 27 slaves. Many if not most of those enslaved Africans presumably represent part of the “property” that Weldon inherited from his father. Weldon also inherited Royal George’s family home called Melrose. He had apparently put his relationship with Cornelia behind him and married another woman, Nancy Johnston, about a year after the birth of Telula. “A man’s gotta do what man’s gotta do” to succeed, according to the fictional grandfather in Bright Star. “A man must protect his family and preserve his good name,” he sings, although what he’s preserving is an illusion.

Yet just as the rain falls on both the just and the unjust, so too does personal tragedy. Nancy died less than a year after she and Weldon were married. After her death, Weldon sold Melrose to one of his brothers. 68 days after the death of his first wife, Weldon married his second wife Mary Bethel. By 1880, he was a widower again and had moved with his children to Danville in Southern Virginia. He married his third wife Elizabeth Hammond in 1881, and by the turn of the century he and his family were living in Asheville. Weldon died there in the Blue Ridge Mountains in 1901.

Traditionally, Christians have called the writer of the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible the Preacher.  At the very end of that book, the Preacher implies that a light will be shined on “every deed . . . including every secret thing.” For the Preacher, that is God’s judgement. Or maybe it’s just the reality that truth dispels our darkest night and sets us free. Perhaps all of that is the same thing, allowing us to loosen a little our tight grip on the memories of the past that burden our hearts.

I don’t know how that worked itself out in the hearts of Cornelia, Weldon, or Royal George. What I do know is that Telula lived her life, loved by her children, who put these words on the headstone of the grave where she is buried beside her husband:

FAREWELL, DEAR MOTHER AND FATHER SWEET
THY REST. GOD TAKES THE LIVES HE GAVE.

For many people, the family that finally embraces them and accepts them is the community of the church that embodies the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross. I hope Telula and her mother and her father experienced that, too, on this earth. And I hope Royal George will experience that in the life to come, reconciled with his children, his grandchildren, including Telula, and the men, women, and children he enslaved, whose lives were just as important in the eyes of God as his own. All of them, and all of us, need to know that love remains in spite of the wrongs we have done to others and after the wrongs others have done to us. This I believe.

Click here for a series of reflections on a different slave-owning ancestor.

Facing Death in the Midst of Holy Week

Like many Southerners, even as an adult, I always referred to my father as “Daddy.” He suffered from Alzheimer’s disease during the last years of his life and died ten years ago today on the eve of Palm Sunday. So that year I observed Holy Week in a different and more profound way than ever before. It was intensely personal and accompanied with many tears. Death, the enemy of life, is cruel. I miss him still.

After returning to North Carolina, I touched Daddy’s body and kissed his forehead and said prayers before his cremation. I selected a simple wooden urn for his ashes. I made sure that his ashes were placed directly into it without any plastic bag or metal identification tag, only a layer of cotton between the ashes and the wooden panel that was screwed into the bottom. And I requested that the dirt at the graveside be visible, not hidden under a roll of artificial turf. These things, these realities, were meaningful to me as a priest and, more importantly, as a son.

My brother worked at that time as a private contractor in Iraq. Weather conditions delayed his departure from there, which in turn delayed Daddy’s funeral. That was transformed into a strange blessing, however, since the funeral was held on Good Friday. On a holy day set aside to remember the death of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, we also remembered the death of one of his sheep, one of his lambs.

The contrast between the weather in the Old North State and the North Star State was a bit extreme on that day called good. In North Carolina, everything was in bloom. But the back yard of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Edina, Minnesota, where I served as the Rector, looked like the photograph below, which was taken on the same day. It was symbolic of my own experience at the time. The warmth of the sun back home was a glimpse of the glory that shall be revealed. Those who were in the “Deep North” will remember a magnificent snowfall that year on Easter Day!

Inside the church of my childhood, I recited the Moravian burial liturgy and sang familiar chorales with the congregation. I carried the urn in a procession from the church to the graveyard, which is called God’s Acre, as a brass band played more chorales outdoors. I placed that urn directly into the ground, returning Daddy’s remains to the earth. I picked up a shovel and, together with my brother, filled the grave with dirt in the presence of our mother, our relatives, and our friends. That final act of love was a powerful experience for me and for many who witnessed it.

The chorale sung at the end of the Moravian burial liturgy, just before the graveside benediction, is a beautiful summary of the Christian faith that Daddy and I shared:

The Savior’s blood and righteousness
My beauty is, my glorious dress;
Thus well arrayed I need not fear,
When in His presence I appear.

Needless to say, presiding at the Great Vigil of Easter on the next evening at my Episcopal parish in Minnesota was emotional for me. It was, however, one of the highlights of my life as a priest. That’s when the faithful of the world, and the faithless too, are reminded of the night in which Jesus passed over from death to life. That’s when we look into an empty tomb but do not dwell there. That’s when tears are wiped away from the faces of those who mourn. As I wrote down the following words for the back of Daddy’s funeral bulletin, these other things, these other realities, filled me with a hope that is firmly anchored in God’s promises:

“The people to whom I owe my life are unforgotten. They are present to me, because in their love I became free and can breathe in wide spaces. Unforgotten for me are people to whom I am bound in affection and respect. They have entered into my life, and I perhaps a little into theirs. Unforgotten for me are the dead whom I miss. They are always especially present to me. Nothing that has been, is no more; everything that has happened remains. We cannot make anything undone, not the ill, but not the good either. What was lovely and successful, and the happiness we have experienced, no one can take from us, neither transitory time nor death.”

These words of the German theologian Jürgen Moltmann at the end of his autobiography, A Broad Place, describe our own lives and also the life that we have remembered this morning. Although memories faded for Clyde over the last several years, those experiences are nevertheless unforgotten. They are not lost because God has embraced them for him as surely as God now embraces him for us.

This we believe.

This is the joy of Easter.

The Lord is risen indeed!

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” had not been 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, there may be future posts about other Unionist cousins of mine whom I discovered through their own testimony and the testimony of their friends and neighbors before the United States Southern Claims Commission several years after the end of the Civil War. Some of that testimony includes references to and claims of secret membership during the war in the Red Strings, a biblically-inspired nickname for the Heroes of America.

I’m also pondering a final post that somehow 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 a future 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.