Recognition, then reconciliation: Clearly seeing history of race, family in the South

Frances worked for my grandmother for many years. She fed us meals but could not eat at the table with us. She had a separate room with her own bathroom.
Frances worked for my grandmother for many years. She fed us meals but could not eat at the table with us. She had a separate room with her own bathroom. Courtesy of Barbara B. Smith

By my bedside I have a book, “The Letterbook of Eliza Lucas Pinckney, 1739-1762.” One of my ancestors, at age 17 she was managing her family’s plantations in South Carolina after her father was called to military duty in Barbados. She had an interest in botany and was instrumental in bringing indigo, a major cash crop, to South Carolina, no doubt with technological assistance from her father’s African slaves.

I also have a novel by my bed, “Someone Knows My Name,” that is narrated by a female slave. She describes her harrowing journey from Africa, how she could no longer practice her Muslim faith and the brutal processing of indigo, which required slaves, even children, to stomp the plant with their bare feet in vats of urine.

My ancestors were the wealthiest and most powerful people in America in the earliest days of our country. Their wealth was built on the brutal labor of slaves, on land granted to them by the King of England. But despite her business acumen, Eliza Lucas Pinckney could not own land or vote.

The South was built on a clear social hierarchy based on white supremacy but with multiple layers determined by race, gender and social class. The vestiges of this hierarchy remain.

I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. Born in 1962, I was too young to remember a church bombing that killed four young girls. My father was an Episcopal priest. His first church was in Mobile, Alabama, where I was born. In the early 1960s, he organized an ecumenical group of youth from area churches, including black churches, resulting in a social gathering that brought black and white teens together. Fellow clergy lost their jobs after the event, and my family endured threats of a cross-burning from the Ku Klux Klan. My mother said we lived too far out in the country for them to find us.

With each step forward in a slow march toward true equality, our nation has seen a reaction. In the 18th century, Eliza Lucas Pinckney taught slaves to read, along with her sisters. Later, providing education to slaves became a crime. It is easier to subjugate uneducated people. Current assaults on public education, as well as voting rights, echo earlier times in the South.

I went to the best private high school in Alabama (even returned as a boarding student after one year in a private school in Charleston), because in the 1970s, if you were a member of a certain social class, you did not attend public schools. I recently connected with an African-American friend from my high school. We shared our different experiences growing up in Birmingham. Her grandfather, a Baptist minister, was a leader in the civil rights movement. While my grandparents went to cocktail parties and traveled the world, her grandparents had dogs and fire hoses turned on them in marches. Her uncles skipped school to march and were arrested and jailed. She endured hateful comments when she was a child and had a high school friend come to her in tears after his parents said he could no longer be her friend. She described a recent traffic stop, in which the officer was clearly enjoying intimidating her – nearly laughing – as he exerted his power.

We are both daughters of the South, with very different experiences. I sought her out after the murders in Charleston – I needed to tell her I see how white privilege works, and I want to see change in the world. Sen. Clementa Pinckney and I share a family name and deep connections to the beautiful low country of South Carolina. The roots of white supremacy lie within this history, often outside of our conscious awareness. To move forward toward true equality for all, the great promise of America, we need to see our history clearly and work toward recognition and reconciliation. Perhaps with the gift of grace we can.

Barbara B. Smith is a clinical assistant professor in the School of Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.