Every July a whole bunch of relatives from my mom’s side of the family gather in the fellowship hall of my grandparents’ church in Minden, Louisiana. We’re there to celebrate family by retelling old stories and eating potluck and laughing over games of spades and gin rummy. I don’t know all of them well. They are great-aunts and uncles, and second and third cousins, and all manner of things twice removed. Invariably, someone will say we are in-laws and outlaws.
There’s a liturgy here. We share food and conversation and games. Here my grandparents, who introduced themselves to work colleagues and church friends as “Jim” and “Gene” are always called by both their first and middle names: James Ray and Mary Gene.
Someone always tells this story: “Remember that time someone asked James Ray if he has any great-grandchildren and he said, ‘Nope, but I got one that’s fair to middlin’.” And some of them point at him and some of them point at me (because he was talking about me) and we all laugh.
We repeat over and over the names and ages of our children and grandchildren and show pictures, from phones or wallets, and comment on which relatives they favor. “He looks just like James Ray. In the eyes, is where I see it.”
Someone remarks about how fast the time goes. “They’re grown before you know it. Enjoy it while you can,” they say to me, a dad of young kids.
Here the living memory reaches back before the Great Depression and the stories that generation heard in childhood reached back before Emancipation. Time was not all good and happy. But the older the stories, the happier the memories.
I don’t make it to this gathering often. The last time I went was last summer and the time before that was almost a decade ago. When I go, it’s like grabbing hold of a live wire that pulses with energy from the long past and I recognize that energy in my bones and I love it.
At the last reunion I attended, I learned I favored my great-great-grandfather Edward W. Cox. His picture was displayed at the top of a family tree diorama my great-aunt constructed. The likeness is indisputable. It is also disturbing. Great-great-granddaddy Cox had lost all his teeth by the time his picture was taken and now I have a pretty good idea what I’d look like time-worn and toothless.
After lunch (fried catfish and hush puppies and a variety of macaroni-based salads and casseroles) and after dessert (Cool Whip and Jell-O featured prominently), I perused a collection of items my great-aunt had compiled as part of a genealogy project. In addition to the family tree with the photo of the aforementioned Edward W. Cox, there were other photos and a binder of public record documents, like marriage licenses and real estate deeds. Among them was a “Deed of Trust” drafted on January 29, 1844 in the Republic of Texas, which began this way:
“Know all men by these presents that whereas I, Edward W. Cox . . . by legal ownership have and hold . . . the following negroes . . . ”
I re-read those lines several times to make sure I had it right. By legal ownership have and hold the following negroes . . .
The document went on to list names and ages—Laurence “a man aged about thirty eight years” and “Helen his wife aged about thirty three years” and “her four children.” In all the deed identifies six adults and fourteen children—ranging in age from three to forty.
If I’m reading the document correctly, my ancestor wanted to give his slaves to his sister, Mary, but for some reason couldn’t. So, instead, Edward deeded this human property to his brother-in-law and drafted a lengthy document explaining that they—“the said negroes and their increase”—were intended to provide for her and her children. In the words of the document, “the proceeds and benefits accruing from the labor and service of the said negroes or their increase shall be used” to the “support[,] maintenance and comfort of the said Mary and for the support[,] Education and comfort of the said children.”
These twenty people were declared by my ancestor and confirmed by the Republic of Texas to belong to my great-great-aunt and her children forever:
“the property in said negroes shall so rest as that the said Mary and her said children shall each have an equal interest in them according to their just value & in case of the death of the said Mary the entire right to and interest in said negroes shall survive to the said children . . . ”
Thus I discovered, while holding a Styrofoam cup filled with church lobby coffee at a family reunion that my relatively near ancestor owned twenty enslaved human beings, valued at the 2016 equivalent of $275,000, and gave them to his sister and her descendants in perpetuity.
Two of the children named in the deed, Patsy (8) and Philip (4), are roughly the ages of my own children.
As I was taking this information in my aunt spoke over my shoulder, quietly, “Chilling, isn’t it?”
It was news to her, she said, that our family had owned slaves. She discovered it during her research. Despite the fact that her great-grandfather took pains to make sure his property remained in the family for all successive generations, this is not a fact we passed down through the generations in stories over card games. Maybe it wasn’t a secret. But it certainly was not a point of pride.
She walked me through another couple documents in the binder. There is a bill of sale for property in Louisiana. My ancestor moved from Texas to Louisiana after the deed of trust was drafted. There was an affidavit signed by my ancestor and dated after the Civil War, confirming that he never pledged allegiance to the Confederacy.
“He was a physician,” my aunt explained. “He treated both Union and Confederate soldiers. We think that’s why he never chose a side.”
I nodded, I think. I don’t remember.
She concluded with the understatement of the century: “It sure raises a lot of questions.”
When the festivities ended, folks stayed around to stack chairs and fold tables. My great-aunt packed up her genealogy project. She rolled up the family tree, with the picture of great-great-granddaddy Cox, slaveholder, at the top—whose face looked eerily similar to mine—and put it away in the trunk of her car. Out of sight but seldom out of mind.
I left with questions about our family: Why did my ancestor move from Texas to Louisiana, during the Civil War, and leave the slaves behind? Did he fear a Confederate defeat would require emancipation, so he left them in a territory that was not yet a state? Perhaps his service as a physician is a clue. Was he experiencing the early stages of a change of heart?
I left with questions about those enslaved people and their descendants. What happened to them after Edward left Texas? None of these people—not Laurence or Helen, not Moses or Vine, not Dave or Claripa, nor any of the children—are identified by last name. Would they have taken my ancestor’s last name? Might there be another Cox family reunion somewhere in Texas, attended by the descendants of these enslaved people, celebrating their heritage and much more aware than we were of this period in their family story?
The questions I can’t shake have to do with what we—myself, my family—should think and do in light of this newly discovered truth. I truly don’t know what to do.
It’s easier to say what I can’t do.
First, I can’t just feel a certain way. Apathy is unproductive. So is paralyzing guilt. More to the point, though, compared to the enormity of the injustice of which my family heritage is implicated, my feelings about that injustice seem insignificant.
Second, I can’t ignore the truth. I can’t pretend I’m not a beneficiary of a world in which my great-great-grandfather had the legal right to own human beings. A world in which he was free to start a new life in a new state and the twenty enslaved people he owned were denied that right. Or, what’s more tempting for me, I can’t self-select a more comfortable perspective on my family heritage. My dad’s side of the family, the O’Briens, are relative newcomers to America, having immigrated from Ireland in the early twentieth century. This historical fact doesn’t absolve us from all complicity in America’s racist history. But for a long time I’ve found it secretly comforting to rest on my near heritage as a way of escaping culpability for slavery.
There’s another mode of self-protection that’s unavailable to me—I can’t cancel or quit my family. Distancing myself from an uncomfortable truth does not erase that truth. It doesn’t alter my DNA or redact the historical record. I descend from slaveholding ancestry whether I like it or not.
Finally, if I’m honest, I can’t shake the feeling that the similarities between great-great-granddaddy Cox and me don’t end with physical appearance. I inherited from the America he helped build a narrative of racial difference and a sense of my own racial superiority. Yes, I repent of it and I work to unlearn it. But the hard fact is that the sin didn’t die with my ancestor.
What I’ve wanted for more than a year is a mechanism for sifting through and excising the cancer without denouncing my family. I’ve wanted something redemptive and self-reflective and even communal.
Because whatever relation they are to me, it’s clear after a day together with them that they are people of deep character and conviction. They are rowdy and irreverent. They are engineers and artists and doctors and policemen and pilots and teachers. Salt of the earth. And also all of them that gather every summer to celebrate our family are descendants of a man who once owned people. I can’t shake the questions about what to do with the complexity of our history. I won’t give them up. And I hope, by God’s grace, that when my children’s great-grandchildren are gathered in some fellowship hall with their great-aunts and second-cousins, they will celebrate a family that looks the truth in the face, asks the hard questions, and shares both laughter and lament.
Cover photo by Roman Kraft.