My Racist History

In 1990, my mom used several VHS tapes to record Ken Burns’ The Civil War. She thought it was a big deal, and I had never seen us use that many tapes to record a single show. Still today, even though she could watch it on Netflix, those VHS tapes with 20 year old masking tape labels are probably still in the drawer in the media room; they were the last time I looked. Most of our old VHS tapes have been gone a long time, but The Civil War remained. I may have watched some of it growing up; it was fascinating in snippets but long for a kid. When I rewatched it fully as an adult (thanks, Netflix), I was enraptured. I absolutely gained a greater understanding of myself as an American, as a Southerner, and as a human. Seriously. It is wonderfully informative and thought-provoking, although certainly not perfect. I highly recommend it if you care about your history as an American.

It set me upon a journey of self-discovery through ancestry research. I chose to start by tracing a single line back as far as I could. I wanted it it be easy, so I traced it back by male ancestors. By far, the most fascinating time in my family history is Reconstruction. Everything changed dramatically for practically everyone. The line I traced lived in Jackson County, Florida (on the Alabama border) during Reconstruction. My family were poor subsistence farmers as far as I can tell, and they–along with everyone else–lost basically everything after the war: homes, crops, children. But, as a result of the traumatic circumstances, Jackson County erupted in violence. You can read on Wikipedia that “From 1869-71, Jackson County was the center of a low-level guerrilla war known as the Jackson County War. Members of the Ku Klux Klan consisting of Confederate Army veterans assassinated over 150 Republican Party officials and prominent African-Americans as part of a successful campaign to retain white Democratic power.”

It struck me so deeply that, without the possibility of actual proof, my ancestors were probably at least complicit with this violence. Why wouldn’t they have been? They were poor, uneducated, and probably blamed their current situation on the loss of the Civil War. In Jackson County, this led many to a deep hate for those who “won.” I have little faith that my ancestors were ideologically rebellious enough to risk their lives during the Jackson County War for what is right and have survived.

As I continued to research more deeply into Jackson County, where my ancestors lived until the mid 20th century, I read about the lynching of Claude Neal, which took place in Jackson County in 1934. I won’t detail it, but Neal was kidnapped from an Alabama jail by men who took him back to Jackson County, and tortured, mutilated, and lynched him in front of a local crowd of several hundreds (some say thousands).

My family, people I don’t even know, but my bloodline lived through and very well may have supported some serious and violent racism. I don’t know when it changed because I wasn’t taught to be a horrible racist by my parents, and that’s why this history seemed so shocking. I knew nothing of my ancestors. No one told me anything, and my parents didn’t know about these historical events either. We say, as a nation, we will never forget certain tragedies, but we have already forgotten tragedies in our own recent pasts.

How quickly we have forgotten what, historically speaking,  just happened and what is still happening. How quickly we ignore what we are still recovering from or still need to address. #BlackLivesMatter because we do not currently nor have we ever treated them like they matter. Peaceful protests matter and are necessary for there to be change. I can’t change my history. I can’t verify which of my ancestors were villains or heroes, but I want to be on the right side of history. #BlackLivesMatter