Two Women, Their Lives Connected by American Slavery, Tackle Their Shared History

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tags: slavery, racism, Alabama, reconciliation


We were an odd couple, Karen and I, when we first arrived at the Montgomery County Archives in Alabama. These days, descendants of both slaves and slaveholders come to the archives seeking the truth about their past. Rarely do we arrive together.

Karen Orozco Gutierrez, of Davenport, Iowa, is the great-granddaughter of an enslaved man named Milton Howard, whose life she has long worked to document. As a girl, Karen heard stories about her great-grandfather, who told his children he was born in the 1850s to free people of color in Muscatine, Iowa, but that when he was a child he was kidnapped by slavers and taken with his family down the Mississippi River. His first enslaver was a planter in Alabama named Pickett.

Combing through records online, Karen established that Pickett had owned two cotton plantations, Cedar Grove and Forest Farm, both near Montgomery. But in all her searching of slave inventories, she couldn’t find anyone named Milton.

The man Karen believed was Milton’s enslaver was my great-great-grandfather on my father’s side. My father, Richard G. Banks, was born in Montgomery in 1912, but he left his roots for the itinerant life of a career Army officer. I attended 17 schools in five states and two countries, reinventing myself each time we moved. This was not an upbringing that encouraged looking to the past. I barely identified with the person I’d been the year before, let alone with distant ancestors.

Yet the evidence was there. From my father, I inherited an archive about our Alabama kin: wills bequeathing family oil portraits; yellowed newspaper clippings about antebellum homes-turned-museums; hand-drawn genealogical charts. I called this trove “The Pile” and quarantined it in a closet. If these bits and pieces told a story, I wasn’t ready to hear it. But recently, when a reinvigorated white supremacy seemed to be asserting itself, I knew it was time to take the Confederates out of the closet.

Researching A.J. Pickett online took me to AfriGeneas, a website that helps African Americans trace their enslaved ancestors—and to Karen. On the site’s message board, I discovered that members viewed descendants of slaveholders, like myself, as potential sources of information, trading tips on the best way to approach us.

Karen had posted a note seeking anyone who might have information about an Alabama man named Pickett on whose plantation she believed her great-grandfather had been enslaved. When I wrote identifying myself as Pickett’s kin, she responded: “I have been waiting for this day!”

That was July 12, 2018. Over the next several months, Karen and I corresponded every few days. She asked me to look through my papers for any mention of slaves, any bills of sale or probate records. “Really just anything.”

I was sorry to tell her I’d found nothing to help with her search. Karen took this news graciously, and we continued to correspond. She wrote to put me at ease: “You didn’t own slaves.”

No reckoning would be adequate, I knew—but looking away was no longer an option. I wrote to Karen that I was thinking of going to Montgomery to look at the Pickett family papers. She suggested we tackle them together.

Read entire article at Smithsonian

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