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 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.


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 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.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Dr.Cajetan Coelho
6 months 3 weeks ago

Healing is a process and complete healing takes time. No one can tell how much and how long.

Helen McCaffrey
6 months 3 weeks ago

My great grandparents operated an UNDERGROUND RAILWAY stop in Pennsylvania. They suffered for .My great grandfathers alsao fought for the Union.And Suffered due to the experience. Should my family be compensated for it? Neither collective guilt or virtue exist and the CONSTITUTION is the first legal western official government document to END the slave trade .It did not enshrine it.

J Jones
6 months 3 weeks ago

Helen, your ancestors used their race-based freedom well. Many many thanks.

Stanley Kopacz
6 months 3 weeks ago

You always see ancestry dot com commercials where the speaker says "Oh, I found out my great great grandfather invented sliced bread". You never hear "Oh, I found out my great great grandfather raped slaves and mutilated captured escapees". Born in sin, come on in.

Jill Evans
6 months 3 weeks ago

This opinion is literally too black and white. What about the large number of Americans whose ancestors were mixed race? If they have fair skin, that has it’s benefits, yes. But not all had “old money” passed along. Not all were part of the upper class. Further; how is it that one is responsible for the choices his grandparents made?

J Jones
6 months 3 weeks ago

John, your story has stuck with me. I admire your commitment to participate so fully in the life into which you were born: a family which bought and sold and owned human beings and any children born alive --- as recently as 150 years ago. This means your people chained human beings like cattle; beat human beings like cattle; auctioned human beings like cattle. This means that at least one of your people or am employee of your people likely raped at least one of these dehumanized humans and fathered at least one child he would own and sell like cattle --- as recently as 150 years ago.

The barbarity of that reality, so recent we have ****photographic**** evidence, should be an inescapably present reality in this country.

It most certainly IS a generational horror. Your people bought a women and owned, at birth, every child born before June 19, 1865, every grandchild born before June 19, 1865, every great grandchild born before June 19, 1865.

Your blood family lived in freedom. Your enslaved family lived in chains owned and locked on to their ankles by your blood family --- as recently as 150 years ago.

Are you to blame? No.

Is your family history intimately and barbarically and forever linked with the history of living members of your enslaved family?


God bless you for making peace with that reality...and attempting to make peace through sharing resources and honesty with your enslaved family.

Tim O'Leary
6 months 3 weeks ago

Brookbank, you really have it in for John Miller. You might even persuade him that he has made a mistake in bringing this opprobrium on his "people." You recount his "people's" crimes in detail, as if his 1/32rd defined him today. I don't know your lineage but the Brookbank name has been in the US well before the liberation of the slaves, so it could well mean, using your metric, that your people are far more culpable than just 1/32nd. Do you have an obligation to find out if "your family history intimately and barbarically and forever linked with the history of living members of your enslaved family?"

Rachel Ouellette
6 months 3 weeks ago

I read America Magazine and readers comments’. So many responses shock me. This is a perfect example of a discussion that completely leaves Christ out of it. There are thoughtful and genuinely Christ-inspired responses, but many don’t even look at the problem past a legal view point. Ex. My parents weren’t even in this country at the time. My ancesters fought for the north. What about other countries who benefited from the slave trade should they pay for this. Etc.,etc., etc. Pretend that each of these arguments were presented to Christ. What would His response be. Ex., I have been working in the field all day. Why are the late comers getting to same reward? We are fortunate to live in this country. We benefit from the wisdom and labor of people that came before us. But our country is not gifted to us problem and sin free. As Americans we thank God for our privilege and accept the challenge continuing the journey toward a more just and less sinful community. Yes we owe the black people in this country. How that would happen I have no idea, but if we can put people on the moon, we can do it. What about a day of celebration for the black contributions. I know MLK day is sort of it. I’d like a more 4th of July day or St Pat’s. The Native Americans have also been robbed. America is not finished. It’s ongoing. Start now and fix it. This country is in a crisis. Isn’t anyone else worried? Sorry for the rant. Your thoughts.

Jim MacGregor
6 months 3 weeks ago

And, oh by the way, can we identify the African Americans whose ancestors were African American owners of slaves for them to pay reparations also?

Rhonda Johnson
6 months 3 weeks ago

Thank you John for publishing the article. More importantly thank you for recognizing that a LOT is owed to those who are now being called African-Americans. And WE will and should make the decision of what restoration is. I find it very interesting in the comments below of those that admit they are immigrants do not want to take any ownership of the benefits they reaped on a SLAVERY, WAR RIDDEN SYSTEM!!! The very land you stand on today is STOLEN through BLOOD. The empire that the 'forefathers' claim they built was on the backs of SLAVERY and FREE LAND. There is countless documentation on the many wars that occurred on these lands so YOU could benefit. Not to mention some of those supposed immigrants were also brought over as INDENTURE SERVANTS, a nice way of saying white slavery. Who by the way worked the fields side by side with the African Slaves and tawny Indingenous Indians also BLACK (very few Africans were brought over because it was cheaper to bring in indenture servants from the old world, and to enslave the EXISTING Indingenous People on the land. Who knew how to work the land) So while you state your flawed arguement of why you feel you DO NOT owe anyone anything, as you stand on STOLEN LAND; You might want to look CLOSELY at your ancestory. Were you decendents of White Slavery? (If so, you are OWED AS WELL!!!) Did your ancestors own slaves? Or did you come later and benefited from a system of theft and slavery? Do your research and know where you truly stand with your BLOODLINE. Or just keep your head buried in the sand that it doesn't apply to you. The choice is yours, but know what is currently known as the United States WILL NOT continue to STAND until all TRUTHS are TOLD and JUSTICE is served.

Just a little point of history for you where Benjamin Franklin (an Immigrant) had a very tell all on Immigration into the new land. You take a look at the admission of the black tawny's across this planet, including the Americas and how he wanted America to remain White and Red (Red representing a mixture which is NOW known as the Native Americans)

Excerpt: Which leads me to add one Remark: That the Number of purely white People in the World is proportionably very small. All Africa is black or tawny. Asia chiefly tawny. America (exclusive of the new Comers) wholly so. And in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes, are generally of what we call a swarthy Complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who with the English, make the principal Body of White People on the Face of the Earth. I could wish their Numbers were increased. And while we are, as I may call it, Scouring our Planet, by clearing America of Woods, and so making this Side of our Globe reflect a brighter Light to the Eyes of Inhabitants in Mars or Venus, why should we in the Sight of Superior Beings, darken its People? why increase the Sons of Africa, by Planting them in America, where we have so fair an Opportunity, by excluding all Blacks and Tawneys, of increasing the lovely White and Red? But perhaps I am partial to the Compexion of my Country, for such Kind of Partiality is natural to Mankind.


Respectfully, a re-classified Indigenous American decendent of slaves

Tim O'Leary
6 months 3 weeks ago

Help me Rhonda - in your system of reparations, how much do African-Americans owe those European immigrants who died in the civil war to make them free? If we follow your logic, wealthy African-Americans should seek out the descendants of those who lost family members in the Union army and atone for their loss. More money might be sought for slave descendants from descendants of some Africans who became very wealthy capturing slaves and selling them to the Europeans. The BBC did a report (link below). “In the early 18th century, Kings of Dahomey (known today as Benin) became big players in the slave trade, waging a bitter war on their neighbours, resulting in the capture of 10,000, including another important slave trader, the King of Whydah. King Tegbesu made £250,000 a year selling people into slavery in 1750. King Gezo said in the 1840's he would do anything the British wanted him to do apart from giving up slave trade: ‘The slave trade is the ruling principle of my people. It is the source and the glory of their wealth…the mother lulls the child to sleep with notes of triumph over an enemy reduced to slavery…’”

Deanna Johnston Clark
6 months 2 weeks ago

What can you do? Be respectful to everyone, poor, nicely dressed, badly dressed, whatever. There are many more slaves alive today than in the South before the Civil War. These slaves have no holidays and no time off after the harvest. Often they aren't allowed to go to church or even prayer groups. Many are in prisons on plea bargains for things they never actually did. Perhaps, to keep this personal, like you want to do, you could check the labels in your clothes and the origins of your electronics and Christmas toys. Then, since you care so deeply, use self restraint in buying anything from sweatshops or slaves. Keep it minimal or fair trade. You asked!

Rory Connor
6 months 2 weeks ago

In 2017 Baltimore had the worst rate of homicide in its history, the previous worst was 2015 and the intervening year saw a slight DECREASE in deaths but accompanied by an INCREASE in shootings. Evidently Baltimore doctors are becoming expert at treating gunshot wounds - as in war zones - and the higher the number of casualties the greater the proportion they can save.

Nearly all of these are Black on Black killings. Should we blame the legacy of slavery? What about trying Catholic social teaching on the importance of marriage, the family and personal responsibility? Wasn't Baltimore the first Catholic diocese in what is now the USA?

Before the Baltimore Sun became unavailable in Ireland (due to EU Data Protection rules) I read several mock-surprised comments by - presumably white - readers along the lines: "But we removed the Confederate monuments!" Their sarcasm was perfectly justified and articles like this only serve to justify their cynicism.


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