An Ancestor’s Legacy
In the United States Census of 1850, Charles Younger’s name was on Schedule 2, Slave Inhabitants in Blue Township in the County of Jackson, State of Missouri. It appeared, in the enumerator’s neat handwriting, under the column Name of Slave Owners. The other columns related to the enslaved: number, age, sex, color, fugitives, “manumitted,” and “deaf & dumb, blind, insane, or idiotic.” Schedule 2 did not allot space for the names of the enslaved. Thirty rows detailed the demographics of Younger’s human property: sixteen individuals aged twelve to forty, ten females and six males; and fourteen children aged six months to ten years old, seven females and six males with one four-year-old missing a gender classification. Two, probably more, of the individuals on this schedule were Younger’s progeny.
Charles Lee Younger was my fourth great-grandfather. Virginia, a daughter of his from whom I descended, was a half-sibling to the two enslaved youngsters whose paternity Younger conceded, making their offspring my cousins. She wasn’t listed on Schedule 2 because she was white.
Susan Neiman, in her book Learning from the Germans, notes that post-World War II Germans denied a connection to the Holocaust, claiming their husbands, fathers, and brothers who served in the military were not involved in the genocide. That was the work of the SS. Whether they knew it or not, Neiman demonstrates they were wrong. In a similar vein, most white Americans descended from antebellum families deny suggestions they have slaveholding ancestors. When I found out I have a forebear who owned people, I acknowledged the news, though I can’t say I wasn’t in denial. Without disavowing its authenticity, I dismissed the abhorrent nature of enslaving thirty people—in part because it took place one hundred and seventy years in the past, and in part because of its novelty and unexpectedness. And there was another reason.
In his will, Younger freed six enslaved persons: Fanny, Elizabeth, and their offspring. Fanny’s children were Nathan and Washington, and the twenty-two-year-old Elizabeth’s were Catherine and Simpson. In a codicil, he gave the women forty acres of land and the house he was living in when he died. Signifying he fathered Catherine and Simpson, he established a fund to educate them and a bequeathal of $1,500 each at age twenty-one. When I first read these provisions, I thought the codicil a hoax. But later I discovered other sources confirming its validity. Impressed, I felt good about his sensibility and his independence from the prevailing practices and beliefs of his peers. I deemed this merciful deed in his dying days somewhat offset his slave-owning sins. Then author Octavia Butler disabused my charitable judgment.
Well, it looks as though you have three choices. You can go to him as he orders; you can refuse, be whipped, and then have him take you by force; or you can run away again.
Butler wrote Kindred, a science fiction novel about a modern-day black woman, Dana, who finds herself transported to an early nineteenth-century Maryland slave plantation where she saves the life of the white owner’s son, Rufus. Throughout the story, she’s transported back several times, from when Rufus was a child to when he was in his twenties. In one scene, after Rufus’s father died and he takes over the plantation, Dana is talking to a young enslaved woman, Alice, with whom Rufus, her master, wants to have sex. Dana tells Alice, “Well, it looks as though you have three choices. You can go to him as he orders; you can refuse, be whipped, and then have him take you by force; or you can run away again.”
[Alice:] “What am I going to do?”
[Dana:] “I can’t advise you. It’s your body.”
[Alice:] “Not mine.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “Not mine; his. He paid for it, didn’t he?”
This passage caught my breath. Up to this point, I wasn’t troubled about Younger’s actions. My empathy muted, I was in the mode I go into when I see a car accident on the highway or when I read a headline about a midnight murder. These words drew me to an unavoidable conclusion.
Elizabeth was fifteen when her oldest, Catherine, was born. Younger was sixty-eight. The historical record doesn’t address if their union was consensual or forced, but the circumstantial evidence is overpowering. My fourth great-grandfather was a rapist. Reading Butler drove home that Younger did not entice, with his charm and looks, a teenaged Elizabeth to sex. The union wasn’t consensual. But in Butler’s portrayal, his cruelty came to life: He forced himself on a girl. A slave owner established their dominance in many ways. The most appalling and consequential was rape.
I can’t shake a memory of two uncles railing against blacks when the March on Washington took place in 1963. These brothers of my dad were angry at the protesters, both those with grievances as well as their enablers. They started by spouting racist stereotypes about lazy and criminal blacks, and then they enumerated those responsible for the black menace, going from the present to the past. As they one-upped each other, my uncle Bill came to what he considered a logical conclusion. “Direct the harshest wrath,” he said, “to the sons of bitches that brought them here and those who kept them here, those who made it possible for blacks to come and stay.” His surprising, ironic twist: Blame the slavers. My grandfather—Younger’s great, great-grandson—sat listening and, by remaining quiet, condoned his son’s curse, unaware of his forbear’s deeds.
Younger signed the codicil the day before his death. It replaced an original conveyance of 300 acres to Elizabeth and Fanny with less acreage, a house, and, for Catherine and Simpson, trust funds and educational support. To make his wishes clear, he wrote that the codicil, “be liberally constructed to promote the Freedom, Happiness, Education and Respectability of said Catharine and Simpson.” He underlined “Freedom” and “Happiness” in the original. He also expressed the desire that Catherine and Simpson use his surname.
In Kindred, Alice made a trade-off with her enslaver: She would not resist his advances as long as he educated their offspring. Later, she attempted to escape. After her capture, the master told her he sold the children. He had banished the two most important people in her life and, with them, her purpose for being. She committed suicide. But he had lied to punish her for her transgression, having sent the youngsters to stay with a relative. After Alice’s tragic death, he freed their children either out of compassion or guilt. It’s plausible that Elizabeth, like Alice, made a trade with her enslaver. She could have exchanged a large tract of land for other assistance in an attempt to enhance Catherine’s and Simpson’s futures.
While Younger had hoped for his heirs’ freedom and happiness, racial barriers blocked those aspirations. In the will, he described Elizabeth as having a “mulatto colour.” So, Catherine and Simpson, with one-quarter African heritage, had light complexions; and Catherine at times passed as white. Documentation of Catherine’s life is sparse. A friend wrote that she “took in washing, suffered the direst of poverty, but struggled to keep herself.” The chronicle of Simpson’s life is more detailed. In one noteworthy episode in 1888, he bought tickets in the orchestra section for a play, in advance, from a ticket-seller who assumed he was white. When he arrived at the theater with a black woman, an usher refused to honor their tickets and told them to sit in the balcony or leave. They left. Simpson filed a lawsuit but lost an appeal in the Missouri Supreme Court. A 1957 newspaper article about this incident, noting Simpson’s light skin, reported that he “resented being classified a Negro.” Simpson’s youngest daughter took umbrage.
Theodora Younger Telford wrote to the paper that her father didn’t resent being black. Echoing Octavia Butler, she said he “resented the white man, if for no other reason than that in slavery days, the white man used his helpless slave girls, not only for slaves, but for pleasure, too.” Writer Diane Euston confirmed Simpson Younger’s bitterness as expressed in one of his poems: “Yes, I’m an American that is true / But I have not the rights that white folks do.” He did feel resentment, but it wasn’t because he was “classified” as black. He resented the treatment he endured from being black.
Most of my white relatives, who are also descendants of Charles Younger, maintain that African-Americans are inferior, a scourge. They don’t want their kids going to school with blacks; they don’t want to live in the same neighborhood as blacks; they don’t want to work with blacks. I fantasize about telling these relations we have black cousins.
In the telling, I’d relate the story about Younger and Elizabeth and their offspring. I’d relish the distaste on their faces. I would want to rub it in; make it clear that Charles Lee Younger, well-off farmer, father of a score of children, assaulted an adolescent.
“He freed them, gave them educations, and generous sums of money,” my benighted kin would respond, using my facts in a bid to undercut me.
I’d say, “How can an old man have sex with and impregnate a young, teenage girl and not be a predator? A sexual deviant? By current law, he’s a rapist.” I envisage sticking it to them, knowing I won’t change their minds: I daydream but I’m not delusional.
I am related to an enormity, distant and tenuous, more abstract than real. This relationship would shame a principled person, but I only sustain vague regret and the uneasy desire to better understand the effect my forebear had. I’m unsettled. Charles Younger exemplifies oppressors who ignored moral bounds, yet his will hinted at an attempt to do right out of what looks like a sense of compassion or guilt. I’m unable to weigh his last written words against the terror and humiliation he imposed.
Like slavery’s existence, I can’t conceive its aftermath. Another slaver offspring, John W. Miller, wrote white Americans see slavery as an event that might strike an inquisitive chord, while it has left a mark on African Americans. It “is to black Americans a cruel, unavoidable ghost that haunts this nation’s cities, schools, hospitals and prisons.” Slavery’s onus persists, intrinsic to our culture and psychology.
In a recent conversation I had with an African American woman, she disclosed, without prelude, a murderer had taken her grandson’s life the week before and she had attended his funeral earlier that day. She spoke with little emotion. Stunned, I couldn’t say anything for a moment: Had I heard right? Her countenance remained impassive as she responded to my questions, saying he was her oldest grandchild, the son of her oldest daughter, and the killer, who had shot three others, was in jail. While her tone didn’t change, her quiet voice revealed sadness. A religious person, I assume she accepted what had happened as another cross she and her family must bear. I reason she has learned to absorb suffering. But my life has differed from hers to such an extent that my suppositions are pointless. For her, the murder of someone close, though not anticipated, is not out of the question. Disparate sets of circumstances have molded us: Mine, though sometimes frustrating, has fostered hope; hers, though sometimes hopeful, has brought despair.
Butler depicted more than sexual maltreatment. She gave vivid sketches of whippings finished off by pouring salt on the wounds, of a runaway having his ears cut off, and of constant, unpredictable terror. These images brought home a personal attribute I hesitate to acknowledge: Cruelty unnerves me. I wince at pictures of bodies piled into mass graves and of emaciated children dying of malnutrition. I’m unable (or is it unwilling?) to pore over accounts of the Holocaust or lynchings and to grasp the suffering wreaked on the vulnerable by “normal” human beings. Because they’re daunting, I haven’t dwelled on my forefather’s sins.
What I know about Charles Younger evokes discomfort, but what I know is a fragment of his essential nature. Using the passing of time and his limited beneficence as excuses, I held an image of a flawed character who revealed promise. Whereas I disregarded the crueler aspects of his history, I can’t ignore that elements of his depraved behavior have survived through the generations—his posterity littered with racists. Still, genes don’t transmit depravity; it’s a product of upbringing and social forces. As part of a community and society that sustains cruelty, I’m uncertain I can keep up the singular effort needed to oppose it, for it will require I confront my ancestor’s legacy and overcome hard truths about myself.