Today, around the country Episcopal churches are joining in the ringing of their church bells to mark the occasion of the 400th anniversary of the first enslaved Africans brought to the British colony of Virginia. While these were not the first enslaved Africans in what would be known as the United States (the Spanish had brought enslaved Africans as early as the 1560s), the arrival and sale of those “20 and odd Negroes” marked a shift that would lead to an institution of chattel slavery that would become distinctly and peculiarly American.
The Union of Black Episcopalians offered a Collect and Prayers for this commemoration. One bidding stood out to me:
Remembering God, lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget you, stir in us a passion to hold the stories of those who have come before, that we may tell it to our children and our children’s children. By your might; Lead us into the light.
I don’t have access to a church bell to ring today, but I can tell a story. Cognizant that I am a white middle-class person, with all the privileges that go along with that in the 21st Century United States, I offer my story as an invitation for folks similar to me to do some soul searching and truth-telling. This work should not supplant the story of what is memorialized but should be done as an offering to honor those held in slavery and those that continue to be oppressed under institutions built on the foundations of slavery.
So here is my story . . .
I remember being a little kid and being fascinated by the stories that my grandfather would tell about the generations of Hudlow’s that went before us. My grandfather was continuing the work of other family members of updating and adding to the “Hudlow’s in America,” which recounted the generations of our family. I am a 9th generation Hudlow, and as a kid I loved to turn to “my” page in the book and see my name.
Our family myth (which is part truth, part fiction) was that our original ancestor, Andreas Huttenloch, came to America by way of Philadelphia in 1753. Because he could not afford his passage he was “sold” as an indentured servant. It appears that he served his indenture as a tenant farmer and was able to build a cabin and purchase land once he had paid off his debt. Andreas would marry and have 9 children. My family descended from the second son, Andrew George, and this branch of the family would stay in the South in North Carolina and Georgia.
Being a southern family, a page in our family history listed those who fought in the Civil War, on both sides, though more is written about those that fought for the South. On my branch of the family tree, attention is given to my direct ancestor Michael Kimsey who was not yet 16 when he enlisted and was taken prisoner. There is nothing said about the causes of the war, just a simple listing the stories passed down and the facts gleaned from military records.
My grandfather could tell these stories. He loved history and our family history in particular. When I would spend summers with him, I recall him working on the genealogy book or newsletter, typing away at a word processor. I also remember going to the Atlanta Cyclorama and being fascinated by the retelling of this Civil War battle, not aware of the myth of the Lost Cause.
Nowhere in those word-processed pages or in the stories my grandfather told (as best I can recall) was there any discussion of slavery, though just by geography, slavery would have been unavoidable by our family. But there was no mention of that and how my family might have connected to that peculiar institution. And I must confess, I never thought to ask.
In 2018, I was part of the Alabama Poor People’s Campaign 40 Days of Direct Action. It was during this season of jumping feet first into organizing and building a movement to stand against the distorted moral narrative that is used to support systemic racism, poverty, militarism, and ecological destruction, that a question crept into my mind: Did my family own slaves? (This was followed by: and why have I never asked this question before?)
A quick trip to Google connected me to a searchable database of the 1850 U.S. Slave Census. I quickly typed my last name into the search bar. I paused and took a breath before I hit enter. Once the button was hit, the results returned quickly (the advantage of an unusual last name). And there was the answer: Yes.
My great-great-great-great-grandfather, Michael Hudlow in Lumpkin County, Georgia, owned one enslaved person, a 30-year-old Mulatto female born approximately 1820. My great-great-great-great-great uncle, Andrew Hudlow, in Rutherford County, NC, owned four enslaved black people: a 37-year-old female born 1813; an 8-year-old male born 1843; a 5-year-old male born 1845; and a 2-year-old female born 1848.
At first, I thought well maybe my grandfather just did not have access to those records, after all, much of his work was done pre-internet. But then as I flipped through the pages of our family history, I saw a photo. The details had gone fuzzy because it was a photocopy of a photocopy, but the caption read Michael Kimsey Hudlow with his surviving children. That was the same Michael Kimsey that we liked to tell the story about enlisting before he was 16 and being taken prisoner. This was the same Michael Kimsey that was the grandson of Michael Hudlow who owned a 30-year-old Mulatto woman and was the nephew of Andrew Hudlow in Rutherford County NC. This photo of Michael Kimsey was taken in 1931 when my grandfather would have been 20 years old.
This black and white photo reminded me of the reality that those men that own slaves and who fought in the Civil War were not from some time long, long ago, and that my grandfather would have known Michael Kimsey. Some of those stories my grandfather told me, may have come straight from Michael Kimsey. Somewhere along the way, that most recent unpleasantness—an economy and society built on slavery, and my family’s connection to it—was quietly left out.
My grandfather passed away in 2009, so there is no longer a chance to ask him what his grandfather might have told him about those days. My grandfather did leave behind his genealogical research and his own memoirs. He also passed to me a love of storytelling – including the big story of God and our faith, the history of nations and communities, and of the small story of our family.
And so now what? What do I do with this new information?
We are still a family that was founded by someone that had the courage to get on a ship and come to a strange world with not even enough money to pay his own way. By the grace of God, I am here and am the legacy of 9 generations of folks that went before me, and I still have a sense of awe when I look at “my” page in the family history book.
I think the answer is that I need to continue to be a storyteller, but when I tell the story, I must tell it more completely.
Today, people will remember a moment in our larger history when the die was cast for our country. We are still living in a world shaped by those centuries of slavery. That sin has not yet been repented. That illness is not yet cured.
If our country is ever to be healed, we have got to start telling the truth, and for white folks especially, we have got to let go of the myths that comfort us into complacency. We must go to places like the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum, and see and listen to our true history. And we must make sure that the stories (big and small) we tell are more truth, even if painful, than fiction.
Collect for the Commemoration of the African Diaspora
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, you who have brought us thus far on the way with Christ, the one in whom is our true and perfect freedom. Give us grace to honor the lives of your precious children, enslaved in body yet free in mind. May we forever stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before and make no peace with oppression, that children of slaves and former slave owners may one day live in harmony; through Jesus Christ our liberator, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, One God for ever and ever. Amen.