My Disturbing Family History

If you’ve ever researched your family history, you know that you are in for some surprises. A few years ago, my family discovered the patent showing that my great, great grandfather invented the adjustable seat in the automobile when he worked at Chrysler. So, if you’ve ever adjusted your seat in your car, on behalf of the Greer family, you’re welcome.

We also discovered that our family had a love for colors – so much so, that they’ve used many of them as names. My family tree boasts a Pink Posey Greer and not one, but multiple Green Berry Greers.

But every family history also includes stories that make you deeply, irrevocably ashamed. Stories that you wish would stay tucked so deeply away in family closets that they would never, ever see the light of day. But as much as I long to rewrite certain chapters, these, too, are part of our family history.

Some time ago, I found myself reading the Last Will and Testament of Green Berry Greer. My heart sank and my hands trembled when I saw in black and white a part of my story I’d never known or even stopped to consider:

We were slaveholders.

In this last will and testament, dated 16th of March 1839, we receive a glimpse into my great, great, great, great grandfather. We see that he was a man who treasured his wife Charlotte, and took great pains to make sure that she would be cared for after his death. He uses tender, loving language when he speaks about her and begins the document by stating, “I give and bequeath to my beloved wife Charlotte Greer the whole of my land where I live.” We learn that he owned hundreds and hundreds of acres of land in Davidson County, Tennessee. He also had much livestock, including “horses, cattle, sheep, and hogs.”

But to my horror, as I read his instructions on how his land and livestock were to be divided upon his death, he also divided up people. To each of his family members, he bequeathed between 1 and 8 “negroes.” His wife was to receive Jack, Sam, Priscilla, Andrew, Phoebe, Laban, Milli, and Mary. His daughter, Nancy Tennison, received Fanny, Benjamin, and Jennie. His son, Isaac Greer, received Jessie. He gave his grandson, Green Berry Greer, “one boy child” named Washington. And the list goes on. Green Berry Greer doesn’t only give his family these precious men, women and children– he also gives “with their increase,” meaning their children. A part of his legacy was ensuring that children born in slavery in my family’s home were born into perpetual slavery, with no hope of freedom.

As I read this last will and testament, I was sickened to my core. I desperately wanted to destroy the document and pretend that this wasn’t part of our story—of my story. I’d never even considered that my relatives might have bought and sold people for their own economic gain.

With the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, it is my great hope that most of these individuals tasted freedom in their lifetime. But even with this Proclamation, we know the lingering impact of slavery persisted throughout their lives, and that it continues to this day. The country we live in is marred by a legacy of unjust treatment towards people of color. For the very first time, I realized that this isn’t just our nation’s shameful history: it is mine, too.

What do we do when we realize that our relatives have participated in, and benefited from, the buying and selling of our fellow image bearers? When they perpetuated an immensely cruel system of exploitation? Candidly, I have no idea how to respond. Any efforts seem trivial in comparison to the sins of the past. While I’m sure I am going to think about this for years to come, I offer three very small first steps:

First, acknowledge the injustice. If you are white in the United States, you’ll likely discover that this shameful legacy belongs to you as well, perhaps directly or perhaps indirectly through systems and institutions. Resist the urge to justify it. Refuse to pretend that it didn’t happen. Don’t sweep it under the rug of history. Name it, and call it for what it was and is: sin. Slavery has always been and will always be an affront to God, the One who tenderly created each of us in His image. The injustice that happens in God’s world is our business as His people, and we do not get to look away.

Second, repent. On behalf of my family, I am unspeakably sorry to the men, women and children who were bought and sold with any connection to the Greer family. To Jack, Sam, Priscilla, Andrew, Phoebe, Laban, Milli, Mary, Fanny, Benjamin, Jennie, Simon, Washington and to your relatives, I am deeply, deeply sorry for what my family did to you. It was an abomination, and there is no justification for it.

Third, get to work. Discovering this last will and testament was part of a growing recognition of the freedoms that I’ve been given simply because of the color of my skin. NFL football coach Barry Switzer once noted that, “Some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple.” Beyond benefiting from the labors of others, speaker Malcolm Gladwell talks about the impact of race on educational opportunities in his podcast series, Revisionist History. Similarly, Sho Baraka talks about the effect of race on access to capital in his song, My Hood, U.S.A., 1937. Their work has been an immensely helpful and eye-opening for me. It’s time for many of us to acknowledge that we are the recipients of extraordinary opportunities that we didn’t earn. As the people of God, we have a responsibility to own our sin and steward the gifts that we have been given for God’s glory and the good of the people around us. Or, in the language of the prophet Isaiah, to “spend ourselves on behalf of others.” [Isaiah 58]

For our family, that includes more generously supporting organizations committed to justice and opportunity for marginalized people. It includes supporting organizations like Attollo, trying to see more people from diverse backgrounds getting into great colleges and connecting to powerful social networks. It means supporting organizations like Equal Justice Initiative to help reform criminal justice and mass incarceration. It means mentoring kids and opening our home. It means living lives that ratify what our lips say we value, and doing more to love, serve, and honor all people.

I’m still coming to terms with the ugly truth that my ancestors, bearing my last name, participated in the evils of slavery. I wish that I could just focus on the fact that another relative created the adjustable car seat. But in the name of the God who desperately loves His creation, let’s acknowledge the sins of our past, and get to work restoring what is broken.

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3 Comments

  1. Mark Aardsma
    November 11, 2017

    Thanks for your vulnerability in leaning into this publicly.

    Reply
  2. Lyston Peebles
    November 13, 2017

    Thank you for this Peter. This is so much a part of my history. I still have cousins who believe Black people are not equal to WASPs. They STILL use the “N”, gratefully not in front of me and, my dad, before he died ,as the oldest son and his father’s namesake ( my name also), he told his brother and 5 sisters that I was raising a black son and that Ben was a part of our family. Three days later my dad died. At that moment, my dad put a stop to this part of our family being any part of this ( 1998) history.

    Reply
  3. NGOGA Emmanuel
    November 13, 2017

    Dear Peter,
    This is a very touching response to what you discovered in your family history. However it also shows how much you do not condone the perpetual history of the families of the black people in your country. God bless you.

    Reply

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