ATHENS, Ala. – Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was born about 40 miles from his great-great-grandfathers’ Alabama cotton farms, worked by slaves 100 years before.
Like so many long-standing Southern white families, McConnell's forebearers built their wealth with free slave labor and cheap land. Two of his great-great-grandfathers owned more than a dozen slaves, census records reviewed by the USA TODAY Network show.
The Kentucky Republican has known of his family's slave-owning past since at least 1994, when he wrote a letter to a Limestone County judge requesting information about his great-great-grandfather James McConnell, a slave owner, and the settlement of his ancestor's estate.
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But his 2016 memoir, “The Long Game,” contains no mention that the "colorful McConnells” he wrote about owned slaves, NBC reported.
As a child during segregation, McConnell lived on the white side of Athens, where black residents were only allowed to visit for work and were typically paid very low wages.
While Kentucky's senior senator has consistently condemned slavery and racism throughout his long political career, his vocal opposition to slavery reparations in any form has fueled the growing national debate about whether African Americans deserve restitution for enduring centuries of economic exploitation.
"I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago when none of us currently living are responsible is a good idea,” McConnell said in June. “We’ve tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a civil war, bypassing landmark civil rights legislation. We’ve elected an African-American president.”
Mitch McConnell: Obama's ancestors owned slaves, too
McConnell’s remarks, which made national headlines, came the day before a rare congressional hearing in which Democratic leaders and celebrities sought support for a bill that would establish a committee to “study and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations.”
McConnell did not respond this week to a USA TODAY Network request for additional comment about why he opposes reparations despite the lasting economic damages African Americans suffered from slavery and segregation.
Records about the McConnell family shed light on the history of the region that residents say is still shaped by the legacy of slavery.
The senator’s family history could be a case study in the way many whites built lasting wealth in part by exploiting the labor of enslaved African Americans.
The enduring legacy of that history lies in the balance sheets, supporters of reparations contend. On average, black Americans own roughly one-tenth of the amount of wealth that white families do, according to Federal Reserve statistics.
David Malone, whose family has roots as deep as the McConnell family in the Limestone County area of northern Alabama, believes reparations are a good idea.
Malone's great-grandparents were slaves, and he remembers his grandparents, who were sharecroppers, telling him how white farmowners kept them poor and in debt.
"I know it would be almost impossible to pay everybody related to slaves," Malone said. "When you think of how many people’s lives were lost working for nothing for 400 years, I would agree it should be done. But how it should be done I don’t know."
'Alabama Fever' drew McConnell's forebearers
In northern Alabama, the McConnell family’s slave-owning history is a common one among longtime white families.
His maternal and paternal great-great-grandparents, James McConnell and Richard H. Daley, moved from North Carolina and Virginia during the “Alabama Fever” years in the early and mid-1800s, census records show.
They were farmers and may have brought slaves with them when they moved, as many white families did.
It was a boom period for the cotton industry, fueled by the revolutionary invention of the cotton gin in 1793, and Alabama had plenty of cheap, fertile land.
In 1838, James McConnell, Mitch McConnell’s paternal great-great-grandfather, bought more than 600 acres, according to Limestone County property records.
The lush land was near the Tennessee River in the northwesternmost corner of Alabama, on the Tennessee state line.
"In that time, the Tennessee River was raging, and there was fertile land that you could pretty much buy for nothing,” said James Walker, a local historian and retired teacher whose ancestors were slaves and sharecroppers in the area. "Alabama became a state in 1819, and the Civil War started in 1861. So, for 40 years or so, slavery was big in Limestone County. Slaves outnumbered the whites."
In 1850, about 17,000 people lived in Limestone County, Alabama, and 8,500 were slaves, said county archivist Rebekah Davis.
"There were a few very wealthy planter families that came here from Virginia and the Carolinas who owned a very large number of slaves," Davis said. "There’s still a lot of black Malones in this county because there was a white Malone who owned lots and lots of slaves. It’s still the most common black name in Limestone County."
Davis, part of a group working to preserve the only black school in Limestone County for decades after the Civil War, said economic disparities persist, but she doesn’t support paying reparations for the decisions of people who lived more than 100 years ago.
In some cases, descendants of slaves have prospered, she noted. The Bridgeforth family of Limestone County is one of America’s most successful black farming families.
"They did have to start one foot behind, and the black section of town is economically depressed," Davis said. "But I don’t think you can equitably say: ‘Your ancestor was worth this much.'"
The McConnell family slaves
After NBC News reported that McConnell's great-great-grandfathers had owned 14 slaves, he responded by pointing out that President Barack Obama’s ancestors also were slave owners.
"You know, once again I find myself in the same position as President Obama," he said. "We both oppose reparations, and both are the descendants of slaveholders."
A USA TODAY Network review of census documents and local property and accounting records show that slave ownership was passed down through generations and persisted in the McConnell family through the Civil War.
Richard Daley, McConnell’s maternal great-great-grandfather, reported owning five young female slaves in the 1850 U.S. Census Slave Schedule.
But he said that four "mulatto," or mixed race, slaves – ages 20, 18, 4 and 2 – were escaped fugitives. One 22-year-old black woman remained at his farm, the document shows.
In the 1860 census, Daley reported owning another five slaves – a 30-year-old "mulatto" female, an 11-year-old "mulatto" female and two "mulatto" boys ages 7 and 10 or 12.
They also escaped, according to the document, but one 39-year-old black female slave remained.
The names of slaves and receipts of sale transactions are difficult to trace. Slaves either moved with families from other states into Alabama or were purchased at auctions in Montgomery.
Josiah and Jane Daley, the parents of Richard Daley, also owned slaves, according to Limestone County Chancery Court records from the mid-1800s. A property dispute mentions their two female slaves, 10-year-old Nancy and 20-year-old Eliza.
James McConnell, whose farm was next to Daley’s, had four female "mulatto" slaves ages 25, 4, 3 and 1 who all escaped, according to the 1860 census.
But, after the Civil War broke out, James McConnell had numerous slaves, according to his accounts the USA TODAY Network reviewed.
$4 for boots; $1,500 for slaves
Mitch McConnell requested some of those records in 1994, nine years after he was first elected to the U.S. Senate.
"I have been researching my family history and would appreciate your assistance,” he wrote in a letter to the Limestone County Archives. “I would like information relating to the settlement of the estate of James McConnell.”
The file the senator requested documented James McConnell’s purchases and sales, administered by his son, Andrew. It served as his will and included a list of heirs to receive payments upon his death.
In 1860, James McConnell paid $4 for boots, $1.40 for “lady shoes,” $3 for two bushels of wheat, 75 cents for a long-handle shovel, and $3 for “1 fine hat,” records show.
The accounts also included slave sales during and after the Civil War.
On April 15, 1863, the ledger noted: "To amount received on sale of slaves Confederate state money $1,500."
At the time, the area was occupied by Union Army troops, which included two local black infantry regiments.
After the war, in March 1867, James McConnell recorded: “To amount received of Elledge by way of compromise of the balance of the amount due on sale of slaves $235.”
Diverging fortunes for blacks and whites
Mitch McConnell’s family’s prominence is still apparent in Athens, where he lived until the third grade, when his family moved for better opportunities.
The McConnell Funeral Home that his grandfather bought during the 1918 influenza epidemic is still operating. And McConnell's great-uncle served as Limestone County probate judge from 1928 to 1946.
But there are clear indications that success and equality have come much more slowly for African Americans in Athens.
There is only one black-owned business downtown: The Sweetest Thing Tea Room.
Black obituaries and funeral notices only recently began being added to the county archives, where white families have long had their loved ones' information recorded.
"Slavery still affects the fortunes of African Americans. On one side of town, there are immaculate lawns and houses with two-car garages," said Walker, the local historian. "On the other side of town, you’ve got rundown shacks and terrible lawns."
Walker remembers segregated water fountains, restrooms and movie theaters.
“It was terrible,” he said. “I never went in the white restroom, but, in the colored restroom, there was paper on the floor, and it was never clean.”
Walker’s great-grandfather escaped slavery and became a soldier before establishing his own farm. But the family struggled, and after graduating from Morehouse College, Walker faced a choice of farming cotton or going into the military.
He joined the Army in the Vietnam War and retired about two decades later as a lieutenant colonel. He went on to teach African American history.
"The Jewish people received reparations from the Holocaust, and Japanese people received money for their internment during World War II,” said Walker, who supports reparations. "This country is built primarily on the backs of African Americans. And the primary difference between African Americans and European Americans today is economics.”
Meanwhile, Mitch McConnell’s former home with its large windows, porch and white picket fence stands on a tree-lined street near the town square.
A neighbor across the street remembered playing with water guns with McConnell as children, according to an Athens News Courier article.
Richard Martin, who is white and about the age as the 77-year-old Kentucky senator, remembers segregation differently. His family also has deep roots in Limestone County.
“When I was a little boy, we had a little club and initiation was you had to drink out of a black fountain,” Martin said. “We thought it was something, that we were tough.
"I was the little white boy who had everything. We had African American folks working for us. But segregation cheated me, too."
Martin said he didn’t make any black friends until he joined the Army, and he wishes it had happened earlier.
Martin opposes the idea of reparations. But he serves on the board working to preserve the former all-black Trinity High School, which was founded by a missionary in 1865 and provided the rare opportunity for black children to get an education. It’s now a community and event center.
‘Watch him, don’t trust him’
Nowadays, race relations are mostly cordial in Limestone County but for a few rare blowups.
Cotton is still a popular crop to farm in the area, but technology has replaced the need for most human labor.
In April, a brawl erupted at Athens High School after a parent started a "Black Lives Matter" chant on campus. When police responded, a fight broke out. A video showed officers hitting several students.
The incident prompted gossip around town for a few days, locals said. But they viewed it as an outlier.
Limestone County Probate Judge Charles Woodroof, who holds the title McConnell’s great-uncle once had, shares a similar family history. His family moved from Virginia to farm the cheap land in the 1800s, and they owned slaves.
But to Woodroof, reparations are an archaic idea.
"I vaguely remember a couple of situations where there might have been two water fountains," Woodroof said. "I know from being in this position and being an attorney here that a lot of people have been highly successful – both African Americans and whites.
"We’re so many generations beyond that. It was part of our history, and we learned it in school. But I don’t experience it.”
But for many descendants of slaves in the area, reparations would bring some long-overdue economic justice, they say.
“It would mean that somebody has finally agreed that we deserve something, and I would give it to my grandkids,” said Malone, whose relatives were slaves and sharecroppers.
"My grandmother never taught me to hate. But she was treated so bad by the white man. So, she told me: ‘Watch him. Don’t trust him, because if there’s something you’ve got that he wants, he will beat you out of it.'"
Follow Sandy Mazza on Twitter: @SandyMazza.
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: McConnell family benefited from slavery for generations, records show