Friday, February 19, 2021

Black History Month, February 19, 2021

My humanity is bound up in yours,
for we can only be human together.
~Desmond Tutu

February is Black History Month. Like most families in America, our extended family has a mixed history when it comes to race relations. In my lifetime our family's attitudes toward Blacks has been varied. As a child growing up in San Diego, I remember my Grandfather, who like many of his generation, regularly used the n-word. Many in our family, like me, winced whenever he spoke it. In addition, his comments and anecdotes regarding blacks were often demeaning. His language was reflective of his upbringing at the turn of the 20th century in a time of racial strife. 

Jesse and Mary Bradford, just one
among many slave holding families
among our ancestors.
In my lifetime our culture has evolved a great deal in regard to race relations. And yet, no matter how much the culture has changed, we have a history of slavery in our country and in our family that we cannot ignore. Owning another human being is inexcusable. Whether it happened 2,000 years ago or 200 years ago, it cannot be condoned. It was just plain wrong and should have been resisted.

Slave Holding Ancestors. In my family history research I have discovered that numerous members of our family were slave holders in the early 19th century. Even though slavery was an integral part of the culture at the time, it is still discouraging to read of ancestors who owned slaves. U.S. Census records in the early 19th century clearly document families who owned slaves and how many they owned. 

The following is a list of just some of the slave holding families in our history (according to US Census Records):

  • Andrew Pickens of Virginia (my 4X Great Grandfather) owned 2 slaves in 1810.
  • William Dearen of North Carolina (my 4X Great Grandfather) owned 11 slaves in 1810.
  • Sarah Rives of Virginia (my 4X Great Grandmother) owned 8 slaves in 1820.
  • David Shannon of Tennessee (my 4X Great Grandfather) owned 6 slaves in 1820.
  • William Gray of Tennessee (my 4X Great Grandfather) owned 13 slaves in 1830.
  • Thomas Shannon of Virginia (my 4X Granduncle) owned 16 slaves in 1840.
  • David McKnight Shannon of Mississippi (my 3X Great Grandfather) owned 5 slaves in 1840.
  • Katherine Bradford of Tennessee (4X Great Grandmother) owned 13 slaves in 1840.
  • Jesse and Mary Bradford of Alabama (3X Great Grandparents) owned 3 slaves in 1840.

One other slave owning family in our family tree was my 5th Granduncle William E. Gower and his wife Charlotte Garland Gower of Nashville, Tennessee. Born in 1776, the year of our nation's birth, William served as a Methodist minister for over 50 years. Uncle William and Aunt Charlotte built Gower's Chapel, next to Gower Cemetery which still exists today on Gower Road in Nashville, Tennessee. 

1860 Newspaper Notice
of Gower Slaves For Sale
When William died in the fall of 1861, his widow Charlotte put their slaves up for sale. In the May 8, 1860 edition of the Nashville Union and American newspaper, a notice appeared regarding the sale of their Gower owned slaves. It read: 

Sale of Negroes 

In pursuance of a decree of the County Court of Davidson County, rendered in the case of the heirs of William Gower, deceased, I will offer for sale at the Court House in Nashville, on Saturday the 2nd Day of June, next, the following negroes, to wit:

Rachel, about 57 years of age
Isaac about 40 years of age
Harriet about 27 years of age, and her two children
Laura about 5 years of age
Charles about 3 years of age.

Terms - - $100 in cash will be required, and for the balance notes endorsed, payable in back, at twelve months.

F.R. Cheatham, 
Clerk and Master

Could the woman in this photo
be Beverly Russell Wilk? 

It is hard to believe that ancestors of ours -- or anybody for that matter -- could traffic in human lives like this, offering men, women and children for sale on the open market. Thank God we have come a long way since then.  

Do You Recognize This Woman? I read an article earlier this month in the San Diego Union-Tribune, which recognized Black History Month. Included was a picture of a "sit-in" protest in downtown San Diego in 1963 at the San Diego Gas and Electric office building on 6th Ave. In the photo a woman is entering the building and making her way past the protesters. She looks to me remarkably like my late cousin Beverly Russell (1939-1974), who worked for many years at SDG&E, and would have been 24 years old when this picture was taken. Those of you who knew Beverly, what do you think? Could this be our cousin Bev?

Black History month is a time to recognize this dark and unsettling chapter in our family's history. It is difficult to believe, yet it is true, that numerous ancestors of ours were part of the slave culture in early America, buying, selling and enslaving other human beings, including children. This month therefore becomes a time to ponder the questions: What does this part of our history say about who we are today? And how will we be judged by our descendants 200 years from now?
- - -
Steve Shepard

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