Genealogy and Social Justice

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.

A Few of the People Enslaved by the Clopton Family in Virginia

Disclaimer: I don’t profess to be anything but a very amateur genealogist. So if you glom on to some information from me you have to promise to recheck and verify it at least three times before you repeat it. That said, I’ve got my spreadsheets and trees and expandable file bursting and computer glasses hanging on a cord thingy on my neck. yrmama is the real deal. Feel free to contact me.

So below are some names and birthdates of some of the people enslaved by my direct ancestors or thereabouts. I hope that their connection to the Clopton family tree will be of use to someone else trying to trace their enslaved or enslaving ancestors. (“Thereabouts” is real because of all the repeated names living in the same counties at the same time. Seriously. I have two William Cloptons, first cousins, born in 1721 in New Kent County. Everyone wanted to have at least one son named William Clopton, after the immigrant patriarch, and a daughter named Frances. And to also marry someone named Frances if at all possible.)

1784 – New Kent County Virginia, John Clopton:

  1. Landon
  2. Harry
  3. Dolstra (or something like that, hard to make out)
  4. Dick

1704-1713 – St. Peter’s Parish, New Kent County Virginia, William Clopton:

  1. Nane, 29 April, 1704
  2. Jno, 25 June, 1710 (Jno is a common abbreviation of John)
  3. ___bin, 6 June, 1706
  4. _____, 8 May, 1707
  5. _____, 30 May, 1713

1714-1730 – St. Peter’s Parish, New Kent County, Virginia, Robert Clopton:

  1. _____, 7ber 25th, 174?
  2. girl, 12, ___ember, 1715?
  3. Hannah, 5 February, 1717
  4. Dick, 18 November 1719
  5. Judy, 17th May, 1725
  6. Pompey, 27 September, 1726
  7. Venus, 20 March, 1727
  8. Moll, 31 March, 1729
  9. Richard, 5 June 172?, baptized 19 August, 172?
  10. Also a man named Dick belonging to Robert died 1 April, 1720

Walter Clopton – also St. Peter’s Parish, New Kent, Virginia:

  1. Nanny, 6 April, 1720
  2. Jammey, 31 March, 1726

Being Sold Down the River Was a Real Thing

St. Peters Church. This is also the home church of Martha Custis and site of her wedding to George Washington.
visitnewkent.com

A really nice thing about genealogy is that I can call my obsessive behavior research.

Fun Fact: When a baby was born in St. Peter’s Parish, where the Cloptons had their Virginia foothold, it was recorded in the church registry with the name of it’s parents. Congratulations! When an enslaved baby was born or baptized it was also documented in the church register but with the name of it’s owner, not it’s parents. For example, entries for my eighth great grandfather, one of the Roberts: “Margaret, daughter of Rob. Clopton born ye 8th day of April 1717,” is recorded right next to “Hannah, a negro girl of Robert Clopton Born Febry ye 5th, 1717.” A ways farther on is “Robt son of Robt & Mary Clopton born July 28 bapd 7ber 1st 1728.” I’d also like to point out that I saw the names “Xtopher” and “Epaphroditus” while flipping through this church register. Thought you ought to know.

Short Lecture: By 1760 40% of the population in the Tidewater area was made up of enslaved Africans who worked while the planters honed their aristocratic lifestyles. If I’m understanding correctly (thanks to reading some fine books*), within a couple decades the tobacco fields wore out and at the same time migration moved into the Deep South where the big money was in cotton. Growing cotton was extremely profitable if you scaled up to big-ass plantations with free labor. This cotton boom created a corresponding demand for enslaved people who provided the free labor. Tidewater folks were looking to get out of tobacco anyway and it made financial sense to sell huge numbers of people to be literally herded south and west; literally “sold down the river.”

Working Hypothesis: This supports the idea that my fine Clopton tobacco barons faltered financially, sold the people they enslaved, and went west to invest in something new. Through the 1700’s my direct grandfathers were paying personal property taxes on their enslaved people, their horses, cattle, mules, land and buildings. (Seriously. Usually the enslaved people were listed by sex and age group, pretty much like the livestock. Sometimes they had their first names listed. In 1784 John Clopton, probably one of mine, owned Landon, Harry, Dolstra and Dick.) By the 1800s it seems like my string of Williams, Roberts and Johns had decamped to Kentucky.

*American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, by Colin Woodard, and The Half Has Never Been Told, by Edward E. Baptist

I took a DNA test turns out I am 100% yrmama

Wikipedia

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 exceptionally problematic 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”?

What’s a good look for the day after an impeachment?

source: Terribly Cute

I’m not even kidding, but the sun came out. Everything in the world feels more relaxed. I had the House impeachment debate on in the background all day yesterday because it just seemed like the kind of event I should acknowledge. But today we can move on. And I’m still burnt out on politics. But will watch the stupid debate tonight anyway.

So the look for today is navy blue cotton leggings (Kohls 2016), a very thin navy blue striped sweater (Goodwill clearance) and a spectacular pair of robin’s egg blue boots.

Fluevog

When one’s feet look this good, what else does one need? yrmama has always been all about having fun getting dressed, but the combo of these magical boots and my polished wood cane led the mind beyond.

Last summer at an Ehler’s Danlos syndrome conference there were a bunch of wheelchair riders, brace wearers and cane walkers. The more assistive equipment one had – a scooter, oxygen tank, iv pole – the more aggressively cute the personal style. Bright red lipstick that said, “I know you just want to talk to my service dog but hey, I’m the person here and you have to look at my face.” A pink wig that said, “I know you want to stare and think it’s awkward that I’m using a chair, but goddamit, look me in the eye.” Same for fantastic shoes, or a beautiful vintage dress with crinolines. An effective way to get people to stop fixating quite so much on your unusual circumstance is to draw even more attention to yourself. “If you’re going to look, I’ll give you something to look at.” Or maybe, “This light is going to shine so bright that the glare in your eyes will make you forget everything but me.”

Burnout is real

I’m am exceptionally disillusioned with politics right now – this thing is taking sooooo long and the UK just gave old Boris a big wet smooch. I mean, we didn’t think Donald could win, but he did. We’re counting on him losing again, but maybe it’s more likely he won’t. And whoever wins, half of us will be flipping out and having a huge panic attack as if it’s not our fault. We are a species not very good at looking at the big picture, after all.

But here’s what I never get burned out on. My torch. I get to use it to pop bubbles in the epoxy resin I pour over my crazy little assemblages of ephemera.

This Sucrets tin has an initial layer of resin curing around a Shrinky Dink lady smoking in her mid-century magazine living room. I’m not sure yet where we’re going with that. But lotsa smokers sucked on Sucrets back in the day.
This battered Belmont Household Nail Box features two models presenting a painting of some mountains in China above a layered pool of jewelry fragments and glitter. The final layer of resin covers some tissue paper scraps that help the glitter not be too shiny. You know, keep your light under that barrel.

You might fairly ask, “but yrmama, what kind of passtime is this nonsense for an over-educated white lady like you? Can’t you get a job? Or play golf?” And yrmama will calmly remind you, “ars longa, vita brevis, bitch,” even though she can’t really speak Latin. Because no one can you ding-dong.

Play on, dreamers

yrmama and JM biked to brunch. Identical meals – hardened, folded-over egg lay on our plates, inside the fold was chilly pico de gallo, rubbery once-melted cheese and a TON of big ‘ol cubes of pork belly (aka bacon). No home fries. No toast. So what did we do with those repulsive “omelets?” We cleaned our plates and paid. Then outside we said, “omg, that was so bad!” I still feel sick when I think of what I ate that day.

Maryland Science Center

Now you might say, “But yrmama, surely you noticed the omelet was not your cup of tea before you ate the WHOLE THING.” And I would reply, “We were talking about Pete! Maybe I didn’t notice.” Then you might say, “yes, but this was egregiously bad food. You still feel sick from it.”

Fine, but JM and I were taught to clean our plates NO MATTER WHAT by genuine Great Depression survivors, including congealing disgusting meat bits. If there’s a little mold, trim it off. Sure the texture may have gotten strange, but there’s still flavor in it. JM so terrorized our own children with this ethic that I still regularly find thimble-sized plastic containers holding one or two bites of long ago dinners stashed in the refrigerator for “later.” These are bites they have no intention of eating but are afraid to scrape directly into the compost bucket.

Now with my dotage on the far horizon a crazy idea has dawned: when there is a decision to be made or a plate to clean I can ask myself, “what is in my best interest right now?” I fell out laughing when I first tried that question on for size. Ludicrous! What’s best for me? Without considering all of you? The interesting thing is that my own best interest in any given moment leads to pretty good decisions.

I know you are shocked by this. yrmama is so full of good advice. She appears oddly youthful and shiny. She is beyond reproach, omniscient and omnipotent. How can she have been walking around for decades with such a log in her eye? She doesn’t seem like a doormat.

It’s hard to know how to prepare for life as a human. Is yrmama a ruse? Are we in a waking dream? Could we pretend to be as well as we wish to be? Play on, dreamers. Onward and upward.