What my ancestors taught me about colonialism, class and white supremacy 

Junior Foster and his grandson Clay Dillon at the grave of William Foster, their ancestor who fought with Union forces against white supremacy during the U.S. Civil War.

This is the talk Mercy Junction Justice and Peace Center Director Beth Foster gave at the Saturday, July 29, 2017, TN Anti-Racist Network Teach-In and Protest at Montgomery Bell State Park. 

I’m a genealogists and I’m going to do what genealogists do and bore y’all with some old family stories for the next 10 minutes, but I will try to connect those old stories to why I’m here, and why this should be all of our fight no matter the color of our skin.

In speaking out against this gathering of white supremacists that is taking place here today, Dickson County NAACP President Benny Overton said, “White supremacy, like race, is a construct developed to divide and disempower those who are oppressed. It was nefariously crafted following the Bacon Rebellion to divide and disempower the poor (blacks and whites) who sought a more equitable share of the wealth of the new world, and to justify the heinous subjugation of the native people.”

How many people here know what the Bacon Rebellion is? 

A good number, I’m assuming, since this group is a gathering of anti-racists.

For those who might not, or who might need a refresher … the Bacon Rebellion was a pivotal moment in the United States’ development. But, I don’t remember learning about it in elementary school history classes, where we made T Shirts “celebrating” Christopher Columbus Day. I don’t remember learning about it in high school where we covered the “war of northern aggression” for an entire week. I don’t even remember covering it in college, where we dug a little deeper and spent part of one lecture on the labor movement. 

For those who don’t know, the Bacon Rebellion happened in 1676 when Virginians of all classes and races rose up in arms against the governor and torched the capital. The Bacon Rebellion was the first time an alliance between indentured Europeans and enslaved Africans threatened the aristocracy of the colonies. While the Bacon Rebellion was eventually defeated, the resistance inspired other poor, enslaved and indentured people to unite across race and class lines for their own self-interests. There were other uprisings created by those in indenture and slavery, including one the following year in Maryland. 

So how did the oligarchs, so outnumbered by the enslaved, the indentured, the poor and the working class, respond? They created white supremacy. 

In the time before these rebellions, those serving indentures and those enslaved had relatively near equality (though stay with me, there’s more to say about that in a minute), and the two groups of people — united in their bondage — interacted, socialized and often formed relationships. To take a relationship to the point of marriage, both the indentured servant and the enslaved person had to have her or his master’s permission. For an indentured woman, pregnancy would add time onto her bondage because of lost labor to her master. That’s not so bad, however, when compared to the plight of an enslaved woman whose child would become the property of the master at birth. Both she and her baby never having the indentured woman’s opportunity at eventual freedom. 

After the rebellions, laws were enacted that regulated interactions between those who were enslaved and those who were not, creating a legal mandate for a racial divide. The new laws stripped rights from the enslaved Africans and gave new property rights to the aristocratic owners. For the first time, laws were passed based on skin color. Black people, whether free or enslaved, could not own firearms. Black people could not employ white people. 

The Virginia Slaves Codes of 1705 were the final result and historians generally agree that many provisions of the code were written because of the aristocrats fear of further rebellions as a result of the unification of those — black and white — who were in bondage. 

But, like I said, I was well into adulthood before I ever heard about the Bacon Rebellion. 

Like most white kids from Kentucky, I grew up learning about the pilgrims who came to the New World seeking only freedom to practice their religion in a place where they would not face the religious persecution they had back home. They came willingly and freely to this new world for independence. These were my ancestors, right?

I kept on believing that until I discovered a box of papers my late grandmother had given me years ago, when I was still in college. I hadn’t been at all interested in those papers of old family stories and genealogical charts at the time and had stuffed them in a closet and forgotten about them. But, when I found them in my mid-30s, they were a connection to my Memi who had passed a few months earlier. 

And that’s when my ancestors began to teach me about colonialism, class and white supremacy in a way that altered my worldview, affected my politics and gave me a new understanding of the real history of the founding of the United States.

I remember sharing my research about my earliest ancestor to the United States with my Appalachian, sunburned, work-calloused farmer of an uncle. 

“That ain’t right, Bethney Jo,” he’d said. “Our ancestors were on the Mayflower.” 

“There weren’t any MacQuarries — or Macs of any sort on the Mayflower — Uncle Butch,” I’d told him. 

My earliest ancestor was named John MacQuarrie. He was a Scottish highlander, a farmer. A Jacobite, he fought against the British at Culloden. Culloden in 1745, marked the Highlanders final defeat and an end of the ancient clan system there. It allowed the clearances of those who had lived on the land for eons so that the aristocrats could raise sheep for a greater profit. My Grandpa John was one of the lucky ones who escaped the carnage at Culloden with his life; however, he was arrested shortly thereafter and sentenced to transport and seven years indenture in the colony of Virginia as punishment for his rebellion. 

My first American ancestor arrived here in chains, on the prison ship Pamela, and was sold into seven years of forced labor. 

Wait? What? What about the Mayflower and religious freedom and seeking a new life of independence and opportunity and all that stuff? 

The truth is that for at least half of us white people of European descent, our ancestors didn’t exactly come here of their own free will. Not all of them came as literal prisoners in chains like my first American ancestor, but poverty, famine, the forced relocation of the poor and working class, and the breakdown of social safety nets as the first birth pains of capitalism in the old world — these were certainly not conditions that presented a lot of options. They came like the refugees and immigrants who come today — where they might face harsh conditions in the new land — but going back is a far more threatening set of circumstances. And, to add to the drive to relocate the poor from Europe to where their labor could be put to good use for the wealthy, aristocrats in the colonies were rewarded with 50 additional acres for each new laborer they brought.

And. I want to pause right here. I have seen the revisionist histories — often used by white supremacists — that talk about Irish slavery and how the conditions of indentured servants were the same as those enslaved. I want to state unequivocally that this is just not true. While conditions for and treatment of all poor people have been horrible throughout all of history — and those who were forced into indenture or entered into indenture of their own accord are no exception — it in no way compares to the brutality and evil that was the system of chattel slavery that existed for thousands and thousands of people in the colonies and what eventually became the United States. With that said, we will return to our regular programming and I will tell you about what my ancestors had to teach me. 

Estimates are that 50 to 75 percent of what we’d now call white people came to the colonies in the 16th or 17th century as indentured servants. The indentures of these people could be bought and sold. They could not marry without their master’s permission. There was physical punishment and hard, manual labor. Records indicate high numbers of runaways and suicides. A full 40 percent didn’t live through their indenture to claim their freedom. 

Like me, most white people whose families have been in the U.S. since before the Revolutionary War would find that their earliest ancestors to the colonies had much more in common with the people who were enslaved than with governors, aristocrats and elites who were the “founding fathers.” 

But Grandpa John wasn’t the last of my ancestors to have some lessons for me about colonialism, class and white supremacy. 

Like most white southerners who don’t know their own story, somewhere in the back of my mind, I guess I always believed — God forbid — that my ancestors had taken up arms to defend the Confederacy. I grew up in farm country in rural Kentucky. My Papa Bernard was a staunch Republican, with my great-great-great-great-grandfather Bernard also being a Republican. As a left leaning teenager without much understanding of history, I really hated that part of my family’s story. 

It was in the genealogy work that I discovered my great-great-great-great-great Grandpa Foster had been among those poor white farmers who came down from the hills of Jabez, Kentucky and walked the 10 miles to Nancy, Ky. to join up with Union forces. Those hillbilly boys then marched all the way to Chattanooga, Tenn. and on to Atlanta in the fight against one of the most brutal forms of white supremacy ever known. 

I haven’t been able to learn why they did it. It’s a very isolated place where my Grandpa Foster came from, even today. I imagine those men could have stayed hidden up there in the hills, farming their land, drinking their moonshine and smoking their tobacco and pretending like a war wasn’t waging in the world down below. 

I like to believe they got it. 

I like to believe they saw that their own self-interest was in opposing the oligarchs. I like to believe they saw that they had far more in common with the enslaved people than they did the masters. I like to believe they remembered where they’d come from and this war was the result of a system that had been intentionally used to divide the poor and the working class by skin color to keep them from overthrowing those who wanted to take their bodies, their labor and their lives to enrich themselves. 

Once upon a time, I thought of genealogy as a silly pastime for elitists who wanted to establish their line to this king or that queen. My experience has taught me that genealogy is really the people’s history. This is experiencing history through my own story, through the blood that flows in my veins. This is the history that created who I am and where I am. My ancestors have taught me so much, but I don’t think they’re finished yet. 

All the rage among genealogists right now is the DNA test that can help us find more about our ancestors where the paper trail ends — and for poor people, for those in servitude or slavery, that paper trail is often scarce. I recently got my DNA results back. Much was as I expected based on my research: 64 percent Irish/Scottish, 11 percent Western Europe … and then there was the 4 percent Ghana/Ivory Coast. Who is this ancestor? Where does she come into my story? What does she have to teach me? 

Continuing to learn my own story has made me a better organizer, a better activist and a better writer. My ancestors walk with me now. They inform my work with their experiences. They tell me things got way off track a few centuries ago when we allowed ourselves to be divided by the color of our skin, when solidarity might have prevented hundreds more years of suffering and death and deprivation. They whisper to me now that we have another chance. A chance to resist. A chance to create a new world that is based in equality, shared resources, and honoring the stories, the cultures and the people who created all of us to be the ones who finally get it right. 

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