At 88, He is a Historical Rarity — the Living Son of a SlaveHistorians in the News
tags: slavery, African American history
The boy, barely 5, would listen, awed, as his father spoke of life in Virginia, where he had been born into bondage on a plantation during the Civil War and suffered as a child laborer afterward.
As unlikely as it might seem, that boy, Daniel Smith, is still alive at 88, a member of an almost vanished demographic: The child of someone once considered a piece of property instead of a human being.
Long after leaving Massies Mill, Va., and moving up North as a young man in his 20s, Smith’s father, Abram Smith, married a woman who was decades younger and fathered six children. Dan, the fifth, was born in 1932 when Abram was 70. Only one sibling besides Dan — Abe, 92 — is still alive.
It’s not possible to know how many people alive today are the children of enslaved people, but we shouldn’t be so surprised that they still exist because the generations since slavery can be counted on one hand, said Hilary Green, an associate professor of history at the University of Alabama. “We don’t want to talk about it because we as Americans … we’re always forward thinking. We never think enough about the past.”
The American tendency toward selective memory applies doubly so to slavery, Green said. “How do you remember this violent period in history, the owning of people? It does not fit our narrative that we tell about ourselves. … We ratify the myth rather than deal with the truth.”
After his father died in 1938, Dan Smith picked up where Abram’s life left off, witnessing decades of the nation’s racial history — the injustice of Jim Crow, the grief and glory of the civil rights movement, the elections of the first black president and then Donald Trump, and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. He watched the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis caught on cellphone video, horrified, and wonders where this new unrest will lead.
All along, Smith created his own history — as a medic in the Korean War and a hometown hero who rescued a man from a flood. He’s been chased on a dark road by white supremacists in Alabama as a foot soldier in the fight for civil rights. Smith was there when a young firebrand named John Lewis roused the crowd at the March on Washington, and he linked arms with activists in Selma across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
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