For the past few months I have been digging deep into mine and my husband’s ancestry. It has been something I dove head first into and it is linked to wanting to know more about where I came from and where our children came from. It has become a fun project, with twists and turns and deep holes of information and familial stories that have failed to be passed down.
Without revealing too much, but also wanting to share with you, the reader, my quest is not just for the historical facts. Over a year ago I began a spiritual walk to connect to my ancestors. The more I learn from them, the more I learn about myself.
As I go down the rabbit hole or shall I say – up the ancestral tree, I am discovering a familial curse. The curse of bigotry. Passed down from one generation to another. Changing and developing and full of finger pointing. And like a cancer that spreads through the body, the disease of racism, spreads and touches each and every person on every branch.
As I research I have come to see a prominent theme among families that did not own slaves that migrated to the south and fought in the Civil War. There is not one branch on either my husband’s side or mine that did not fight in the Civil War. Even the Creek Indians on both our sides fought for the Confederacy. The Knights, from my side, had nearly a dozen men, grandfathers, fathers, and sons that fought for the South. While I would never think of joining the Daughters of the Confederacy I would more than qualify.
For those who fought, who were working class and owned not a slave, after they came home they were no longer the working class but the lower class and poverty stricken as they had lost much of what they had before they went off to war. In their communities they were worse off than those that had been enslaved in many regards for their businesses had been destroyed, their farms taken from them or lost, and they had nothing from which to rebuild. Some did not have a home to even go to. And in a twisted and ironic fashion those who had supported the Confederacy became enslaved but in a much different way than the Africans or other indigenous people.
Bitterness set in. Hatred. A righteous indignation. A superiority. Because after all, they were at least white. But they were poor “white trash” and in their communities it had its own special kind of hell and prejudice. They clung to their racial purity, many having come from English and Irish stock, and their Puritan beliefs as they had nothing else. Their Bibles gave them reason to hate otherness, justification for slavery, judge others, and give them the hope that the poor would inherit the kingdom of God if they just followed certain rules. It also gave them a foundation for ethnic purity and superiority of being God’s chosen, where as those of color were heathens, pagans, and idol worshipers.
And this was especially true of my husband’s family, who lived mostly in rural areas, separated from their familial roots and culture, and educational resources. Many of them had been farmers or merchants, having come home from the Civil War finding that what they had built was now ashes and that they would have to forfeit their land to larger, and wealthier land owners, squatting and share cropping on lands they had once owned, often alongside black people who had either once been slaves or the descendants of slaves. Shame of losing their social status and fear that colored people they saw as beneath them, became as much a part of their lineage as their last names.
Deep resentment and fear set in. Not just towards African Americans, but towards the wealthy, and for the educated. Those that had been enslaved were now competitors in the work force. The wealthy, who had had the means to pull themselves up by the boot straps, had been able to stay afloat often keeping their slaves on as hired help and providing them shelter and food after the war. Their children did not have to miss school to work in the fields or end up in manufacturing jobs as industry moved in to the rural areas, capitalizing on the desperation of the impoverished and the defeated just to remain fed.
As I investigate scans of Bible baptisms, marriages, old letters and wills, newspapers, and personal journals I see the beginnings, the stirrings, the desperation that fueled and has continued to fuel a hate for people of color. It was this resentment and loss of wealth that fueled the development of the Ku Klux Klan. It is the same resentments that fuel the beliefs that white men are getting shortchanged and that we need European or Northern ethnic nationalism. It is fueling right wing extremism not only in America, but across the globe, and deepening fears of those who come from other countries and practice different religions that will threaten their lives or livelihood.
With the loss of wealth, there also was a loss of education. Children did not go to school. Mothers who had once educated their children at home were not only keepers of the home but were often taking on jobs that had been done by slaves or having to find work in factories because their husbands either died or were maimed in the war. The textile industry saw a big opportunity and moved manufacturing into rural communities. Children as young as five could become factory workers and source of income for their large populated families. Because work was always available education was put on the back burner and most young adults had no more than a sixth grade education. Having a high school education, much less a higher education was reserved for people of means. Instead of being seen as an accomplishment or something of value it was seen as an entitlement, out of reach by the poor.
As I study archived census records I see in the rural areas many who could not read or write, and because they were able to learn trades and be gainfully employed they believed a minimum amount of schooling was necessary. It wasn’t until the 1980s, as manufacturing began to move out of rural areas and outsourced to other countries that completing high school became a priority and seeking higher education became a necessity. It was trade agreements, like NAFTA, that destroyed much of rural America, but especially in the south, where cotton was king and so was the manufacturing of American clothing. American farming also took economic hits and corporations began to dictate farming and food production. This loss of jobs and outsourcing, to China and Mexico, and other nations populated by people of color furthered resentments. It was like adding fuel to an already stoked fire.
As each generation experienced poverty and lacked erudition, their communities experienced hardships, and progressive changes as the information age came about, decades, if not centuries of racial discrimination and xenophobia was passed down just like red hair or blue eyes. As individuals and families have failed to acknowledge what has prevented them from advancement and conscience and unconscience bias towards higher education has resulted in cognitive dissonance, racism has spread like a cancer through family trees that we see still prevalent today.
We often hear that alcoholism, unwed pregnancies or some other perceived sins are generational curses but like other inherited traits we need to look at the social prejudices and stereotypes passed down from our ancestors so that we do not pass them on to our descendants.