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.