Freedom, Slavery & the Things We Don’t Like to Talk About

With celebrations of Independence Day raging all across the country this weekend, I though it might be a good time to talk about what it means to be free in a country that pounds its chest and roars of freedom like it was King Kong. Don’t get me wrong, because what I’m about to write is not some anti-American screed about how little freedom we all have. I believe, that despite existing limitations to our freedom—not to mention limitations some would like to manifest into reality—I do believe that we enjoy unprecedented levels of freedom. At the same time, many people don’t really understand the history of this nation, especially when it comes to the complex ideologies of race and racism or the true dehumanizing nature of slavery, which is a wound of shame on this nation that has yet to heal.

Ever since I was a child and saw the television mini-series Roots for the first time, I have been obsessed with genealogy and the history of my own family (you can read some of my family history HERE). Over the years I have attempted to trace the history of my family as much as possible, with the most recent attempt being several months ago. I was working on a project for school, and wanted to trace the history of slavery, emancipation and the Civil Rights movement as reflected by part of my family. This was an ambitious project, and one that I now realize is going to continue even though the class is over.

For those of you that don’t know, my mother is a white woman whose family origins go back to Russia and Poland. My father was a black man, whose family was descended from slaves and slave owners. This bit of information is crucial in understanding part of the racial dynamics that exist in this country even today. For the sake of my project (not to mention my time and sanity), I chose to simply focus on my father’s side of the family. While working on the project, I uncovered a fair amount of information, and after completing the school project, I have found even more information. Here is a brief overview of Hancock-Walker family story, which is the American story:

The woman pictured above is Laura Vaugthers Hancock, my 2nd great grandmother. She was born a slave in the early 1850s to William (1823) and Jane (1824), my 3rd great grandparents. Frequently slaves took the last names of their owners, but the name Vaughthers has a variety of spellings, which makes it difficult to know who owned Laura and her parents, William and Jane. I have been able to narrow it down to about three or four families with different spellings of the last name, all of whom lived in the same part of Virginia.

The problem I face with nearly all of my 3rd great grandparents—William and Jane Vaugthers, Amanda Walker (1835), Washington (1835) and Mary (1844) Brown, Thomas (1818) and Mary (1826) Banks, Lelia Moore (birth year unknown), Samuel (1804) and Katy (1809) Venable, Issac Jackson (birth year unknown) and Susan Brown (birth year unknown)—is that they were all slaves. Of the sixteen 3rd great grandparents on my father’s side of the family, ten were slaves, two may have been free blacks, three I know nothing about, and one was a white man who fathered a child with one of his slaves.

Laura Vaugthers married James Nelson Hancock on June 2, 1877, twelve years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Born in 1855, and known as Nelson, my 2nd great grandfather was the son of a slave owner, John Douglas Hancock (1825), who had gotten his slave Lelia Moore pregnant. Because of laws passed in Virginia in 1622, any child born of a mother who was a slave was also a slave, and the property of the mother’s owner. This law, which would eventually be passed in all slave states, reversed a previous English law that proclaimed a child’s status was determined by the father, and created a scenario by which a slave owner could insure he always had servants by making sure the women bred on a regular basis.

It’s crucial to understand how important these laws were in perpetuating slavery for another two centuries. The first African slaves came to the British colonies in America in 1619 on a Dutch ship. These slaves were actually indentured servants, and among the Africans there were also white indentured servants. Before slavery came to the colonies, it knew no racial delineation. In all parts of the globe, white people and black people were either slaves or indentured servants, who by law worked for a certain number of years and were then set free.

My family was part of the original settlement of Jamestown, Virginia. William Hancock, my 10th great grandfather, was a white man born in England in 1580, and the grandson of of Thomas Hancock, born in 1525 (this is as far back as I can go with this branch of the family tree). William settled in the Virginia colony in 1619, as was killed along with other settlers in 1622. His family inherited his property, and three of his sons, including my 9th great grandfather Simon (1610), moved to Virginia and became successful farmers.

Simon Hancock came to Virginia in 1635, thirteen years after the law was passed that said the children of women slaves were born slaves. Five years later, in 1640, the case of black indentured servant John Punch helped to set the American colonies toward a race-based system of socio-political power with whites as the dominant group. Punch was a black indentured servant, who along with two white servants, escaped his master in Virginia and fled to Maryland. All three men were caught, sentenced to thirty lashes each, but the white men were only sentenced to an additional four years of servitude, whereas Punch was sentenced to a life of slavery. This set the precedent of slavery being a life-long status based on race.

As near as I can tell, Simon Hancock and all of his descendants owned slaves. I know for a fact that his 2nd, 3rd and 4th great grandsons owned slaves. According to the 1810 census, Martin Hancock (1725) owned 24 slaves, but that number had grown to 53 slaves by 1820. Martin’s son Douglas Barksdale Hancock (1795) also owned more than 50 slaves, according to the 1850 U.S. Census Slave Schedule. This was the same year that the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act was passed, giving slave owners even more rights than the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. This new law made the capturing and the return of runaway slaves to their masters the responsibility of the federal government, and in doing so drove an even bigger wedge between pro- and anti-slavery proponents. Most historians agree that the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act was a major key factor leading to the Civil War. By the time this law was enacted, whatever rights blacks may have had had been whittled away over the decades in concession after concession to appease slave states, and they were stripped of all humanity.

Five years after the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act was passed, my 3rd great grandfather Nelson Hancock was born. According the 1850 U.S. Census Slave Schedule, John Hancock, Nelson’s father owned eight slaves, five of whom were females, but only two of whom, based on age, were likely to be Nelson’s mother, Lelia. My guess is that Lelia was a 14 year old slave owned by John Hancock, which would have made her 18 or 19 when she became pregnant with Nelson. She was sold to a plantation in Tennessee sometime in 1859 or 1860, but since there is no record of a female slave in her age range in the 1860 Slave Schedule, I believe she was sold in 1859.

Because Nelson Hancock’s father was a white man who was also his owner, it was possible for me to trace that particular branch of my family back England in 1525. By comparison, I know nothing about Lelia Moore, other than her name and she was sold off around the time her son was four years old.

Lelia, like most of my 3rd great grandparents remain a mystery. Other than names and approximate birthdays, no real records exist for twelve of the people in my family, and the reason for this is because they were property. Slaves were not considered human beings, neither by law, nor by the ideologies that prevailed in both the colonies and then the states. The Three-Fifths Compromise of 1787 created a law that stated that blacks could not be counted as full human beings, but rather 3/5 of a person. On every census before 1870, slaves are listed as property. They were not listed by name, just age and gender, and sometimes by racial classifications such as “black” or “mulatto,” which along with not being counted as full human beings, helped strip them of their humanity.

It is important to keep in mind that slavery and the racial dynamics attached to slavery are far more complicated than we are ever taught in school, or than we could ever know. Take for instance, Catherine Walker, my 2nd great grandmother, born 1860. Born during slavery, Catherine’s parents Washington and Mary Brown were possibly slaves, born in 1835 and 1844, respectively. Both Washington and Mary were the children of white fathers who legally married black women. Washington Brown was the son of Amos Brown (1805), a white man who married Mary Ann Settle (1800). There are no records of Amos Brown or his father ever owning slaves. Mary Anne Settle is the daughter of Strother John Settle (1774), a white slave owner whose 1820 property listings include a female the same age as Mary Anne, who married Amos Brown in 1828. Strother Settle, my 5th great grandfather, comes from a family I have managed to trace back nine generations to England in 1445. There is no record, however, of whom Mary Anne’s mother was, or of how many of Strother’s other slaves were also his children.

Washington Brown, the son of Amos and Marry Anne, married the daughter of Moses (1819) and Catherine (1821) Ramey. There is no record of Moses ever owning slaves, though his father owned more than 20 slaves in 1850. Whether or not Catherine was one of these slaves is uncertain. The Ramey family descends from French royalty, and I have been able to trace that branch of my family back to the 27th great grandfather, Carlier De Remy, born in France in 1070. My 4th great grandparents Moses and Catherine Ramey were legally married on June 26, 1843, and they represent something very common in the history of this nation. Catherine was a slave, born in 1821. There is no record of her parents, or where she came from, other than the fact that she was the property of another person, quite like Moses’s father. Catherine’s name before she was married was Catherine Mulatto Brown, which indicates her middle and last names were likely inventory descriptions from a past property listing. So, while there is almost no record of Catherine as anything other than property, her husband’s family can be traced back 23 generations of French royalty.

It is uncertain if Washington Brown or his wife Mary were actually slaves or not. Both were the children of mothers who had been slaves, but were legally married to white men. I have been trying to research how marrying a white man affected the status of a slave woman, but have yet to find this out. If Washington and Mary Brown were actually free mulattos, then that would have made their children, including my 2nd great grandmother Catherine free as well.

Although this is a fairly long post, it is an incredibly brief overview of my own personal family history. But as you can see, it is complex and incomplete. The fact that I can trace back my white relatives as far as 1070 while my black relatives were not even counted in the U.S. Census as actual human beings until 1870 (not to mention that I can’t trace any of them past 1804) says volumes about the racial disparity that has existed in this country and continues to exist. Many people ask why the legacy of slavery is still such a big deal in the United States.

The plain and simple reason is because slavery stripped blacks of their humanity, turned them into property, and built a systemic ideology of black inferiority and white superiority in this country that continues to this day. There will be no getting over slavery in this country until the humanity of every slave is restored—until the blank spaces in their pasts are filled in with names of children, parents, grandparents and birth dates, as opposed to generic property listings that served as the only proof of each slave’s existence for more than 200 years. And that simply isn’t going to happen.


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One Response to “Freedom, Slavery & the Things We Don’t Like to Talk About”

  1. Kelly Henson Straub Says:

    I came across your article while searching for my great, great, great grandparents Catherine Mulatto Brown and Moses Ramey. I am descended from their son John L. Ramey who married a woman named Mary Ann ? and they had my great grandmother Mary Catherine Ramey. Funny, my grandfather used to say his mother was part native–i believe now this may have been a mistake as from your blog post it seems they may have been either mulatto or full negro slaves. There does seem to be some conflicting info out there about the parentage of Catherine Mulatto Brown: some family trees on cite them as being Joseph Harah (hanson?) Brown b. 1791 and Sarah Edmonds b 1793 both in New Jersey. Amos Brown is listed a Joseph’s father as well, and only one tree showed any mention of Mary ann Settle as Amos’ spouse. Thanks for the new info, this is quite intriguing!

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