My Slave-Owning Ancestors Are Turning in Their Graves
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because history often tries to repeat itself.
The author writes about art and culture in the United States and Mexico.
My family owned slaves. Not something you expect to hear from a proudly multiracial bilingual Chicano. I may not look white, but the ambiguity of my skin color can’t erase the fact that I’m an unlikely product of privilege built by slavery.
After the U.S. Civil War, my slave-owning great-great-great-grandparents — Victoria Virginia Clayton and Maj. Gen. Henry De Lamar Clayton — were solidified in history as heroes. But they were white supremacists up until their dying day, and they must be turning in their graves because I tainted their pedigree.
We never raised the question for one moment as to whether slavery was right.
Mr. Clayton, a lawyer–turned–confederate general–turned–lawmaker, owned slaves and was lauded for his fearlessness at the battles of Chickamauga, Rocky Face Ridge and New Hope Church. At Jonesboro, he lost three horses but kept fighting even after being injured, and while he waged war for the wrong side of history, he became one of Alabama’s top legislators and was labeled a hero in state textbooks. The Henry D. Clayton House, a former slave plantation, is still a national historic landmark — one that I’ve sadly not yet had the chance to visit.
At the request of her dying husband, Victoria Clayton penned a memoir called White and Black Under the Old Regime (1899), in which she wrote about her experiences as a female slave owner and the Civil War. Reading Ms. Clayton’s emotional soliloquies and lamentations about the end of slavery, I feel like I’m unraveling the cotton that was picked and woven into the fabric of society by the slaves my ancestors held as property. “We never raised the question for one moment as to whether slavery was right,” she wrote. “We had inherited the institution from devout Christian parents.”
In some ways we both inherited slavery. While Ms. Clayton participated in the buying and selling of mankind — literally inheriting slaves — I was bequeathed a privilege built by slavery from my father. Privilege that paid for college and child support. I inherited almost white skin from a Confederate general and circuit court judge; a congressman and senator; and the highest-ranking West Point graduate killed in action during World War I — the Claytons’ children and grandchildren.
Meanwhile, my mother’s family challenged stereotypes about Mexican immigrants and people of color — the labor force that built America. White and Black Under the Old Regime opens with a war scene, the story of Ms. Clayton’s family chasing “savages” out of the newly settled part of Alabama where they decided to build their home. Part of my maternal grandfather’s family included Indian and mestizo “red men.” My New Mexican grandfather was one of many Mexican-American soldiers who fought in World War II for the privilege to study medicine under the GI Bill, later becoming one of the first Chicano doctors serving Latinos in Southern California.
The truth that America was built on the backs of slaves and Mexican-Americans was echoed by Mr. Clayton in remarks to the grand jury of Pike County that were later printed in The New York Times in 1866. Clayton knew full well that black and brown hands would rebuild the nation during Reconstruction and beyond. “We need the labor of the negroes all over the country, and it is worth the effort to secure it,” he said. “I might enlarge upon this subject by showing the depressing effect upon the country which would be produced by the sudden removal of so much of its productive labor.”
I feel more American than any Confederate sympathizer or confused descendant of European immigrants with nostalgia for the “good old days” — because I embody the messiness of U.S. history. And while I’m a bit ashamed that part of my privilege was built on the backs of slaves, I remain proud of my colorful bloodline.