I was a little nervous when I decided to start publishing identifying information about my slave-owning ancestors. I considered giving my brother a heads up to see if he had any feelings about me outing our forebears. Then I thought, f*$%$ that. The dead, especially the ancient dead, are fair game. I know their abhorrent behavior does not reflect on me. I also know that by being white I have massive privilege, and that the black people whose labor was stolen to build this country are to be held up and regarded with awe. Their value was so immense that the 100 year old nation had a horrible, bloody protracted war over control of it. And their power was so feared that Jim Crow was invented. I could go on.
For a time I dug into the ugliness of the past just because I felt compelled to, but it remained mostly a matter of, “omg can you believe this garbage?” Recently I stumbled onto the concept of Reparational Genealogy through this podcast. Carolyn ni Lochlainn lays the idea out with a thoroughness I won’t attempt here. Basically, because researching enslaved ancestors is difficult to say the least (white privilege again) we descendants of enslavers can contribute the information we have. The pre-Civil War record keeping that genealogists use was invented for white people and is about white people – censuses, wills, taxes, plantation records, runaway slave notices from newspapers etc.. Identifying enslavers and their exact locations along with whatever records there are of the enslaved – first names, or even just the tally marks made to count up males and females in each age group – can help people make vital connections. Descendants of enslaved people are just as entitled to know their family history as anyone else and I might have access to part of the information someone needs to put their puzzle together.
Downton Abbey taught us that “family” is not just the folks living upstairs. When we allow historical narratives to continue to stubbornly ignore with a wink the team of people that grew the tobacco, built those doggone big houses and had to stand quietly in the corner pulling the rope that worked the dining room ceiling fan, it is dishonest and brutal. I like digging into the nasty business of my slaveowners, domestic abusers and bootleggers simply because I’m not meant to see it. I don’t mean to do anything that would hurt anyone still alive, but when a historical narrative doesn’t match up with the facts or I find a pocket of time and place that is very, very silent I want to investigate. Everyone deserves the opportunity to see the whole picture and put together a meaningful narrative.
yrmama is not a cat person but I have two new, very wild barn kittens. Four eyes peer down warily from the rafters as I faithfully pour out the kitten chow day after day. The larger gray one, William Clopton, now meows at me when I first come in and I don’t know what that means.
Any child who ever tells you they will take full responsibility for an animal doesn’t know what they are talking about and should not be believed. That animal will ALWAYS become yours. yrmama is really allergic to cats so it was one of my thirty two daughters who decided to bring the kittens here. yrmama is no dummy and knew giving permission made for a 93% chance that they would be her barn kittens, and now, since that daughter is completely AWOL from the barn, they are entirely mine. They are destined to remain wild too because yrmama’s already busy (thanks C19!) respiratory and immune systems don’t allow much time with them. But the kitten’s wildness is part of their appeal. This is what it would be like to be luring fox kits, or baby skunks in to eat. (If there is a de-stunk baby skunk that needs a barn to eat cat chow in – call me.)
I have been trying to position the food bowl so that I can see their little butts when they eat, but it doesn’t work so I don’t know their sexes. And it doesn’t matter, since I’m going to trap them one of these days and take them to be neutered rendering kitty gender a completely moot point.
In the meantime I have bestowed genderless names on the kittens in honor of my ancestors who believed that as many people as possible should be named William Clopton in order to bamboozle future genealogists. The big gray one is William Clopton. It’s eyes are a bit too close together which creates a resemblance to Rod Blagojevich. The smaller kitten has front paws that were put on at the wrong angle and has slightly shortened front legs, maybe a form of kittie dwarfism. Consequently, it sits back on it’s haunches with it’s front paws crossed over it’s chest, like a rabbit. Or a kangaroo. Or a T-Rex. My ancestor’s second favorite name was Robert Clopton. This cat’s additional degree of cuteness led me to cute-ify “Robert” a bit, so I call it Bobert Clopton. Bobert might not be able to hunt as well as William Clopton but gets around just fine.
In 1989 yrmama lived in St. Louis and someone left a message on her answering machine about doing genealogical research on the Clopton family in that area. As a heedless youth, she didn’t call him back, but she sure would now. In those olden days people had to do things like call all the Cloptons in the St. Louis phone book to find anything out. I did know from working with school field trip groups in my job at the science museum that there was a Clopton school somewhere nearby, which was surprising, and that all the teachers and students were black, also surprising. I thought Clopton meant Iowa and we all know that is likely to mean white. Then I did other things for about thirty years.
It turns out that there are a whole lot of Cloptons who don’t live in Iowa and who are not white. My father was Edwin Clopton, as was his father who went by Bill. From there on back is a long string of Williams, Johns, and Roberts and Davids. Most of them were named William and I’m not even kidding. Maybe that’s why Grandpa was Bill. Going backwards there are five generations in Iowa, a couple in Hart County, Kentucky, then Virginia. Virginia tobacco plantations all the way back to Jamestown in the early 1600’s.
I’m now obsessively compiling information about my enslaving Clopton forebears and the folks they enslaved. Thank you, internet. I’m not sure exactly why, but I want to know which ancestor in my direct paternal line was the last to own slaves. I believe it had to either be John Robert Clopton (1760-1830), or his son David Clopton (1794-1865). Both of them were born in tobaccoplatationland, New Kent County, Virginia and moved westward during their lives. John Robert settled in Hart County, Kentucky, a slave state, but with a different flavor, I think. Young David moved on from Kentucky into Missouri, into Iowa about 1850, and then retired and died back across the Mason Dixon line in Missouri. One of David’s sons, Robert Clopton (1823-1865?) even fought for the North in the Civil War and died in combat in southern Illinois. That’s quite an expanse of reality for David although I don’t know what he thought of any of it.
So David. John Robert. Which of you pulled the plug? I want to know why. Why did you give up that evil gravy train? Was it economics? Was it downward mobility? Did the overwhelming westward ho mood inspire you to liquidate and put all your capital in expansionist adventure? Did you suddenly turn into an abolitionist? What the heck were you thinking? Did you have any idea that the next five+ generations of your lineage would pat the too-inquisitive on their tow heads and say, “we don’t talk about that”?