Barbershop: Reckoning With The History Of Slavery

Aug 25, 2019
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to spend the last few minutes of the program today marking something that has been very difficult to talk about openly and honestly in this country - slavery. That's starting to change. This month marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of enslaved Africans at the British colony of Virginia, and many different groups have been acknowledging this occasion.

The New York Times published a wide-ranging and deeply reported special issue describing the imprint of slavery on institutions from the legal system to popular music. Yesterday, officials in Virginia held a special ceremony acknowledging the arrival of enslaved people. And the National Park Service has designated today as a day of healing. The event includes the ringing of bells in national parks throughout the country. Churches nationwide are doing the same, including the National Cathedral here in Washington, D.C.

But this moment is more than a series of events. It's a public reckoning, and we wanted to talk about how this is taking place. And we wanted to talk about this with people who've been deeply involved in this work. And that's why we're taking this discussion to the Barbershop. That's where we talk about things like this.

Here now are Rachel Swarns. She's a contributing writer for The New York Times and an associate professor of journalism at New York University. She's done extensive reporting on how Georgetown University and other prestigious institutions profited from slavery and how they are confronting it or not confronting it.

Rachel, thanks so much for joining us.

RACHEL SWARNS: Oh, happy to be here.

MARTIN: Niya Bates is the director of African American History and the Getting Word oral history project at Monticello - which is, of course, Thomas Jefferson's plantation in Virginia. It now serves - the house and the grounds all serve as a museum.

Nice to have you with us. Thank you for joining us.

NIYA BATES: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And Sherri Burr is professor emerita at the University of New Mexico School of Law. She's the author of "Complicated Lives: Free Blacks In Virginia, 1619-1865." And if that last name sounds familiar, it is. She is a descendant of a large family of color that the third vice president, Aaron Burr, kept secret - or, at least, it was secret until recently.

Sherri Burr, welcome to you as well. Thank you for joining us.

SHERRI BURR: Thank you. It's my pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: And, Niya, I'm going to start with you because in a lot of ways, Monticello embodies what we're trying to get at here. I mean, the institution has always had to confront Thomas Jefferson's legacy as a founding father - I mean, the author of some of this country's most exquisite words about freedom and human dignity - and he's also - was also a slave owner who had a lengthy relationship with an enslaved woman whom he never freed. And I wondered if the acknowledgement of slavery at Monticello, the way it's described - has that changed over time?

BATES: Absolutely that has changed over time. Within the past 20 years or so, Monticello has really made a concerted effort to incorporate the lives of the enslaved community into the history that we interpret for the public. That looks like tours of the landscape of slavery along Mulberry Row, the plantation main street, and also in the form of the oral history project with direct descendants of people who were enslaved.

MARTIN: And how are people dealing with that? I mean, how are visitors dealing with that? I have to tell you that at times, when I've been at Monticello with my family, I have found it somewhat discomforting that, you know, you see - you find people going to, say, the quarters, the - for the enslaved people there and having people say things like, oh, it doesn't look so bad or not wanting to hear about Sally Hemings, for example. I want to talk a bit more about that. How - what's been your experience in engaging people with this work, with this new research, with this new conversation?

BATES: Definitely. I've been at Monticello for a little over three years, and in my time there, it seems like most of our visitors have been overwhelmingly receptive to the work that we are doing to increase the amount of information that the public receives about the enslaved community and their lives at Monticello. It would be a great disservice if people came and didn't hear about those families and those individuals.

MARTIN: And, Rachel Swarns, you've been reporting for some time on Georgetown University and how it profited from the sale of more than 200 enslaved people, many of whom were part of intact families, at least until they were sold. And then you followed on that work, most recently reporting on the orders of Catholic sisters. And you said that almost all of those orders back in the 1800s owned slaves. And what I found fascinating about your reporting is that you indicated that a lot of the people who have been a part of these institutions didn't know that. And I wonder what that reporting experience has been like when you've shared your findings with people who are connected to these institutions.

SWARNS: You know, I think it's - you know, you can imagine what it's like to find out this kind of history. And, as you've pointed out, it's history that's painful and uncomfortable. And people learning that their ancestors were owned by the Jesuits in the case of the founders of Georgetown or by Catholic nuns is very unsettling. At the same time, I think it's important, and it helps us to understand just how foundational slavery was, you know, in the development and the growth of many of our contemporary institutions.

MARTIN: And, Sherri Burr, can I ask, how did you discover that you are related to Vice President Aaron Burr?

BURR: Well, I was doing research for my "Complicated Lives" book about African Americans who were free before the Civil War. And in my maternal line, I found that my second great-grandfather had been born free in Virginia in 1847, living on the farm of his great-grandfather, who had been born in 18 - I'm sorry, 1785 and then liberated from slavery as a 2-year-old through a deed of manumission.

And after I finished researching my father's maternal line, I decided to look at my family's paternal name, which had always been a secret from my brother and me. We were told that there was something special about our family name, but we were never told what it was. And in doing that, I looked at Aaron and the fact that he had this relationship with an East Indian woman after my brother and I had taken a DNA test and found out that we were part English and had a little microcosm of East Indian blood. And that made me look closer at Aaron Burr and his relationship with Mary Emmons.

MARTIN: So are you now invited to - are the gatherings of the Burr descendants - are you now invited? And what's that - what is that like? I think many people may remember that there - the whole question of Thomas Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemings was very fraught for many Jefferson descendants for quite some time, and I obviously want to hear more about that. But, Sherri Burr, what was your experience? Have the Burr descendants been welcoming to you?

BURR: Absolutely. So after I presented my research and particularly the DNA testing of myself and other John Pierre Burr descendants in comparison to Aaron Burr cousins, then they voted unanimously - oh, my goodness. They voted unanimously to acknowledge that Aaron Burr had fathered John Pierre and his sister, Louisa Charlotte. And then they also voted unanimously (laughter) to make me third vice president. So they've been very welcoming.

MARTIN: Well, that's exciting. So, Niya, talk a little bit more about that. Is, like - for example, it was just last year that Monticello opened an exhibition about the life of Sally Hemings, who lived as a slave at Monticello. There is very compelling evidence that she had a longtime relationship with Thomas Jefferson, birthed children by him. And as I mentioned, this was not something that many people wanted to accept for quite some time. What has been the response at Monticello to this? And how are people engaging with this?

BATES: Sure. We opened the exhibit about the life of Sally Hemings last summer, during the 25th anniversary celebration of the Getting Word oral history project. I think it's important to note that Monticello started working with the descendent community and directly with descendants of Sally Hemings and the other families who were enslaved at Monticello before the DNA results came out. So I would say that Monticello has made concerted effort to center Sally Hemings' narrative as a main takeaway for our visitors. We're making it a space where it's safe to have difficult conversations about slaveholders and enslaved women and rape and consent and all of the challenging family dynamics that that presents for people studying their history.

MARTIN: And how do you do that? How you make it safe to talk about something like that? And even the word rape is so fraught for some people.

BATES: It is fraught. I think we make it safe by giving people space to process the information. So many times, these subjects are taboo around the dinner table, at church, at school. But Monticello's a space where you come together with people you don't know on a tour. And our guides work very hard to build that rapport, build that level of trust in the 35-minute tours that they offer. So we hope that after visitors experience those tours and engage with the exhibit about Sally Hemings that they feel comfortable asking questions that challenge their assumptions about enslaved people, about slavery and about the legacies of slavery.

MARTIN: And, Rachel, I'm going to give you the final word. Is there something that you have learned about reporting on these sensitive subjects in the time that you have? I will note that not everyone is loving the Times' deep reporting on this. I note - I will have to note that some conservative writers have kind of gone ballistic, saying that the Times is rewriting history. And, of course, history is constantly being rewritten, isn't it, with - as new information emerges, as people actually go looking for information that was already there. So, Rachel, do you have some thoughts about how to engage on a question like this that's still challenging some people's self-concept?

SWARNS: Yeah. I think it's hard history, and that's just the truth. And I think it sits uncomfortably with a lot of people because, you know, the narrative that we embrace as Americans is this idea of equality and justice for all. And, you know, like that slavery thing - that's long ago, doesn't have anything to do with us. And wrestling with it in the here and now is difficult, and it makes people uncomfortable. But I think there's no doubt that we have to do it.

And in a lot of ways, as difficult as it is, I'm encouraged. You know, I think it's really great that, you know, The New York Times, obviously, and other publications are diving into this. And even - listen. We're in a moment. You know, you've got the Democratic field talking about reparations. And, you know, so I think we're in a place where we're beginning to have these conversations.

MARTIN: That was New York Times contributing writer Rachel Swarns. Niya Bates is director of African American history and the Getting Word oral history project at Monticello. And Sherri Burr, law professor and author of "Complicated Lives: Free Blacks In Virginia 1619-1865" and descendant of Aaron Burr.

Thank you all so much for speaking with us, and thank you all for your important work.

BURR: Thank you.

BATES: Thank you.

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