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Distant Relatives

Coming Face-to-face With Slavery

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By Cara Jepsen

It's really a process to do family history on black families," says Pam Smith. "There are no names until 1870."

Smith's grandmother, who was born in central Missouri, had told Smith about an ancestor named Baltimore Robinson. Smith's great-great-grandfather, Robinson spent half his life as a slave near Moberly, Missouri, and after the Civil War he'd married an Emily Morris. Smith wanted to know more.

She found out by phone in 1992 that "Colored Marriages," an old black book still kept in the courthouse of Randolph County, where Moberly sits, contained a record of the marriage of Emily and Baltimore right after the war. She also found out that the person she needed to talk to was Ann Neel, a white professor of comparative sociology and women's studies at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma. Neel was born in the Moberly area, her family's roots there were several generations deep, and she'd focused on Randolph County when she'd studied the relationships between black and white women during the slave era. Neel referred Smith to the National Archives and to Chicago's Newberry Library.

"Before the Civil War, people who were enslaved were the property of slaveholders and listed as such," says Neel. "There is a lot of deductive work that goes on. You have to find out where your relatives may have been, or who they may have been owned by. That's why family stories are so precious."

Smith, who lives in Rogers Park, went to the Newberry, where she found an 1850 slave schedule--an addendum to the county census--that listed a "17 MB" (for 17-year-old male black) owned by a Phillip Robinson. Smith was sure, though she couldn't prove it, that 17 MB was her ancestor. Smith called Neel with her finding, and the professor became her cheerleader. "There are not a lot of people who get excited about records," says Smith today.

What she could not find was any evidence of Baltimore and Emily living together as husband and wife. Finally Smith and her grandmother (who recently died but at the time lived in Evanston)--both got on the phone with Neel. To Smith's annoyance, Neel began asking her grandmother questions about the terrain and vegetation she remembered from her Missouri childhood.

"I was like, Ann, get to the point. I thought it was all so tangential to the issue," says Smith. But Neel told her to look in adjacent Howard County. Neel went back to the Newberry and, sure enough, an 1870 county census listed Emily and Baltimore Robinson.

"At that point, I felt like I had to go to Missouri and talk to people and put myself in the place that my ancestors lived and feel what it felt like," Smith says. "I felt like I needed more information."

One of her new Missouri friends was an old black man named John Langhorn, the area's unofficial historian. Smith's great-great-grandparents died when Langhorn was a teenager, and he remembered them. He confirmed that they'd been owned by Phillip Robinson. "He talked about their house, the flowers around the house, and the type of people they were." He said that Baltimore was gregarious and that Emily told ghost stories to the children at night.

Another friend was genealogist Cecy Rice of the Randolph County Historical Society. The person who originally referred Smith to Neel, Rice had continued to do research into Phillip Robinson's family. She sat Smith down in a chair. First she showed her a county history relating that a slave named Baltimore had been sold by Phillip Robinson's estate in 1864 to a David Dennis--for $125. Then she gave her the hard news.

"She showed me elaborate charts on paper and said, 'I think there's a connection between your family and Ann's family.'

"I said, really? I don't think I really knew what she was saying at the time," says Smith. "As the discussion continued, I realized what she was telling me. I said, 'Are you telling me that Ann's family owned my family?' And she said, yes."

What Rice told her was that Neel's great-great-great-grandmother Courtney was the sister of Phillip Robinson.

"I just couldn't believe it," says Smith. "I remember calling Ann and I didn't even say hello. I said, 'Your family owned my family.' It had never dawned on us, to think that there had been any connection between the two of us. We had become good friends, and now there was this new dynamic."

"I was astounded and horrified," says Neel. "I'd written a paper about the slaves my relatives had owned. But it somehow did not click with me that Phillip was Courtney's brother, and that he'd owned Baltimore. I remember asking Pam how she felt about it, because I didn't know if she would want to keep talking to me anymore, or if she'd be too blown away and didn't want to relate to me anymore. It would have been sad, but I would have understood it."

"It's sobering," says Smith. "Up to that time we were kind of going on our happy way, researching and having this great telephone friendship in regard to work we were doing. To find something out like that was a reason for pause. It brought home the whole reality of slavery."

Instead of ending the friendship, the discovery brought them closer. They continued talking on the phone, and finally met face-to-face nearly a year later. At first Smith was standoffish, but she soon warmed up. They ended up having a three-hour conversation in Neel's Seattle home that they tape-recorded. "Before we could do anything, we had to talk about how we'd been raised and racial myths and our first experience with racism, and how we ever got into this in the first place," says Smith.

Smith came of age during the Black Power movement of the 1970s, worked on Jesse Jackson's 1984 presidential campaign in Oregon, and acted as his national communications director in 1988. Today she's public information manager for Rotary International. Neel, who is 20 years older, was in graduate school in Berkeley during the 60s' civil rights and free speech movements there. She worked on a War on Poverty project near Berkeley for three years--one of her colleagues was Bobby Seale--and then wrote her dissertation on the subject of "us studying them" as an example of internal colonialism. Later, while researching her Missouri past, she found the name of a descendant of one of her family's slaves. Neel looked the woman up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and gave her what information she had about her family and ancestors--"the least I could do," she says.

"I feel profoundly about the ugliness and evil of slavery. If it would help I would certainly apologize to Pam, but I feel that would be so paltry compared to the enormity of the institution and its filtered-down consequences to human beings even today. It's institutional sin. It's about the sins of our fathers."

Last year Neel was asked by a colleague to speak at the University of Idaho during Black History Month. The friend suggested Smith join her. The two of them decided to model their presentation on the transcript of the conversation they'd had in Seattle. The hastily prepared event went over well, and they've done numerous engagements since then, incorporating slides, music, and books into their program. They call it "Entangled Lives: Facing Our Slaveholding Past," and they'll be offering it Saturday morning at the Newberry Library and Monday afternoon at Malcolm X College.

"It's not so much hammering away on the evils of slavery," says Neel. "We each feel strongly about that. It's more important that it just be really honestly addressed and acknowledged and that we discuss its real connections to people's lives. It's not just that slave owners were cruel and all that. Many were. But we look at the ways our ancestors created this whole phenomenon and how we're stuck with the consequences. And we have to do something about it.

"In many ways it's presumptuous for someone white to do this, but I don't know what else to do. There is no way to overcome this history in a lifetime, but we have to try."

"Our country is so polarized racially," says Smith. "If people see a black person and a white person who have a historical connection that comes from a very unpleasant time and past--that we have this horrible connection that neither of us feels good about--if we can understand where each other is coming from then maybe others can feel like they can talk to people of other races more easily." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Pam Smith photo by Nathan Mandell/ Ann Neel photo.

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