A few years ago, a book came into my possession that has been tossed around in my family like a hot potato for several generations.
Entitled, Religion and Slavery: A Vindication of Southern Churches, the book's author was James McNeilly, a Presbyterian minister and Confederate veteran from Nashville, Tennessee. Inside the front cover is an inscription from the author to my great-great-great-grandmother.
"To Corinne Lawrence: A tried and true friend of many years—and a devoted lover of the Old South, which I have tried to vindicate."
In June 2014 I moved back to my hometown of Memphis after living in Los Angeles for 23 years. That fall, my Aunt Caroline came to visit and brought the book. No one in the family wanted anything to do with it but, at the same time, they felt that it was somehow too important to throw away. Published in 1911, the book defends slavery as benevolent and appropriate for an "inferior race."
McNeilly wrote that he endeavored to prove that, in the old system, slaveholders did discharge their "religious responsibilities for the souls of their slaves." He goes on to explain that the evils of slavery the abolitionists fought were "misrepresentations and misunderstandings" told by people with prejudice against southerners.
When I opened it and saw the inscription, the stories I heard growing up about my great-great-great-grandmother Corinne came flooding back. She was from a prominent Nashville family and her sister, Adelicia Acklen, was the owner of the Belmont Plantation in Nashville (now the site of Belmont College) and was famous in her day. My grandparents were always very proud of this heritage and the class status it conferred. They wanted to pass that along to me, telling me we were from a "good family." They could point out pieces of furniture from Corinne's antebellum home which would "one day be mine."
Growing up, we did talk about what happened to the generations of our family after the Civil War, but not once did anyone ever ponder what happened to the former slaves. How could a family have so many stories and memories to share over so many generations and yet have this silence about certain realities from the years after the war?
Leafing through the pages of Religion and Slavery provided a glimpse into the period of reconstruction after the Civil War and was a reminder of the enormous change that took place in the American south, as well as the resistance to that change—the myths, misinformation, and misremembering that was passed down through generations.
I ask myself all the time, What do I do with this past?
I don't feel guilty about my ancestors. I am not responsible for their beliefs and actions. I do find it difficult to grapple with the enormity of the inhumanity that transpired and how we have still failed to address it. What I find most chilling is how far the legacy of those prejudices can reach into the future. It has given me a firsthand understanding of how this kind of hate gets passed down.
As a child I had no reason to question what the adults told me: that our family was great, that the South had lost the war, that somehow our society came back together again. What would have happened if I hadn’t learned critical thinking and questioning, been exposed to other experiences, or been taught to walk in someone else's shoes? What would my beliefs be now? Who would I be? And how hard would it be, today as an adult, for someone to challenge those deeply-held, yet deeply wrong, and injust beliefs?
Exploring this history, and my ancestor's perspective, illuminates how the past shapes the present—both on the societal level and, in very personal ways, for individuals. I am grateful that I have had other perspectives, including from my family, so that I was able to interrupt the misremembering of this past and begin to seek the truth. While I am not responsible for what my ancestors did, I am responsible to help the next generation uncover the truth about this history.
Check out our professional development opportunities for "Teaching the Reconstruction Era" to help your students grapple with the effects of slavery and the legacies that are still felt today from rebuilding the US after the Civil War.
This post was originally published on March 1, 2015.