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A UNC Chapel Hill historian’s view of slave ownership, slave trading in his family

Harry Watson, professor of North Carolina and Southern history at UNC Chapel Hill, has offered guidance on this series about the history of slavery in North Carolina. In response to a question, Watson said that there were “hundreds of thousands of slaveholders and they have millions and millions of descendants, including me and the white Mr. Kirkpatrick.” Asked to elaborate on his family’s history, Watson wrote:

My own knowledge of slavery in the family came too early to be shocking. No one talked about it, and no one told me family stories about it when I was young, but my parents and their siblings – even all their friends – honored their regional heritage, loved genealogy, venerated their ancestors, and zealously curated their memorabilia, including housefuls of antique furniture.

As I learned about slavery in school and from reading, I gradually matched family lore to book learning and realized that families like ours must have been slaveholders. That was not horrifying at first because the books back then said that slavery was benign and nothing to worry about.

At one point my father showed me some notes he had taken from some publication that purported to list the slaveholdings of my mother’s relatives in colonial Virginia. Some of the numbers passed 100. My father was so deadpan I could not tell whether he was confessing or bragging. But by that time, I had learned enough about the reality of slavery that the information left me queasy.

Eventually I saw the names and prices of 19 slaves in my great-great-grandfather’s estate appraisal in the Abbeville District of South Carolina, and Mother told me about one North Carolina patriarch’s black family. By then I was a professional historian and knew too much to be shocked, but confirmation was still disturbing.

The worst moment came when Mother asked me to help her join the Daughters of the American Revolution. She needed to prove that her grandfather was really his mother’s son, and I knew she could do it with the 1850 census returns. I tried to persuade her to look for herself, but finally gave in and went scrolling through the microfilm for Franklin County, N.C. It didn’t take long. Grandfather and great-grandmother were both there, clearly marked as son and mother.

But that wasn’t all.

The 1850 census also listed everyone’s occupation, and the family had a grown son whom Mother and I didn’t know about. His name bore a damning label: “Negro trader.”

In other words, my great-great-uncle made his living (and probably helped support his widowed mother and younger brother) by purchasing men, women and children like so many used cars and “selling them down the river,” where planters of the Deep South clamored endlessly for more “hands.” Couples and children were routinely split, and never saw their loved ones again. Mother took the news in stride but I will never forget it.

Was any of this my fault? Strictly speaking, no. I never owned or sold anybody. But the family that venerates its ancestors cannot pretend to be self-made. If their supposed luster is somehow yours too, then so are their privileges and offenses.

Somehow I grew up realizing that I benefited from the first, bore some responsibility for the second, and could not untangle the two. This is true both for me personally and for our country as a whole. At the same time, I know I cannot go back and free those 19 men, women and children, not to mention the hundreds my father uncovered, or those my great-great-uncle traded, or the 4 million enslaved by the United States in 1860.

And I can’t – or won’t – reject my country any more than my family, or renounce what it and they gave me, whether emotional, intellectual or material. Instead, I’d like to think that my professional career is shaped in part by a desire to impart to my students what I feel for myself – that we are not purely self-made, that our present is partly a legacy from the past, that we ought to correct its wrongs in our own lives just as we try to protect its positive achievements, and that in spite of its deep flaws, the United States has the democratic tradition to make that possible.

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