My Slave-Owning Ancestor, Part IV

My great, great, great grandfather Daniel Hackney, Jr., was first elected to the House of Commons in North Carolina’s General Assembly in 1844 as a member of the Whig Party from Chatham County. He served four two-year terms in a row, through 1851. After the dissolution of the Whig Party in the 1850s, he became a Democrat and ran for the same office in the same county on the anti-Know Nothing ticket in 1856. He served one two-year term with that new political identity. One letter to the editor in  The North Carolina Standard newspaper, referring to Hackney’s opinions about the 1856 presidential election, claimed that he believed old-line Whigs and Democrats “ought to unite now to save the country by sustaining that candidate who would most probably beat the black Republican ticket.”

“Black Republican” was a disparaging term used to highlight the anti-slavery views of the Republican Party, which had only been formed two years earlier in 1854. The two-part article on the right from The North Carolina Standard newspaper describes a Union meeting that convened in Chatham County on December 15, 1860, and then reconvened on December 27, 1860.

Many of the people who attended similar meetings in the Old North State were like Hackney. He was an as-it-was-with-slavery Unionist rather than an as-it-might-be-without-slavery Unionist. They believed the best path for protecting the institution of slavery was to stay in the Union, and that secession would very likely result in slavery’s destruction. Although Hackney no longer held a seat in the General Assembly and didn’t make a formal speech at either of these meetings in Chatham County, he “was called out” to offer some remarks at the second gathering with the larger crowd and “explained his position as a constitutional Union man.”

The resolutions that were passed at that second meeting include a lot of highly qualified language. There is much concern expressed at the end about equal rights, not for individuals but for states. While the perception that states’ rights were being trampled upon fueled these debates, the fifth resolve hints at the real source of the anxiety: “That our Legislature should pass such strong retaliatory laws against those States which have attempted to nullify the fugitive slave laws, as in their wisdom may seem right and proper and in accordance with the Constitution of the United States.”

That becomes even clearer on January 4, 1861, at a meeting in Chatham County that was initially convened in response to President James Buchanan’s call for “a day of fasting, prayer and humiliation.” The President intended that as a way to calm the storm of unrest in the North and in the South following South Carolina’s ordinance of secession, which was adopted on December 20, 1860. The meeting took place at Love’s Creek Baptist Church, where Hackney had served as a deacon long before he was first elected to public office. After the prayer service, Hackney, two ordained ministers, and two other men “were appointed a committee to draft resolutions.” The Fayetteville Observer newspaper noted that their work didn’t take very long:

Although Hackney and others spoke of their desire to preserve the Union, that was only true “provided that the Federal laws are faithfully executed and [their] rights of property respected.” As the first resolve plainly states, that property included enslaved human beings, and the will of the people gathered inside that Baptist church was that “citizens hereafter shall be unmolested in the enjoyment of said property.” My great, great, great grandfather owned 14 slaves at the time he helped to write those words. That is a difficult but necessary truth to acknowledge. This really happened, and despite all of the rhetoric about states’ rights as the primary Southern issue, protecting the institution of slavery was the motive behind it.

North Carolina did not secede from the Union until May 20, 1861. The larger political story that led to that, including what happened on the ground in Chatham County, warrants its own reflection. It’s a story that’s not as simple as one might imagine it to be. Ironically, the Unionists, both pro-slavery and not pro-slavery, won a state-wide victory in February of 1861 that almost certainly aided the secessionist movement in the long run. When secession did become a reality, most “conservative” pro-slavery Unionists like my great, great, great grandfather didn’t resist it. They joined it.

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

My Slave-Owning Ancestor, Part III

I’m a native of the Old North State and received my undergraduate degree in religion from Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, which is not too far from the town of Kernersville where I was raised. My next adventure was in New Haven, Connecticut, at Yale Divinity School, as I prepared myself for ordination in the Episcopal Church. Other than a semester overseas in London and a summer of archeology in Israel, it was the first time that I had ever lived out of the South.

Those of us seeking ordination spent at least one year working at a field placement during our three years of theological studies. That was usually a church where we would help out a couple of times a week. Only a few of my peers drove further away from New Haven to get to their field placement than I did. Mine was a West Indian, Anglo-Catholic parish in Stamford, Connecticut. Most of the parishioners were people of color from Jamaica and Haiti and other islands of the West Indies. They loved joyful but formal high church liturgy with sanctus bells and lots of incense.

The vicar, who was a New England man through and through, and about 10% of the congregation were white. He had roots in neighboring Rhode Island. Unknown to me at the time, he also had the same first, middle, and last name as an 18th-century sailor who came to Bristol, Rhode Island, and whose family is highlighted in the documentary Traces of the Trade. That sailor went into business as a privateer and slave trader. The family business eventually included not only the ships used to bring slaves from West Africa to America and to the Caribbean but also their own plantations and slaves in the Caribbean and sugar cane from those plantations that was then sent to their own rum distilleries in America. When the importation of slaves became illegal in 1808, they continued the dismal trade, first by smuggling slaves into the United States and then by focusing on their international holdings.

It seems counterintuitive to suggest that not only the Southern seminarian but also the Northern vicar might have shared historical ties to the institution of slavery in this country. We tend to think of the evils of slavery as somehow contained within the borders of slave states, both Union and Confederate, at the time of the Civil War. But slavery was legal for more than 200 years in the North, and the mere fact of the abolition of slavery doesn’t mean that racism had also magically been abolished.

In New York City, for example, the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862 confirmed the worst fears of Irish and German residents because the Democratic Party had warned them that freed slaves would flee north and take their jobs away from them. Antiwar newspaper editors fanned those flames, referring to the “nigger war” as an overreach by the federal government. The result was several days of draft riots in the city in July of 1863 that included attacks on black people, lynching deaths, and even “[the] sport of mutilating the black men’s bodies, sometimes sexually.”

Traces of the Trace showed me the extent to which ordinary Americans were also entangled in the institution of slavery. Townspeople in Bristol, Rhode Island, for example, invested in the business empire there with its vertical integration of slave trading, Carribean plantations, and American rum distilleries. And the Episcopal Church invested in it too. So profits from slave labor were shared far and wide.

On the second line, to the far right of “Daniel Hackney,”  the numbers “1  1  1  –  2  1  –  1” note the seven slaves of Daniel Hackney, Sr., in Chatham County, North Carolina, for the 1820 United States Federal Census.

My great, great, great grandfather, Daniel Hackney, Jr., certainly shared in those profits. He owned slaves just like his father before him. The most slaves that Daniel Hackney, Sr., who died in 1835, is known to have owned is seven according to the 1820 United States Federal Census for Chatham County, North Carolina. His son owned nine slaves that are recorded on the slave schedules for that same county in the 1850 United States Federal Census. As I’ve described in detail previously, the younger Hackney then owned 14 slaves that are listed on slave schedules with the 1860 United States Federal Census. He doesn’t rank, however, on the list of top 100 slave owners in Chatham County. Six more slaves would’ve made him a “planter.”

In 1860, slaves comprised 33% of the total population of Chatham County, which is located right in the middle of North Carolina. That happens to be the percentage of slaves in the total population of the whole state in the same year. The reality, of course, is that some far western counties in the Blue Ridge Mountains had a very small percentage of slaves and many counties to the east and far south of Chatham County had a much higher percentage of slaves with respect to total population.

Compared to Virginia, which had more slaves than any other state, “North Carolina had a slightly higher proportion of slaves and a slightly higher proportion of slaveholding families.” In Chatham County, “one in three people . . . was owned by someone else, and one in three families had slaves.” That is just astonishing to me, although I know it really shouldn’t be. Nearly 4 million human beings were enslaved within the borders of the United States. I’m embarrassed by these truths from 1860.

But I am not embarrassed to learn about this history. Katrina Browne produced and directed Traces of the Trade and founded The Tracing Center on Histories and Legacies of Slavery. She’s also one of the descendants of the family that created the business empire in Bristol, Rhode Island, which profited from slave trading, slave smuggling, and slave labor. Here’s something that she said in the documentary:

Once you really start to face the history and open your heart — now that I’ve done that — I can say it actually becomes very natural to want to make things right, not out of personal guilt, but out of grief.

The Most Rev. Michael Curry is the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church and the former Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina. He is also an African American whose Baptist father came to church with his Episcopalian mother when they were still dating and living in the heart of segregated America in the 1940s. His father watched his mother walk to the front of the church for communion, kneeling beside white people and drinking from the same cup that they did. His father had never seen whites and blacks drink from the same glass or even from the same water fountain. Bishop Curry recently spoke at the dedication of the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing in the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta and said this:

We need not live the past again. We do need to know what it was.

Earlier I described a church in New England that brought together people from different regions with diverse cultural backgrounds and histories. It was, in many ways, a glimpse of the heavenly banquet that I believe we all get invited to join. Only then will all wrongs have been made right. That does not mean, however, that we can’t take a step in the right direction to address some wrongs in the present. What that requires is for us to see things not as we wish them to be, but as they really are. And as an Episcopal priest, it seems fitting for me to let Jesus have the last word:

. . . the truth shall make you free.

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My Slave-Owning Ancestor, Part II

At the end of last month, the New York Times published an article with news about an important essay from the 19th century that was recently discovered at the New York Public Library. Written in either 1855 or 1856 and titled “Individual Influence,” it’s “a roughly 500-word sermonlike meditation.” Near the end, the author notes his belief that “all influence opposit to divine perverts human nature into brutality from infancy into distant years.” Those words were written in the handwriting of a slave from Chatham County, North Carolina, named George M. Horton and “belonging to Hall Horton.” This slave had taught himself how to read with a Wesleyan hymnal.

Horton was a poet who sold his verses to undergraduate students at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. While he never made enough money to purchase his freedom, he did make enough to buy his time back from his master. So he spent his days working on the campus and writing poems. “Liberty and Slavery” protested his status in bondage and was the first of his verses published in a newspaper. In 1829, Horton “became the first African-American in the South to publish a book.”

The manuscript of “Individual Influence” was kept by Henry Harrisse, “a French-Jewish immigrant who arrived in Chapel Hill in 1853.” Harrisse was ridiculed and harassed by his students at the university, who were “mostly the sons of wealthy [slave-owning] planters.” He made a scrapbook with Horton’s essay, documents related to his problems with his students, and articles about Benjamin Hedrick.

A native North Carolinian, Hedrick was graduated at the top of his class from the University of North Carolina in 1851. He returned to teach there in 1854 after studies at Harvard University in Massachusetts. When asked by a few students if he would support John C. Frémont as a Republican presidential candidate, Hedrick answered honestly that he would. Soon thereafter, a newspaper article was published that “[advocated] the ouster of those with ‘black Republican opinions’ from the colleges and seminaries of the state.” Here’s part of his public response to the controversy:

cannot believe that slavery is preferable to freedom, or that slavery extension is one of the constitutional rights of the South. . . . Born in the “good old North State,” I cherish a love for her and her people that I bear to no other State or people. It will ever be my sincere wish to advance her interests. I love also the Union of the States, secured as it was by the blood and toil of my ancestors; and whatever influence I possess, though small it may be, shall be exerted for its preservation.

Two weeks later the faculty and trustees of the university voted to dismiss him.

Chatham County, North Carolina, was home not only to slave George M. Horton but also to slave-owner Daniel Hackney, Jr., who is my great, great, great grandfather. Hackney represented the people of Chatham County during the 1840s and 1850s in the House of Commons, as the lower chamber of North Carolina’s General Assembly in the capital of Raleigh was then called. He was a member of the Whig Party but, after the disintegration of that political party in the 1850s, he became a Democrat.

Hackney appeared on what was described as the “Democratic anti-Know Nothing ticket” in Chatham County for the General Assembly. They were opposed to the Know Nothing candidates, who were anti-immigration, anti-Catholic, etc. Because he had switched political parties, people were very interested in Hackney’s opinions about the 1856 presidential election. Hackney’s preferred candidate was former President Millard Fillmore, who was the last member of the Whig Party in the White House. Although the American “Know Nothing” Party nominated Fillmore as their presidential candidate, Hackney’s support of him shouldn’t be seen an endorsement of Know Nothing policies. That’s made clear in this letter about Hackney that was front-page news for The North Carolina Standard newspaper in Raleigh:

In 1844, when Hackney first ran for the House of Commons, his name appeared in various newspapers on a list of candidates for the Whig Party. Sometimes the announcement included candidates all the way up to Henry Clay for President of the United States. This example, from The Raleigh Register newspaper, included information about an important and very hotly debated national issue — possible annexation and statehood for the Republic of Texas.

My great, great, great grandfather belonged to the political party that was opposed to a hasty annexation of Texas. Many Southerners viewed Texas statehood as a way to expand and protect the institution of slavery. Some feared, however, that it could lead to a war with Mexico. In his “Raleigh Letter,” Henry Clay said he opposed the annexation of Texas “at the present time.” It was meant to suggest to anti-slavery Northerners that he stood against the expansion of slavery, while placating pro-slavery Southerners with the strong hint that he would welcome Texas in the future. Regardless of whatever good and noble things he may have endorsed as a private citizen, as an elected public official, and later as an ordained minister of the gospel, Hackney seems to have been consistent in his support of the institution of slavery in the decades before and the years during the Civil War. I wish that I could say otherwise. He was a man of his times.

Things might have turned out differently for him if the churches of the Sandy Creek Baptist Association, to which Hackney’s church belonged, had taken to heart their own words, rooted in the Christian gospel, in their partial, anti-slavery resolution in 1835. The inability of that association more than a decade later in 1847 to provide a clear — or any — answer to the question of whether it is contrary to the gospel for Christians to “keep [human beings] in bondage for life” explains why Hackney was able to represent his church at association meetings right up to the Civil War.

I also wonder how his life might have been shaped if he had received an education like Benjamin Hedrick, who was able to speak against slavery honestly and counter-culturally in spite of the cost to himself both personally and professionally. Unlike Hedrick, my great, great, great grandfather was very popular. He received more votes than any of the other candidates in the race to represent Chatham County in the House of Commons. That victory would be repeated again and again and again.

But the juxtaposition of his name and the “For Sale” notice to the right of the list of Whig candidates below in The Greensboro Patriot newspaper is an unsettling visual reminder of what life was really like in North Carolina in 1844. While I can’t change the past, in the spirit of George M. Horton’s sermonic essay, my prayer today is that my individual influence, by God’s mercy and grace, will not be “opposit to divine.”

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

My Slave-Owning Ancestor, Part I

Last night C-SPAN’s series on American history, American Artifacts, highlighted the Saving Slave Houses Project. These structures, which are vanishing, witness to our nation’s original sin of slavery — enshrined in the United States Constitution, where each slave was to be counted as three-fifths of a whole person for the purpose of determining the number of representatives in the United States Congress from each state. The contrast between that reality and the “self-evident” truth set forth in the Declaration of Independence “that all men are created equal” is hard to understand.

I watched that program with great interest because I was surprised to learn, only this year, that I have slave-owning ancestors. That’s not the narrative I’ve always told people about myself: I’m the grandson and great-grandson of tobacco farmers in North Carolina. While that’s a true statement, it’s not the whole truth. Further back, some of those who came before me mentioned slaves in their wills. One person in particular stands out, although his slaves are not referenced in his will because they were presumably freed at the end of the Civil War by the Union army.

His name was Daniel Hackney, Jr., and he’s my great, great, great grandfather. He was a politician in the General Assembly of North Carolina in the 1840s and 1850s, a member of the Whig party who became a Democrat, a slave-owning Baptist deacon who became a post-slave-owning preaching elder, and a Unionist (an as-it-was-with-slavery Unionist rather than an as-it-might-be-without-slavery Unionist) during the years before secession who would then be elected 3rd lieutenant in the Confederate Home Company for Chatham County, North Carolina, during the Civil War.

The Chatham County slave schedules from the 1860 United States Federal Census don’t include the names of Hackney’s slaves. They are simply counted as property under his name. 14 in total, most of them children, including a one-month-old baby. 13 were black, one was biracial. There were eight males and six females. None were fugitives or had been manumitted. Together they lived in three slave houses.

When I first saw this, I kept a copy of it on my beside table. I stared at it every night before trying to fall asleep, haunted by the fact that I was directly connected to the institution of slavery in America. So I’m reflecting on all of this in a series of posts.

For now, however, I’ll begin with Hackney’s strong religious identity. In 1823, at the age of 20, he was baptized as a Christian and became a follower of Jesus Christ. He was one of the first deacons for Love’s Creek Baptist Church, which is located about two miles east of Siler City, North Carolina, when that congregation was organized in 1833. After his service in the Home Guard and his former slaves were no longer his “property,” he was finally granted a license to preach in 1866 and ordained as a preaching elder in 1871 in the Sandy Creek Baptist Association.

Interestingly, in 1835, that association had opposed not the institution of slavery entirely but, specifically, “buy[ing] and sell[ing] Negros, for the purpose of speculation or merchandise, for gain” as “inconsistent with the spirit of the Gospel of Christ” and advised churches “to exclude members who will not abandon the practice.” Later, in 1847, the association was asked this question: “Is it agreeable to the gospel for members of the Baptist Church of Christ to buy and sell human beings, or keep them in bondage for life?” The only answer referred back to the minutes of the association for 1835, which ignores the part about lifelong bondage.

So it is not surprising that Hackney frequently represented his church at meetings of the Sandy Creek Baptist Association during the more than three decades between the time those first statements were affirmed 1835 and his receiving a license to preach. Clearly, owning a lot of slaves was not, in itself, a reason to be excluded.

When he died in 1884, Hackney’s will included a charitable bequest in the amount of $100 to the Baptist Foreign Missions in China. A newspaper announcement of that bequest noted that it was in fulfillment of a promise he had made 35 years earlier, which would have been in the middle of his political career and long before his slaves were set free. His obituary declared that from his baptism until his death, Hackney “made his secular interests subservient to his religious duties.” It pointed out that he had been a successful businessman earlier in his life and “accumulated a handsome estate, which he used liberally in promoting the cause of Christ.”

Like most of us to one degree or another, Hackney seems to have been a tangled knot of contradictions. For him, Asians were worthy of conversion to Christianity while Africans were bought and sold as part of chattel slavery. The latter was not seen as something contrary to his “religious duties” and provided the source of his wealth. That wealth was then used “to tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love,” quoting a hymn verse that was written the same year Hackney started preaching.

One of the things I love about America is the fact that our ideals about universal human rights can be the source of a reformation from time to time. The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which abolished slavery in the 19th century; civil rights legislation that ended racial segregation in public places in the 20th century; and our discussions about racial discrimination, law enforcement, and the dignity of every human being in the 21st century are examples of this.

Blessedly, the same thing happens from time to time within Christianity. Christian faith can become the means by which some of those knots become untangled. As the late African-American preacher Peter Gomes, formerly of Harvard University’s Memorial Church, noted a decade ago at Trinity Episcopal Church in New York City:

[I]t is instructive to examine how the religion of white slave owners became an instrument of liberation for slaves, rather than the instrument of docility the slave owners had hoped.

“The Christian faith was stronger than the Christians who used it,” he said, because white Christians could not corrupt Jesus’ truth.

I find that to be a hopeful testimony of faith not only for myself but also for my slave-owning ancestor. Hackney, too, in words from the Book of Common Prayer that are addressed to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, is “a sheep of thine own fold, a lamb of thine own flock, a sinner of thine own redeeming.” He rests in those everlasting arms — but not because some thought he was “a man of intellect and great force of character,” as the Wilmington Morning Star newspaper said of him after his death.

No, he rests there only because he is forgiven.

This I believe.

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