Thursday, September 04, 2014

Slavery and the sins of our fathers (and mothers)

The Justice Department apparently will announce this week plans to open an investigation into the civil rights record of the Ferguson, Missouri, police department.

Although it wasn't intentional, I launched a far more modest civil rights investigation this week, too; into the record of a branch of my family --- the Rheas of Virginia, Kentucky, southern Illinois and Lucas County, Iowa. This involved pulling files of records and notes accumulated during 40 years of family history research and plugging away again at narratives that make sense of this big pile of paper.

I've written here before about the Rheas --- of New York Times crossword complexity among genealogical puzzles. Not only did the Rheas have a limited repertoire of names --- Elizabeth, Mary, William, Thomas, John and Robert --- they intermarried extensively in early generations. My great-great-great-grandparents, Richard and Elizabeth (Rhea) Rhea, were first-cousins and so were Elizabeth's parents, Thomas and Mary "Polly" (Rhea) Rhea. Polly and Elizabeth are buried at Bethel Cemetery, out east of Chariton. Their less sturdy Rhea spouses rest in Barren County, Kentucky, and Sangamon County, Illinois.

The patriarch and matriarch of this family were William and Elizabeth (Clark) Rhea, who died respectively during 1802 and 1804 in Bath County, Virginia. I have copies of both their wills, acquired years ago from the Bath County clerk in Warm Springs.

Of the two documents, Elizabeth's will, written on Nov. 20, 1804, three days before her death, is the most interesting (that's a relevant portion of it in the illustration here). 

We learn from its detail that Elizabeth loved her books --- a copy of George Whitfield's Sermons was willed to one of her grandsons named Robert; and she added the following provision near the end of the will, "I wish none of my books to be sold but to be equally divided between my children."

And that she was a righteous woman, concerned for the spiritual welfare of her family. Under the will, her son, William, all grandsons named William, her daughter, Elizabeth, and all her grandchildren named Elizabeth or Betsy were to receive Bibles and copies of Isaac Watts' Hymns and Spiritual Songs, first published in 1707-9.

But then there's this provision of her will, which follows other detailed bequests: "Ninthly, I order and allow my three negro children named Samuel and Toby and Ben to the sold with their mother, together with all my horses, cows, sheep and hogs ...."

And on the next page, somewhat more benignly, "I order and allow my negro man Thomas eight dollars to be paid in cash and one rifle gun and a man's saddle which he now claims. I likewise order and allow eight dollars to be paid in cash to my negro woman Daughfeney."

Elizabeth actually had little control over the destiny of these two slaves. She had received them under the terms of her husband's will: "I leave to my beloved wife Elizabeth Rhea one negro man slave named Tom and a woman slave named Dafney during her natural life, and then to be sold and be as my movable estate." 

She also had inherited outright from William, "a negro child named Sam" not mentioned in the later will.

And there you have it, spelled out in the will of a modestly affluent colonial Virginia matron, one of the great contradictions of American history: Elizabeth loved her family and her books and seems to have been a student of Scripture --- a true pioneer --- but she also was willingly complicit in the great evil of slavery.

Elizabeth's descendants scattered like buckshot, but many moved west into what became Kentucky, then turned north into southern Illinois and southern Indiana in search of inexpensive, productive land for their large families.

Her son, James Rhea I, had predeceased his mother during 1795 in what became Barren County, Kentucky; and his son, James Rhea II and wife, Rachel Jolliff, moved their family of nine children north from Kentucky to Sangamon County, Illinois, west of Springfield, where they became neighbors and acquaintances of Abraham Lincoln.

During 1833, the "Island Grove (Baptist) Church, Friends of Humanity" was organized in the Rhea family cabin in Island Grove Township, Sangamon County. "Friends of Humanity" signified that it was an abolitionist congregation and the congregation sometimes was known as Emancipation Baptist Church. James and Rachel Rhea's son, Richard Rhea, was ordained a Baptist preacher here and served as its pastor from January 1839 until his death during November of that year.

After Richard Rhea's death, his widow Elizabeth married Thomas Etheredge and they brought their blended family farther west, arriving in Lucas County, Iowa, soon after 1850.

During 1863, Elizabeth --- like her first husband a great-grandchild of that Elizabeth Rhea of Bath County who had so routinely disposed of her slaves at death during 1804 --- sacrificed two sons to the Union cause during the Civil War --- Robert Etheredge, who died of disease on April 9; and James M. Rhea, who died of wounds, on 25 July at Vicksburg, Mississippi.

One of the great debates among white folks these days in relation to race involves residual guilt and accountability for the sins of our forbears. It's a form of national debt and an open wound that most likely won't be paid off and healed unless logical steps toward atonement are followed --- acknowledgement, lamentation, repentance and recompense. We're still a ways away from that.


jan pederson said...

Ta-NaHesi Coates writes quite eloquently on the subject for the Atlantic.

He is well worth following.

Ken said...

Frank, I wonder if either of the wills you mention in this post are scannable? If so, would you be willing to send me copies? I'd like to post them on