It was the twilight of summer, several years ago, before my Grandpa Wally or Grandma Betty had passed, perhaps even before I graduated from Hollins. I was in the crawl space, underneath their home on the lake in Nebraska, changing out an air filter with my father. The entrance to the crawl space, or cellar as my Grandma would sometimes refer to it, is in the garage, through a hole in the concrete covered by planks of wood. The first plank we lifted had a mouse smashed on the other side of it. I made my father go first.
The floor was covered with dirt, the air was cool and the ceiling low. In the corner of the room sat a box. It was the most natural thing in the world for me to go through it, as though I had called it up from the cool, underground storage in an archive, pulling out drawings, a red-eyed monkey bank, high school work and memorabilia all belonging to my Uncle Mike. In the midst of it was a letter between my Uncle Mike and Aunt Shari, back when they were high school sweethearts.
Up to this point in the 26 years of my life, my career has consisted of reading other people’s letters. My first semester of grad-school was spent transcribing some of Francis Scott Key’s correspondence for the O Say Can You See: Early Washington, D.C., Law and Family project at the University of Nebraska. Much of what I transcribed isn’t yet on the site– for instance, Key writing to John Randolph of Roanoke that he has had “as many melancholy forebodings as the next person” (paraphrasing one of my favorite phrases from memory.) The two men generally liked to complain back and forth in their correspondence writing bitterly on health, the weather, politics, and careers. In a memorable passage from Randolph, he recounts praying desperately for rain to water his tobacco, and when the rains finally came he worried that the week long torrent would destroy his entire crop.
Reading Randolph’s written description of a flood washing away profits, should bring to mind the hard labor of cleaning up after a flood such as repairing fences and buildings, moving earth, salvaging crops. I have not read Randolph’s day books, but I have read others from Virginia, enough to know that long days of hard physical labor followed the days of the flood and that the labor was not being done by Randolph, it was being done by the men, women, and children slaving in his agricultural pursuit of profit. Randolph’s letter to Key, a private note of misery to a close friend, only offers a glimpse of the flood, not the entire picture. Letters are the shared perspective of the author. If Randolph sent a note to one of his overseers, his description of the flood, its damages, and the tasks ahead would have strongly differed from his note to Key, an out of town friend.
Historians do more than read what is on the page, we also try to see what isn’t on the page. During his life, Randolph held over 400 people in bondage. Randolph–like Key, Jefferson, Madison, and Washington– had a hypocritical relationship with slavery. Aaron Scott Crawford wrote about Randolph’s contradictions by examining his letters to his actions in Crawford’s 2012 dissertation, “John Randolph of Roanoke and the Politics of Doom: Slavery, Sectionalism, and Self-Deception, 1773-1821” at the University of Tennessee.
Randolph’s words and actions were often at odds when it came to slavery. Randolph spoke of one enslaved man,“Juba is good, very good servant—none better—but he will steal” (237). This was the same man named Jupiter, who slaved daily and intimately at the side and whim of Randolph, and whose portrait hung on the wall of Randolph’s home like that a beloved family member. Jupiter and presumably all the people enslaved by Randolph faced physical abuse as way of punishment at one time or another, whether by the hand of an overseer, or at the hand of the Randolph himself, a man remembered as strutting around the House of Representatives, with a whip in hand.
When I found the letter from my Aunt and Uncle in the crawl space of my Grandparents’ home, I read it. At the time, I saw the letter as a joyful piece of my family history. Something that belonged to me. And maybe I was wrong, maybe I shouldn’t have read them, my Aunt and Uncle certainly think so. I concede that I would feel violated to have them read my notebooks from high school. Their reaction, a mix of embarrassment and anger, surprised me and caused me to question the entitled feeling I have for the letters I read while working on history. The line of privacy is immediate, or it should be, when the authors are alive and able to object to your intrusion–but should it also feel immediate when dealing with a private letter written over a hundred years ago?
I am now catching up on long over due correspondence, to friends, to family, and to the people who helped me in the process of researching my thesis. Some of these letters are easy to write and some are more difficult. My thesis takes place between 1732 and 1809, but the descendants of the slaveholders I write about still live in the area or surrounding towns. Benjamin Sheftall and his sons are not the only members of the Sheftall family to become prominent businessmen and politicians in Savannah but Benjamin and his sons still loom large over the community. Their history has always been treated with respect and dignity, with little to no analysis of their slaveholding. My thesis brings slavery into the forefront, where it belongs and I like to believe that I treat all of my historical subjects with respect and dignity by doing so. My conclusion talks a good game noting that “This is the first history of slaveholders I have written, knowing that their families would read its contents, yet, I cannot stop thinking about the descendants of the enslaved people” (77).
I am concerned with the descendants of enslaved people and endlessly curious about their family histories. But now that my thesis is finished, it is the descendants of slaveholders, the people who opened their homes and family histories to me, who I am now sending my words of thanks for their help in my project. I fear that they will feel the exposure of an unfavorable light on their heroic ancestors the same way my Aunt and Uncle received the dim cellar light by which I read their love letter.
I am also the descendant of slaveholders. My mother has been meticulously tracing our family genealogy for several years now, she may have even found a link to John Randolph of Roanoke. If she did, Randolph will be one of the only slaveholders I am related to who manumitted the people he held in bondage and provided for them to resettle in free Ohio. My mother and I sit together and transcribe the wills of our passed patriarchs and matriarchs, it feels immediate as as our deceased relatives separate mothers and daughters, brothers and sisters, dictating which relative inherits which person and sending the rest to auction. Slavery is a difficult history because it is our family history, it belongs to all of us. I own my history and the history of my nation, we all should. Denying our national history and our personal ties to it is as ridiculous as denying that we could have ever been young, teenagers writing love letters or scribbling in notebooks.