“We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
I am a big fan of the PBS series Finding Your Roots hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr. As the program is described; “In each episode, celebrities view ancestral histories, sometimes learn of connections to famous/infamous people, discover secrets, and share the emotional experience with viewers. Analyzing genetic code, DNA diagnosticians trace bloodlines and occasionally debunk long-held beliefs.”
I have written before that I am fascinated by genealogy. For me it is a journey, a jigsaw puzzle which highlights just how perilous our existence truly is. One change, one death, one connection missed in our family tree and you and I don’t exist. Think about it in the simplest terms, if your mother and father had not met, hadn’t done the “wild thing” together maybe in the backseat of your grandfather’s car, you wouldn’t be here. Now if that isn’t perilous I don’t know what is.
I use Ancestry, which sadly seems to be taking over the world, to keep track of my genealogy. I have spent a lot of time working on my father’s side of the family because we have an uncommon surname and many of my father’s ancestors also have weird and somewhat unusual first and middle names. Fortunately, for both my mother and father’s side of the family the geographic area that I primarily work in is a three county region in North Carolina. Occasionally I will find an interloper from Virginia, or New England but when my relatives boarded a boat in Wales, Scotland, Ireland or England they all, for the most part, seemed to have come and stayed in this three county area which explains why my mom and dad are second cousins.
Over the last two weeks I have been focused on trying to fill in some of the gaps on my mother’s side of the family. The surnames in her family are very common as are the first names. Looking for a John Williams, in 1860 even in a small three county area provides a multitude of possibilities and dead ends. Fortunately, those dead ends are what keep my attention, and keep me in the game.
My wife and I spent the weekend with my parents and my mom gave me some new clues to explore, namely, a few unusual first names and some expanded geographic perimeters to look into. With this new-found information I was able to add several generations to my mother’s side of the tree in some cases to the late 1600’s. But my excitement was dampened last night when I found one our “famous/infamous people” just like Henry Louis Gates Jr. does for the movie-stars on Finding Your Roots.
Over the course of the last few years I have found the occasional relative that deserted the Confederate Army during the Civil War, died because of an “unusual” circumstance, or even the great-great-great grandmother who married a man 50 plus years older than they were after their young husband died, but I had never found proof or documentation that one of my relatives was a slave owner. Given the geographic area, their occupation and the era I found that unusual but I simply chalked it up to a lack of wealth rather than a lack of motivation, until last night.
From the book Radio Free Dixie by Timothy B. Tyson; “In 1847 John Medlin, a wealthy planter who owned more slaves than anyone else in Union County, fastened a logging chain around the neck of a rebellious slave and dragged him to death behind a wagon. Medlin hauled the body of his bondsman through the dusty streets for all to see. This kind of open violence was an affront even to white sensibilities, in part because it undermined the paternalist justification for slavery and thus weakened the South’s “peculiar institution.” Authorities arrested Medlin for “felony and manslaughter,” a capital crime. Although the offense mandated the death penalty, the judge imposed merely a substantial fine.”
John Medlin is my 5th great-grandfather.
Today we honor the life, the work, and the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Based on the very descriptive story above about my 5th great-grandfather it would be easy to state that this country has come a long way on racial equality. But we have also learned recently that the embers of hate, and injustice are simmering still, 171 years later. And despite “our” Presidents half-hearted denials otherwise, Trump has kept the door cracked for hate groups in this country to continue to have a voice and sadly a platform to spew their hateful rhetoric.
I cannot correct the actions of my 5th great-grandfather but I can make sure that me and my family respect and love people of all races, ethnicity, genders, religions, and sexual-orientations despite the actions or inaction’s of “our” President. So can you, we all can.
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.