I couldn't unlearn the name of my great-great-grandfather's enslaved person — and I didn't want to

Ann Banks, Opinion contributor
·4 min read

My great-great-grandfather A.J. Pickett owned two cotton plantations in Alabama. He was a historian and an apologist for slavery. He wrote that the South’s steamy climate was so destructive of the constitutions of whites that the land could never be successfully cultivated without African labor. He despised abolitionists and, in one pamphlet, defended the South’s system of what he called “mild domestic slavery.”

As my great-great-grandfather’s words illustrate, America was built on the backs of enslaved Africans. The debt keeps compounding and can never be repaid. For those of us descended from enslavers, learning of this disturbing history can be personal and direct.

One day I opened my silverware drawer and noticed a familiar silver serving spoon that had been handed down in my family. For the first time it occurred to me to investigate the name engraved on the handle, L.P. Walker. All it took was a simple internet search. LeRoy Pope Walker, I discovered, was the first War secretary of the Confederate States of America and the husband of one of my ancestral cousins, named Eliza. Along with that knowledge came the realization that the spoon had surely been polished by slaves.

'A child whose name I know'

Later, I would come to know about a kidnapping — of a Black 2-year-old child named Milton. Through Milton’s great-granddaughter, family historian Karen Orozco Gutierrez, I learned that he and his family were victims of what has been called the Reverse Underground Railroad. In the decades before the Civil War, traffickers and slave traders abducted thousands of free African Americans in the North and sold them “down the river” into slavery. That is how Milton, born free in Davenport, Iowa, spent most of his childhood enslaved on my great-great-grandfather’s plantation in Alabama.

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Karen believes that Milton had been a house slave, making it not unlikely that he worked in the kitchen, perhaps helping to polish the spoons.

This was not something I could unthink. It is one thing to recognize systemic racism and to agitate for a more just and anti-racist society. It is something else truly to open yourself to the heart-stopping details, the specific horror of kidnapping a 2-year-old child, a child whose name I know. The wrong of owning human beings cannot be righted. Yet I am thankful to know the truth, bitter though it may be.

Karen Orozco Gutierrez and Ann Banks on the steps of the Figh-Pickett House, in Montgomery, Alabama, in 2018.
Karen Orozco Gutierrez and Ann Banks on the steps of the Figh-Pickett House, in Montgomery, Alabama, in 2018.

Changing America

In a 1965 essay in Ebony magazine, James Baldwin argued that every white American needs to confront honestly the nation's true history. Failure to do this, he wrote, “hideously menaces this country.” Baldwin almost seemed to foresee the mob violence on horrifying display at the United States Capitol on Jan. 6 — the Confederate flags, the noose hung from a gallows.

What would the intellectual icon of the civil rights era say to us now? In a quote so famous that it is emblazoned on T-shirts for sale on Amazon, Baldwin said, "Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced."

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Once you recognize the pervasive impact of slavery on this country from the bricks that built Georgetown University to the silver spoon in my kitchen, you can’t turn your back on it.

White Americans must abandon nostalgia for bygone days that never were and tell ourselves the truth about our racist heritage. Facing this painful history offers a path to a more just society.

Only then can America begin to work for everyone.

Ann Banks lives in New York. She writes about the confluence of race, memory and family history on her website Confederates in My Closet.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: My family's slave-owning legacy is America's history, and challenge