Last year, with the opening of the Washington, D.C. memorial, our country rightfully honored the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The reverend’s powerful voice called for the non-violent protest of the civil rights injustices African-Americans faced on a daily basis.
Learning about Dr. King’s speech and our American Civil War history in elementary school, I remember thinking, “I wished I lived north of the Mason-Dixon line. Those who fought to free slaves didn’t come from my neck of the woods.” Whenever the Civil War came up, I always was interested in finding out about slavery. Many argue that slavery was not the issue of the war. However, slavery still remains a horrid mark on the legacy of young America. And though slavery was prominent in the South when it was abolished, it was not limited to the southern states. In fact, New York has its own troubling slave history.
Digging Up the Family Roots
As a TV-watching kid, I saw quite a few shows dealing with race. One sitcom in particular tackled the issue in such a way that its clear message has stayed with me ever since.
Saved by the Bell, an early ’90s popular teen show, aired an episode in its second season called “Running Zack”. Zack Morris and his Bayside High School friends discover their roots as they complete an ancestral research project for class. During the show, Jessie realizes her ancestors were in the shipping industry – slave ships. Hearing that her friend Lisa’s ancestors were slaves, Jessie wants to make up for the guilt she feels over her family’s past. But, Lisa reassures Jessie that the sins of her ancestors aren’t hers to bear.
Their conversation hit home with me. At a young age, I discovered my great-great-grandfather Elisha was a slave owner from North Carolina. When I first heard this family history, I felt utterly ashamed as Jessie did. Years later, more of the story was shared with me. The selfless acts of my great-great-grandfather’s slave, Elijah, saved my ancestor’s life during the Civil War. Elijah rode a horse about 100 miles to recover my injured great-great-grandfather at a war hospital outside of Richmond, Va. Elijah walked next to the horse carrying Elisha, stopping along their route through the war-torn countryside to care for my ancestor’s life-threatening wounds. Instead of taking the opportunity to seek freedom for himself, Elijah trudged on, determined to get Elisha home. In gratitude, my family gave Elijah’s family freedom and split the farmland, giving them portions of the property (land Elisha’s descendants still own today).
Hearing this incredible family story of how my great-great-grandfather was saved by the man he “owned” touched my soul. It’s a true-life picture of how even the gravest of sins — ruling over another man — can be forgiven. It’s comforting to know that our God can bless a generation despite the sins of their fathers. These many years later, we are helpless to change the past or remedy the wrongs. All we can be eternally responsible for is what we believe, say, and do today.
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