Honor thy great, great, great, great grandfather

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 27, 2017

In 1825, James Micajah Greer died at the age of 75 in Clarke County, Ga. With 21 slaves listed on the census of 1820, he had occupied a place on the bottommost rung of the planter class of the Antebellum South, which consisted of those owning 20 or more.

In his will, Micajah left each of his “beloved children” a feather bed, a mare and saddle, a cow and calf. And, a slave boy or girl. To his youngest and apparently favorite child, Delilah, he left the same assortment of furniture and livestock. But two slaves, a boy and a girl. The remaining slaves were divided into nine batches “as near equal as possible” for which the heirs would then “draw for their lot.” In other words, all 21 people in bondage on the plantation would be scattered among several households.

No more details are available, but it is inevitable that sons and daughters were taken from their parents, that spouses were separated. Some of those households were nearby, so family members could still see each other from time to time. But not all were nearby, so some would never see their relatives again. The doubly beloved Delilah, for example, would soon move with her husband (and slaves) to Mississippi.

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This was American “chattel slavery” in action. It was a system in which each person in bondage was defined in law not only as property but as “movable” property, equivalent to livestock or furniture. To be bought and sold as a set, or separately. But also inherited, rented out, or used as collateral for a mortgage (and therefore, occasionally foreclosed upon). For those enslaved, it was the antithesis of paternalism. It was capitalism in its most brutish form.

Of the legendary “kindly masters” in such an inherently cruel institution, former slave J. W. C. Pennington tellingly said, “They are not masters of the system. The system is master of them.”

After all, the children on the Greer plantation were not stolen from their mothers by some despicable interstate slave trader to complete a callous sale, but as a consequence of the tenderly familial deed of passing an estate from a dying patriarch to his “beloved children.” An act repeated endlessly across the South. But by the very act that tore some families asunder, succeeding generations of another family were bound together emotionally and financially. Another family like mine.

Micajah Greer was my fourth great grandfather. The fortunate heir Delilah was my third great grandmother. Her son, Samuel McNees, was my second great grandfather. By 1860, he had built up an estate including 41 slaves, with many inherited from his mother and father, and others through his wife from her father. The productive/destructive ancestral legacy of human chattel was a great part of Sam’s success. It was a “heritage” he willingly fought for in the Confederate army.

So, no, I am not some Yankee moralizer berating the Antebellum South. I am a southern moralizer berating the institution of white supremacist slavery due to its disastrous effects on the Antebellum as well as the Postbellum South.

However, I feel no personal guilt over what is revealed in Micajah Greer’s will. I am not responsible for any of his actions. I am, though, intellectually responsible for acknowledging those actions honestly, and acknowledging their undeniable consequences over time. Quite literally, let’s remember, we dishonor our ancestors when we are dishonest about them. A straightforward accounting of their lives in context — nothing more, nothing less — is the only respect that Micajah and Delilah and Sam are owed.

But what if doing the honorable thing is also in our self-interest? In this case it is. As we’ll see next time.
Jim Wiggins is a retired Copiah-Lincoln Community College history instructor.