racism · Spirituality

Confessions of a Southern White Woman

I have struggled with this blog post all week. Talking about race is hard, especially in the South and especially for those my age and older. I consider myself open-minded, Christian, loving, and educated, yet I find that over and over and over I must dig deep to root out the prejudices that are deeply ingrained in me .

I grew up with a framed picture of Robert E. Lee on the wall of our den. My father considered him the epitome of a Southern Gentleman and the general was one of his heroes. We had a Black maid who came at least once a week to clean our house, more often when I was little. I wonder now what she thought of that picture.

My parents were not racist, and I saw them make the conscious decision to change their views throughout their lives. They taught me to be respectful of everyone. Considering their childhoods in the Jim Crow South, they came a long way. In 1963, my father was part of a committee to help peacefully integrate Wilson, North Carolina, and it was an eye-opening experience for him. My mother commented before she died that she and Queenie, the last maid who worked for them for thirty years, sat down together for a sandwich and a glass of tea at lunch. She would not have imagined doing such a thing in earlier years.

Growing up in the sixties and seventies, I was taught that the Civil War was not fought for slavery, but for states’ rights, for freedom to do what each state wanted (which included slavery). The Yankees were the evil soldiers who destroyed the peaceful South out of meanness and because they could.

Gone With the Wind was one of my favorite movies until just a few years ago, when I began to recognize the lies inherent in it —that perhaps all slaves were not so devoted to their masters as Mammy and Prissy. It’s interesting that there was more scandal around Rhett Butler telling Scarlett at the end of the book/movie “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” than Scarlett slapping young Prissy across the face for  telling a lie about knowing about birthing babies.

I wanted to find a true picture of the history of this land that I love. I started reading works by Black authors and true diaries and accounts of what it was really like to be owned by another person. I learned that an enslaved person’s life was not one of happy spirituals sung under the shade tree, but an existence of fear, misery, and helplessness. Even under the best circumstances, a slave did not have the ability to decide where she would live, what would become of her children or what job she would do. There was little incentive to work hard other than hopes for some small reward. The South of Gone With the Wind was harsh and violent.

Last fall I visited my cousin Scott and his wife Debra at their home outside Washington, DC. While there I went to the new African American Museum of History and Culture and to Mount Vernon, among other stops. Both were eye-opening, but Mount Vernon stuck with me the most.

As a child, I loved learning about Colonial history and had visited George and Martha Washington’s estate with my family. In the last fifty years it has been expanded to include the adjacent farms and to tell the stories of the hundreds of slaves that worked the crops, fields, and stables. They kept the house going and food on the table for the family and their many guests.

In Mount Vernon’s gift shop, I picked up Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge by Erica Armstrong Dunbar. The small book recounted the true story of Ona Judge, who despite having what many might consider a ‘plumb’ slave job —who wouldn’t want to work for the President and live in a beautiful home? — made the decision to slip away to the North while living in the first Presidential Mansion in Philadelphia.

Martha and George were shocked and angry. They assumed that someone, probably a free Black man living in Philadelphia, had hoodwinked her, possibly gotten her pregnant, and lured her away from their loving home. But the reality was that Ona had heard rumors that she was going to be ‘given’ to Martha’s newly married niece and knew that this young woman was a hard mistress. Leaving behind her family and all she had ever known, she took advantage of being north of the Mason-Dixon Line and ran.

Something about Ona’s story struck a nerve in me. I’ve always defended our Founding Fathers for their slave holding, and Washington did free the slaves he owned after his death (the ones owned by Martha had to wait a while longer). But reading about this real woman and her determination to live life under her own terms, no matter how difficult, gave me the barest taste of what she may have felt.

I am listening now and doing my best to hear the pain that still lives in so many men and women today. The terrible sin of slavery grew from greed and fear and a sense that one group of people is better than another. Its effects are with us today, a hundred and fifty years after it was supposedly abolished.

I’m not where I should be yet, but I hope I’m on the road. As with other weaknesses in my life, I have to pray each day for God to open my heart and help me to continue to grow in grace.

And I am sure that God who began the good work within you will keep right on helping you grow in his grace until his task within you is finally finished on that day when Jesus Christ returns. (Phil. 1:6, TLB)

7 thoughts on “Confessions of a Southern White Woman

  1. You said my thoughts well.. thank you! I grew up like you did. I’m struggling just like you. One. Days at. A. Time. Learning!
    Rebekah

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  2. What a loving and thoughtful post, Millicent. The Ron Chernow biography on Grant is also eye opening about the misinformation we Southerners were given about Grant and Lee. Phil and I read it during the lockdown.

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