My great, great grandfather Johnston signed Mississippi’s Declaration to Secede the Union. In January 1861, Stephen Darden Johnston represented DeSoto County as a delegate to the Mississippi Secession Convention. He lived no more than 50 miles from where I now reside. I was always told that my mother’s father, grew up on a plantation in Nesbitt, Mississippi, but I never thought much about it. The document his grandfather signed sums up the “holy and just cause” that is memorialized in the Confederate monuments still displayed all over the South. “Our position is thoroughly identified with slavery, the greatest material interest of the world.” My great, great grandfather owned 55 slaves. I now know that my family enslaved 55 human beings and fought a war to protect that right.
I discovered this historical fact on my back porch this summer, 2020, and I don’t think I will ever see the world quite the same way. Inspired by the words of James Loewen, my time on the porch this summer has been spent researching the past, the country’s and my own.
I started with Jill Leflore’s These Truths: A History of the United States. LeFlore described how often slavery was an issue between the colonies and states from the Revolutionary War through the Constitutional Convention and eventually the Civil War. The struggles of today are not new and the seeds were planted long before there was a United States.
The first documented Africans arrived in the American colonies in 1619. They came as slaves, bound in shackles and traveling across the Atlantic Ocean in the holds of ships. Later this journey would be called the Middle Passage. It all began long before their arrival here. According to the Harvard Business School chronicle of African Americans, the Transatlantic Slave Trade began in the 1500s connecting Europe, Africa, and the continents of North and South America. The slave trade became integral to the economies of all these countries. Before slavery was finally abolished, 12.5 million Africans would be forcibly transported to the Americas. These are the ancestors of the Black people who are now called American, just as I am.
My ancestors, Baileys, Johnstons, Gregorys, Costigans, Clyburns, Mounts, and Poors, immigrated voluntarily from Ireland and Scotland. They settled in South Carolina, Mississippi, and Tennessee. Only the Costigans stopped in Illinois before settling in the Mississippi Delta. By the time I was born in 1950, 330 years had passed since the first Black people entered bondage in this country, and probably 250 since my ancestors began new lives in a land they saw as opportunity
I was born and reared, an expression my mother used, in the South. I have lived all of my 70 years in the cities and towns of this region; I have grown up enmeshed in its culture. One definition of culture is “how things are done around here.”. Psychologists and sociologists maintain that the way we relate cooperate, and treat others is highly influenced by the culture handed down to us from our families and ancestors.
It would be dishonest for me to even attempt to view the world from the same lens that my Black countrymen see it. The best I can do is read and listen to how they describe what they see. I can, though, examine more closely how I see the world and how I have become the person I am. A comparison of these two voices may show me a new way, a new path, toward reconciliation and reformation. That is my hope.
James Loewen The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader
Jill LeFlore These Truths: A History of the United States
Ancestry.com My family tree