My ancestor owned 41 slaves. What do I owe their descendants?

A few years ago, Cheryl Benedict, an education administrator and historian from Virginia and my first cousin, discovered on Ancestry.com that our great-great-great-grandfather, a Texas farmer named Augustus Foscue, had owned 41 slaves.

I was saddened, not surprised. Although I grew up in Brussels, the child of American musicians who did not inherit great wealth, my family is white and middle class, with branches rooted among the pre-revolutionary English immigrants who accepted slave-holding as a way of life.

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My first thought was that I should research our family history more—and then write about it. My ancestors had done something wrong. It had not been known. Now it was. Shining a light on the truth, followed by some sort of atonement, seemed the right thing to do, especially at a time of rising and relegitimized white supremacy in the United States. Truth-telling as atonement.

It would also be an education. Growing up, I attended Belgium’s écoles communales. In school, I did not learn about U.S. history. For me, as a kid, America was more cultural and commercial than political or historical: baseball and Mark Twain, musicals and McDonald’s.

My mistake, typical of white Americans, was treating slavery as if it were a mystery buried in the past.

My attitude was naïve and ill-considered. As editors rejected draft after draft, it became clear that I was getting something important wrong.

My mistake, typical of white Americans, was treating slavery as if it were a mystery buried in the past. I had not known about my ancestor Augustus. My family had not talked about slavery. Now we did.

But confession is not atonement. And as one African-American historian or economist after another pointed out to me, slavery is not a mystery, and it is not past. What white Americans treat as a historical curiosity—something to investigate if we choose to—is to black Americans a cruel, unavoidable ghost that haunts this nation’s cities, schools, hospitals and prisons.

There is a small but growing group of descendants of slave-owners conducting private efforts at atonement.

This lack of understanding about slavery’s immanence is why white acts of private atonement are considered “conscience salves that do little to close the black-white gap,” William Darity, an economist at Duke University, told me. He calls symbolic actions “laissez-faire reparations” and argues that people who discover they have slave-owning ancestors are morally obliged to campaign for national reparations.

Because slavery was a societal institution, enshrined in the Constitution, and had societal consequences that have not been fixed, its reparation must be societal.

Still, with the internet revolution unveiling more family histories and efforts at a federal reparations movement stalled, there is a small but growing group of descendants of slave-owners conducting private efforts at atonement.

People I talked to are funding scholarships for black youths, putting up plaques in honor of people their families enslaved and engaging in dialogue aimed at promoting racial healing. They are writing books and making movies and documenting how the devastating inequalities set up by slavery were maintained during Reconstruction and the establishment of Jim Crow laws and the post-civil rights era. Universities, banks and other institutions are owning up to their past involvement with slavery.

People I talked to are funding scholarships for black youths, putting up plaques in honor of people their families enslaved and engaging in dialogue aimed at promoting racial healing. 

What to make of their efforts? Are they really useless? Isn’t something better than nothing? Do good intentions count for anything?

Guy Mount Emerson, an African-American historian who is part of the scholarly team that recently uncovered the University of Chicago’s historical ties to slavery, says that “symbolic action, even if it’s symbolic, may have the potential to heal current relationships.”

But Mr. Emerson, who has lectured on reparations at the University of Chicago, says that according to reparations theory, it is up to the people who were harmed to determine what might constitute sufficient restorative action. “It’s up to black folks to say when this is enough,” says Mr. Emerson. “It’s a very hard question: How do you forgive the unforgivable? How do you repair the irreparable?”

Under President Trump, white interest in private reparation efforts has been on the rise, says Tom DeWolf, a director at Coming to the Table, a non-profit based at Eastern Mennonite University that brings together the descendants of slave-owners and enslaved people. Since the 2016 election, the number of monthly visitors to the organization’s website has increased from 3,000 a month to over 13,000. The number of affiliated working groups has multiplied. They aim to inject more awareness into the public space about links between slavery and current inequalities.

Photo of John Miller provided by the author.
For years, the author writes, ‘My family had not talked about slavery. Now we did.’

This year, Coming to the Table released a 21-page guide on how to atone privately for slavery. It has over 100 suggestions, including donating to the United Negro College Fund, hiring African-American lawyers and doctors and contributing family archives to genealogy websites like Our Black Ancestry and AfriGeneas. African-American genealogies are often incomplete because enslaved peoples generally were not named in census documents until 1870.

“We suggest that before acting, European Americans should take their cues from African Americans as to when and how to approach and implement reparations,” the guide suggests. “African Americans may wish to engage in some of these activities so as to ensure that trust, healing and true reparations of the harms are achieved.”

The reparations guide also recommends supporting H.R. 40, a bill for which former Representative John Conyers Jr., Democrat of Michigan, campaigned since the 1980s. The bill, named after the 40 acres of land that newly emancipated African-Americans were promised and never given after the Civil War, would establish a commission to study the impact of slavery and suggest remedies.

Mr. DeWolf, who has written two books on the subject, is a descendant of a Rhode Island family that once controlled one of the country’s biggest slave-trading enterprises. Since the DeWolfs shipped 10,000 people from West Africa, they shaped the ancestries of as many as 500,000 African-Americans. In 2008, a DeWolf family member named Katrina Browne released “Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North,” a riveting documentary that highlights slavery in Northern states and chronicles members of the family traveling to New England, Ghana and Cuba and their anguished debates over privilege, legacy and reparations.

“We suggest that before acting, European Americans should take their cues from African Americans as to when and how to approach and implement reparations.”

“White people should think of reparations as a poker game where somebody has been cheating,” says Ms. Browne. “If somebody said I’ve been cheating the whole game and now I’m going to stop cheating, wouldn’t you want your money back?”

Whether your family owned slaves is “a question that anybody with Southern roots should probably ask themselves,” says Christa Cowan, who has researched slavery for Ancestry.com. The 1850 and 1860 censuses, available online, are valuable because they include so-called “Slave Schedules” that list the numbers, genders and ages of enslaved people. “Even if your family wasn’t wealthy, it’s worth checking,” says Ms. Cowan, who is white and discovered her own slave-owning ancestry and black cousins through census records. It is also a question for Americans from Northern states: In the 17th and 18th centuries, millions of Northerners owned slaves.

To be sure, even if the truth is available, many white Americans still do not like to confront slavery—and, when they do, they do not feel guilty about it. “Everybody likes to talk about how their ancestors fought in the Confederacy, but nobody likes to talk about how they owned slaves,” Bruce Levine, the author of The Fall of the House of Dixie, a history of the 19th-century South, tells me. “You can’t have one without the other.” A survey in 2016 by political scientists found that 72.4 percent of white Americans questioned felt “not guilty at all” about “the privileges and benefits” they “received as white Americans.”

Growing up in Baltimore in the 1950s, Phoebe Kilby never heard about her slave-owning ancestors. A decade ago, she found documents online that proved that her family had owned enslaved peoples. Further research led her to meeting several descendants of people her family had owned as slaves, including people to whom she was genetically related. She has befriended her black relatives, helped obtain funding for a Virginia State historical highway sign that honors civil rights activists in the family and endowed scholarships for their grandchildren. “We could wait for Congress, or we can listen to the expressed desires of our African-American cousins and respond directly ourselves,” she says.

Phoebe Kilby, center, recently met the writer Betty Kilby and her brother, James, descendants of people her family had owned as slaves.
Phoebe Kilby, center, recently met the writer Betty Kilby and her brother, James, descendants of people her family had owned as slaves.

The African-American writer Betty Kilby, one of Phoebe’s relatives and a plaintiff in a school desegregation case in Virginia in the 1950s, says she had “mixed emotions” when Phoebe contacted her, “but I had promised to fight against hate, so I had to meet her.” They are now close friends and speak together at churches, colleges and community groups. Ms. Kilby says she supports national economic reparations and says private initiatives could offer a template for a wider political initiative. “What Phoebe has done is provide scholarships for the descendants of the people her family enslaved, that is restitution,” she says. “Maybe that’s the model nationally.”

Some black thinkers say symbolic gestures are meaningless if not accompanied by a demand for political and economic reparations.

“It’s not a matter of personal guilt, it’s a matter of national responsibility,” says Mr. Darity, the Duke University economist. The persistent structural inequality in the United States is why even white Americans not descended from slave-owners should support reparations, because they have benefitted, says Mr. Darity. Reparations, he says, “should go to anybody who has an ancestor who was enslaved and anybody who has identified as black for 10 years or more.”

A growing body of academic research has firmed up the links between slavery and current inequalities. A lot of racism in the United States “developed after slavery,” says Sven Beckert, the author of Empire of Cotton: A Global History and a professor at Harvard. African-Americans “were free, but they faced harsh discrimination in labor, property and education markets, among other things.” Mr. Beckert compares the slow and still unfilled reckoning of American whites with slavery to that of Germany’s resolution of its guilt over Nazism after World War II.

The difference, says Mr. Darity, is that “the U.S. is not a defeated nation in the aftermath of a great war seeking to restore its legitimacy in the international community.”

In a recent paper, “Slavery, Education, and Inequality,” two European academics, Graziella Bertocchi and Arcangelo Dimico, studied the influence of slavery across U.S. counties.

They found that counties that once had rates of high slave ownership are not always poorer, but that they consistently had unequal rates of educational attainment. Current inequality, they wrote, “is primarily influenced by slavery through the unequal education attainment of blacks and whites.”

Over time, Ms. Bertocchi tells me, “even after accounting for many other factors, slavery remains a persistent determinant of today’s inequality. ”

There is no mystery: Our wrong is present.

Clarification, Nov, 30: This article updated to note that John Conyers is a former congressman.

J Brookbank
1 week 4 days ago

Thank you, America, for publishing this!

Tim O'Leary
1 week 3 days ago

Brookbank - This argument is ill-considered virtue-signaling at best, and conscious racism at worst. By this logic, all Irish Catholics could go after English Protestants for Cromwell’s atrocities. Or, in the ultimate extreme, all men could go after women because of the sin of Eve. The author claims some need to atone for his 1/32nd relationship with a slave owner (great-great-great-grandfather) to others who he insists on identifying solely in racist terms (as in black and white). Farmer Foscue possibly had many black descendants who are more closely related to him. Do they owe anything to anybody in this bean-counting atonement? If we find that Foscue was also anti-Mexican, anti-Catholic or anti-Semitic, does that expand the number of “survivor-descendants” needing atonement? This whole exercise is a racially motivated shake-down that has beguiled liberal self-identifying “white” people. The key racist element is to judge people by their ancestral lines, such as all Jews today for the death of Christ or all Arabs for the atrocities of historical Jihadi crimes etc. The only way to end racism is to have the standard that all people be judged only by their own acts and responsibilities, not for ancestors, or as groups or tribes.

Jill Evans
1 week 1 day ago

Agree. I don’t know if Catholics have always been encouraged to vote far left, but it certainly looks that way today. How does religion become so politicized?

Jack Mallory
5 days ago

Tim,
Thank you for your sane and necessary response to this. I couldn't have said it better myself. All those same thoughts were percolating in my brain while reading this article, and I was greatly encouraged to see that I didn't have to wait long to find a reality-based comment such as yours to counter the corrosive and ineffective strategy being suggested by the author.

Jack Mallory
5 days ago

[Duplicate post deleted]

Phillip Stone
1 week 4 days ago

Wrong.
Totally and absolutely wrong.
Karl Marx and his disciples did not give us the good news, Jesus Christ and His disciples did that. They did not even give us an economic theory which matched reality as numerous field tests have demonstrated.

You quite obviously did not consult the best "African-American" economist ever produced in the US, Thomas Sowell - he has a wealth of pertinent data to refute your thesis.

Almost all cultures for almost all history have consisted of collectives of individuals with UNEQUAL gifts, age, intelligence, beauty, strength, skills, size and sex.

Human efforts to change the above reality have been tried and punished - they are the equivalent of the Tower of Babel project.

Let us put slavery in historical context: the origin of the very word you use is revealing.
It derives from the ethnic origin of the people most commonly taken as possession by the abominable Mohammedanism many centuries ago - the Slavic peoples. Young, beautiful, white virgins were especially demanded by the Caliph.
Now, if we "whites" followed the perspective of your essay, we should be moaning and complaining and blaming and self-pitying as an underclass in the whole world and demanding that all the dark people atone for their sin and hand out reparation to us.

.

Dionys Murphy
1 week 4 days ago

"Almost all cultures for almost all history have consisted of collectives of individuals with UNEQUAL gifts, age, intelligence, beauty, strength, skills, size and sex." Wow! Your deep seated racism starts here and gets worse and worse. Seems like you're already moaning and complaining. About what I'm not sure given your privileged position and continuing assertion of privilege and oppression.

Phillip Stone
5 days 8 hours ago

I do not now, and never have, had anything to do with the North American continent nor had any sort of relations with any of the people who live there or come from there.

I hold, insofar as my expert knowledge of biology is concerned that the scientific concept race - when applied to people - there is but one, single, solitary human race Homo sapiens sapiens.

There are no human races, plural.

Are there people who have large differences in appearance as to size, skin colour and facial characteristics? Any fool can agree with that.

So, I will take it for granted that you mean to use race as is apparently modern American custom, not mine, to label people by their skin colour and place from which they migrated and talk of Irish-American, African American and so on.

Now, produce evidence that any part of what I wrote offends against justice, mercy and love or repent of you back-biting, calumny and detraction.

Dionys Murphy
1 week 4 days ago

"Almost all cultures for almost all history have consisted of collectives of individuals with UNEQUAL gifts, age, intelligence, beauty, strength, skills, size and sex." Wow! Your deep seated racism starts here and gets worse and worse. Seems like you're already moaning and complaining. About what I'm not sure given your privileged position and continuing assertion of privilege and oppression.

Michael Bindner
1 week 1 day ago

Marx gave us tools for analyzing the culture of capitalism. He did not leave a programme for his followers for what to do when the revolution happened (and most revolutionaries used the elevator speech to rule, not detailed marxian analysis). Marx assumed that socialists would act democratically in their own interests, so he left no clues. Modern Marxian thinkers, myself included, have or are developing more detailed plans and linking up with the cooperative movement stared in America in the late 19th Century by my great grandfather, Silas Locke Allen, and his fellows. Ever hear of Land O Lakes and the National Farm Bureau Federation?

Phillip Stone
5 days 7 hours ago

Marx used the neo-Platonic nonsense that was touted by Hegel as sound philosophy and produced a nonsensical alternative explanation for the continuance of mankind's inhumanity to fellow men in a regressive revolt against the already well-developed Judeo-Christian understanding of the fallen nature of mankind as described in Genesis.
All derivative philosophies share the absurdity of the original.

We know that in the real world, the native innocence of humankind untainted by capital was demonstrated to be a fairy tale when the expected uprising of the oppressed to overthrow the oppressors did not happen.
We know that instead of accepting that a theory predicted an outcome, the outcome did not confirm the theory and so true believers rather than accept it was falsified, concocted even more fanciful ideas.
We know that the Frankfurt School translocated to the US and continued their absurd dreamweaving to produce the current spawn of feminism, critical theory, political correctness and the like.

Dionys Murphy
1 week 4 days ago

Just as you and the generations in between inherited the education, wealth and property built upon the backs of these slaves and their families, their ancestors inherited struggle, poverty, inequity in wealth and education and oppression through generations. The very least you owe them is acknowledgement of this fact and the truth of the multi generational impact slavery and continuing economic slavery and economic slavery and cultural oppression continues to have on the descendants of these people.

J Brookbank
1 week 2 days ago

Beautifully stated

Tim O'Leary
1 week 2 days ago

Dionys - what if you just arrived in America? Should we ask each person coming in to pay an atonement tax for their race?

Tim O'Leary
1 week 2 days ago

Dionys - what if you just arrived in America? Should we ask each person coming in to pay an atonement tax for their race?

Rhett Segall
1 week 4 days ago

Each one's responsibility to restorative justice is legion: to women who have been denied equal opportunity by our ancestors; to native Americans whose lives have been taken and land been ravished; to the environment which we have polluted; etc, etc. Working to restore the evil done usually has to be done indirectly. We need to take care of ourselves so that we do not become a burden on society now or in the future; we need to be alert to legislation that will remove unjust structures; we need to educate our children to be responsible Christian citizens; etc. All these things need to be done according to our gifts and circumstances. Regarding African Americans, a crucial area of work is nurturing black families which were devastated by the institution of slavery. Any help in that area will be golden.

Jeffrey More
1 week 4 days ago

I cannot believe this article is anything other than a joke. In 1838, the Jesuits who ran Georgetown University at the time sold almost 300 of THEIR slaves to raise funds to keep their educational institution solvent. In the process, they ripped families apart. The Jesuits have since (recently) apologized, and they have set up some academic programs and renamed some buildings to honor the human beings they brutalized, but I do not believe they have yet forked over any monetary reparations. I think Mr. Miller should think long and hard about whether to cave in to frankly silly shake-down requests at least until the Jesuits pave the way by establishing the fair amount of THEIR reparations.

William Bannon
1 week 3 days ago

Jeffrey,
You can phone St. Peter’s Prep. in Jersey City and ask the Dean there such a question because that school has a substantial black student prescence which is aided by rich alumni for years. The Jesuits have a vow of poverty but they successfully persuade richer alumni to redistribute for students who really can’t afford to be there. Many Jesuits had they not joined the order and went to Wall Street would be very affluent men driving primo cars. They chose a non affluent life but they persuade former students to help black et al students.

Jeffrey More
1 week 3 days ago

Mr. Bannon,
Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I suspect, however, that the con artists who are trying to gin up the reparations scam do not have contributions to scholarship funds for worthy black students in mind when the visions of sugarplums start dancing in their heads. Nor do I think they care about any attribution of value to the self-sacrifice of young men who answer God's call to a vocation in the Jesuits. On the other hand, you do raise an intriguing idea that I suspect the Jesuits as an institution might find very appealing were they to buy into the idea of monetary reparations. Why not claim a credit for the value of scholarships for deserving black students and ((though this would be much more difficult to calculate) the incremental value of that portion of priests' vocation-related financial sacrifices attributable to the raising of such scholarships? This sort of approach would be a great boon to the accounting profession, and to lawyers (many of them Jesuit-educated). Parenthetically, while we're on the subject of credits, I had a great-grandfather who was shot at Antietam in 1862 while serving in the Army of the Potomac fighting to end slavery. Do you think I might be able to claim some sort of credit in the event this reparations idea gains traction?

Kelley M
1 week 3 days ago

Have you researched your ancestor? Gotten his records? Depending on when he joined the Union Army your ancestor may have been paid a bounty. Men volunteered for bounty land, cash, weapons, military school. There were many inducements offered before the Union used the draft.

Also veterans especially those wounded got pensions in many states and eventually from the federal government. Thought it was not compensation for being shot it was compensation for service during the Civil War and widows and children inherited benefits after the veterans death so your great-grandfather's widows and children got benefits until their deaths. As of 2018 Irene Triplet, the last living child of veteran Moses Triplet and his second wife Elida Hall (who was 50 years younger than her husband) still gets survivors benefits she is 87.

Reparations were paid to former slave owners in 1862 The District of Columbia Emancipation Act made it possible to compensate slave owners who were loyal to the union for the loss of "property" up to $300 per slave. There was a commission that heard petitions and approved compensation payments to over 930 owners to compensate for the loss of 2,989 formerly enslaved people. The British did something similar on a larger scale in 1833 when they paid £20m to compensate some 3,000 families that owned enslaved people for the loss of their "property" when slavery was abolished.

There was a National ex-slave Pension Movement that lobbied to provide pensions for former slaves. It was modeled after Veteran pensions and designed in particular to aid elderly former slaves who were unable to work and care for themselves. The first ex-slave pension bill (H.R. 11119) was introduced by Rep. William Connell of Nebraska in 1890. The movement developed a lot of grassroots support but was ultimately unsuccessful. Their proposals seem similar to Social Security offered to Seniors through the proposed plan included pensions for younger people who worked for years with no compensation too.

The irony looking back is that people who were exploited were never compensated for years of forced labor. While slave owners both benefitted from slave labor under the system of slavery and received compensation for the loss of free labor afterward in both the US and the British Empire.

Spencer Adam Cook
1 week 2 days ago

Yeah this article is ridiculous ... it's not our fault we shouldn't be held responsible for what our great great great great great great great great grandfather did we are not him it's over black people need to stop blaming all or their issues on the white man get over it

Ingrid Wisniewski
1 week 2 days ago

Interesting parable about the poker game in which someone cheated, then admitted to cheating, and the question is asked whether you wouldn't want your money back. Indeed, I might. But only if I played. And I did not, and neither did any of my generation. So no debt is owed.

Vince Killoran
1 week 4 days ago

Reparations is a political non-starter and not workable (and will not, as an article in Jacobin pointed out, address class inequality). Apologies and public acknowledgements have some value but there's a cynicism that has developed around these expressions that don't cost anything. If an individual or institution can locate descendants of enslaved people, as Ms. Kilby has done, that's terrific. There are so many generations gone, however, that this is quite difficult.

What to do? Continue to develop history curricula that reveals the labor of enslaved, indentured, and exploited workers in America. Pass living wage laws and labor reform measures for the working poor now. Economic justice is the solution.

Malcolm Thornton
1 week 3 days ago

What is one meant to do if they are descended from a long line of Protestant fundamentalistic abolitionist foes of slavery? Or if they are part Cherokee, whose ancestors were caused to be transported, by the slave-holding President at the time, Jackson, to new quarters in Oklahoma before assimilating some three generations later? This navel-gazing at one's genealogy does little good and could lead one to find that many branches end/(or is that) begin in debauchery, sin, righteousness, slavery, or whatever. How then does your author balance out the good, the bad, the righteousness, or iniquity of his forebear's many branches? As a methodology for determining the advisability of reparations, it is laughable. Please, if people need help in the present then let us help them and call it charity, not reparations. Personally, if my ancestors were abolitionists or slavers, it matters little. I never knew them, and I can not have been responsible for their behavior. I refuse to be made accountable for their sins in such a ridiculous and anti-historical manner.

Rhett Segall
1 week 3 days ago

Good insight, Malcolm! Add to our Cherokee that said person is a woman who's ancestors were totally dedicated to green energy and were Quakers. Would they be exempt from obligations to contemporaries suffering from injustices more or less connected with social injustices from the past? Makes you wonder.

William Bannon
1 week 3 days ago

There is no black or white person truthful enough to talk about reparations because the war on poverty gave multi billions since the seventies to the black community and because blacks are sinners like whites are sinners...billions were wasted on the welfare lifestyle which increased the illegitimacy rates of black children from 25% in the 1960’s to c.66% now.
But the fatherlessness it produced with their sinfulness....produced the black on black violence that has made large sections of many cities as dangerous as Guatemala.
I took care of a tough black girl for three years...tutoring her four nights a week on a heroin block in Newark, sending her to Catholic school, taking her and her cousins on trips to museums, beaches, parks. I didn’t do it for reparations ...did it for love...and never will give reparations until a great economist deducts the tax payer money blacks wasted on sin.....billions...from the reparations bill. Never will that calculation be made honestly until Elijah returns...and gets a degree in economics.

Frank Pray
1 week 3 days ago

The comment thread reveals how the tensions remain 154 years after the Civil War. The author makes positive suggestions about how individuals can make money donations to educational and social institutions that assist the African-American community to gain an equal opportunity footing. That is good because it may help, but more so, it reflects a personal awareness of one’s own presuppositions about inequality. The problem is that we don’t understand the forces that perpetuate inequality, and what we do not see, we cannot change. It is easy but mistaken to say African Americans are responsible for not achieving economic and social equality. Deeply entrenched economic and educational barriers have persisted across generations. We are making progress. We have not made enough progress however. Can we listen to one another? Listening is the essential first skill to making real progress for the next generation. Listening will allow understanding if it is true unjudgmental and unbiased listening that does not react. And listening is not easy. It means suspending our fears, our old ideas, and our self-image. The listening I’m referring to is one on one, as well as community to community, but in the end, each individual must cross a barrier of unconscious bias to engage with a fellow human being, see the world through the prism of their beliefs, and perhaps, just perhaps, be in some degree persuaded to change his or her own perception. Then right action will follow.

J Brookbank
1 week 2 days ago

Beautifully stated

Jim MacGregor
1 week 3 days ago

Deuteronomy 24:16
“Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin.

Ezekiel 18:19-20
“Yet you say, ‘Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?’ When the son has done what is just and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live. The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.

Ezekiel 18:1-32
The word of the Lord came to me: “What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge’? As I live, declares the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die. “If a man is righteous and does what is just and right— ...

And there are some verses that seem to indicate the opposite. Shouldn't that be the basis of discussion rather than someone's opinion that seems to be motivated by wanting to attract attention to himself?

Tim O'Leary
1 week 2 days ago

Jim - thanks for the Scripture. I would add to that what Jesus said about the blind man in John 9. There seems to be a great need on the left to invent new sins (the phobias, the reparations, dead-naming, GMO, some environmental positioning, etc.) while they deny the more obvious ones they commit themselves. I think the two are connected. Lady Macbeth "Come out, damned spot! Out, I command you! One, two. OK, it’s time to do it now.—Hell is murky!—Nonsense, my lord, nonsense! You are a soldier, and yet you are afraid? Why should we be scared, when no one can lay the guilt upon us?"

Mike Macrie
1 week 3 days ago

If you did not benefit or inherit wealth from your ancestor, the only thing you owe is not to be a Racist.

Roland Greystoke
1 week 3 days ago

Nothing. You did not own the slaves and you are only responsible for your actions.

Chris Lochner
1 week 3 days ago

Good for John W. Miller! My ancestors never owned anyone. This is almost embarrassing in its lack of current relevance. So, in the "Mea Culpa Wars" the score is John 41- vs. Chris 0. Enjoy your new, or newly, found celebrity status while wearing sackcloth and ashes in front of the congregation. We, and our ancestors, have all sinned. To make a spectacle out of repentance is most insincere. The Jesuits of Georgetown are a model for this type of behavior.

Tim O'Leary
1 week 2 days ago

Exactly right, Chris. I know of no crimes like this among my ancestors either but I bet I have some Viking in me and they have never given back to the Church what they stole from the monasteries. Like Elizabeth Warren, I have no native American in me either, but what if I found I had Iroquois blood at the 1/32nd. Would I need some atonement for all the violent acts they inflicted on other tribes. They ruled with an iron hand. Or, should the slave reparations extend to the descendants of the Hispanic or Arab traders or even the African tribes who first captured the slaves and then sold them to the traders. The reparations movement has a similarity to the abuse of indulgences in the 16th century, except that it is atonement for inherited sin rather than personal sin. In the 3 centuries of the Atlantic slave trade, 12 million Africans were shipped to the new world, only 4% to the modern US lands. Another 12 million went to the Muslim world. And the Muslims captured Europeans for over 12 centuries for their slaves. The fodder for reparation accounting is near endless. No surer way to perpetuate racial and tribal discord.

Richard Bell
1 week 3 days ago

Consider: “A lot of racism in the United States ‘developed after slavery,’ says Sven Beckert, the author of Empire of Cotton: A Global History and a professor at Harvard. African-Americans ‘were free, but they faced harsh discrimination in labor, property and education markets, among other things.’”
Because blacks lacked opportunities to learn and invest and work, the United States is much poorer than it would have been otherwise. My ancestors came to the United States from Europe after slavery. Jim Crow caused them and me to suffer deprivations of all the goods that blacks were prevented from contributing to this society. I too want compensation from descendants of those who enforced Jim Crow.
By the way, some of my more distant ancestors were Border Reivers. For many generations, my family preyed on the English. If the author’s English ancestors immigrated to America from the Middle Shires, I may be conscience-bound to make atonement. Would Mr Miller be content with my creating a plaque in their honor?

C Walter Mattingly
1 week 3 days ago

As the prominent African American economist Thomas Sowell has noted, the enslaved suffered a horrible fate. Quite different, on the whole, has been the fate of their descendants today, whether measured by wealth, health, or political freedom and opportunity. Had they remained in Africa, they would typically be greatly disadvantaged by all these measures. A tragedy for the enslaved, it became, in fact, an economic and political good fortune for their future descendants..

Colin Jory
1 week 3 days ago

The ever-so-'umble writer postures as being deeply Christian, penitent, dedicated to social justice, and intent on righting wrongs for which he shares responsibility. I suggest he take a reality check, and face up to the fact that his article is actually not nice, but deeply ugly and cryptically servile to injustice. It is servile to injustice because it is written in unspoken support of a toxically dishonest, irrational, and overwhelmingly White left-liberal power-cult in its endless quest to extend its power by forever expanding the "victimhood" industry which it controls and exploits.

Here's a question for the author. Recently I discovered that I'm the third-cousin of a famous Australian-born U.S. serial rapist-murderer, the so-called "Beauty Queen Killer", killed in a gunfight with police in New Hampshire in 1984. We have the same Irish-born ancestor, an honest man and devout Catholic who emigrated to Australia in the mid-1800s. Because I share relatively recent DNA with the evil predator, do I have a moral obligation to give material and emotional compensation to those of his victims who still live, and the relatives of those who don't?

Tim O'Leary
1 week 1 day ago

Good point, Colin. You certainly do not carry any guilt for the relation to the killer or virtue for your relation to the good honest Irishman. But, I expect the author of this piece or his supporting bloggers don't really care about this, since they won't see a racial angle in it, and they are so very desperate to see everything in racist terms.

bill carson
1 week 3 days ago

I think leftists should pay every penny they own into the first reparation fund they can find and write pieces like this. But if ya don't mind, could you leave your broad brush "white people" think and do this, that and the other that is evil out? I take NO responsibility for the sins of others. And while we're at at, if ya want to blame whites who had nothing to do with slavery, why not blame blacks as well? Yes, many Africans sold their own people into slavery as we all know. So make sure to bad mouth blacks, too!

Terry Kane
1 week 2 days ago

Amen brotha!

arthur mccaffrey
1 week 3 days ago

I am responsible for only one person and one soul--my own.

Helen McCaffrey
1 week 2 days ago

Well said "Cous".

Terry Kane
1 week 2 days ago

This is a Catholic magazine, right?
Has anyone heard of a quote from the Bible about the sins of the father? There are MANY which refer to this issue. One can only figure that the sins of the great-great-great-grandfather are of even less importance to those people living today.
If the writer wants to show how much virtue he possesses, fine; but to take direction from black economists and historians is silly. Taking the word of some European academics if of even less import. Perhaps a psychiatrist might be of more value because to think a 21st century person is in any way responsible for a great-great-great grandfather's actions and should now atone for that ancestor is insane in my opinion.
There is nothing about which Mr. Miller should feel guilt. His ancestor did nothing wrong, either - slavery was not illegal and at the time it was not immoral.
Throughout history all groups have done things we might find abhorrent today: until about 1970, France beheaded criminals; well into the 20th century, America had public hangings of criminals which were attended by people who acted as if they were gong to a picnic; child labor was a part of everyday life in England, etc., etc. Should we all beat ourselves with chains because of what happened in the past? NO.
We are only responsible for our own actions - period. If Mr. Miller chooses to be a philanthropist, great. However, to act as if it is his duty because of what someone who is related did two centuries ago is foolish, not admirable.

Dr Robert Dyson
1 week 2 days ago

My ancestors had done something wrong."

Can anyone join in? My father bombed German women and children in Dresden. Boo hoo; what shall I do?

Your ancestors did something that we now think is wrong, which isn't quite the same thing; and I wonder if the slaves' (possibly by now very numerous) descendants, if you can find them - which you probably can't - will really want you to come and weep over them? Let the past go; you can't change it, and this kind of virtue-signalling is self-indulgent at best.

lynne miller
1 week 2 days ago

The best way to repay any unfairness is to treat everyone with love and charity. Descendents of slave owners to black people, all Americans to Native Americans, and to Mexican laborers, and so on and so on. What is not right is to live your life like none of this ever happened, and as though you are entitled to everything your white privilege gains for you. I'm a pretty poor person, but I'm equally obliged to try to reduce pain and discrimination where it happens. No amount of money or anything else can make up for lives taken away from others who were forced to live in slavery.
The Talmud states: Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly now, love mercy now, walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.

J Brookbank
1 week 2 days ago

Beautifully stated

Rachel Ouellette
1 week 2 days ago

Lynne I applaud your response.

Tim O'Leary
1 week 1 day ago

Lynne - I know you mean well and you are right that the best antidote to racism is "to treat everyone with love and charity" - as long as you really do mean everyone. But, I feel your own "white privilege" is showing, in that you can only see obligations flowing from whites to everyone else, as if like a stream all non-whites were downstream to whites, and never the reverse. That is the essence of a white supremacist mentality, the same prejudice that motivated Rudyard Kipling to coin the term "the White Man's Burden." Racism will only end when we can think and act according to the principle expounded by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his "I have a dream" speech - judge everyone by the content of their character and never by the color of their skin.

Spencer Adam Cook
1 week 2 days ago

This is ridiculous.... it's not your fault what your ancestors did it's not our fault we are not our ancestors and I don't feel like we own anything ...what we should do is not continue the hate and learn to love each other

Mark M
1 week 2 days ago

Hmmm, ah yes.
Perhaps the good author should consider groveling on his knees in a sackcloth to the entrance the Atlanta archdiocese and remain their until Archbishop Gregory hears his very public confession for all that is on his very guilty conscience.
Failing that public confession, or as penance ffor his ancestor’s sins, the author could give every single dollar he has and every possession he owns to the NAACP to be redistributed accordingly.
Then, perhaps, someday in the future the author will be able to stand tall and guilt free.
Or not.

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