Honoring My Ancestors: For Heather Heyer

Me, on the set of the Dukes of Hazzard, 1977

“In an era of great division, a point that is often missed in the Confederate monuments debate is that most factions rightly agree that history should not be erased. The question is in how it should be remembered.” — Dr. Susannah J. Ural, “Let Us Speak of What We have Done”

Ancestry.com is a Pandora’s Box. I always knew that there were wealthy slaveholders on my mother’s side, who owned large plantations in Georgia before the Civil War. But I had been told by my father that they were the exception, not the rule; and that his ancestors had been of a different class, working poor who couldn’t have owned slaves even if they’d wanted to. But the hours I’ve spent on research have disproven any imagined innocence of my paternal line. Census record after census record show that many of my predecessors on both sides owned slaves. Some may have owned just a few, but others hundreds. Sometimes the first names of these slaves are listed in census documents, but more often not, as they were considered property. There are no records of them beyond that, where they were from or where they were buried. Their descendants can’t build family trees.

All of my ancestral lines came to America early. They turn up in the first censuses taken in colonies in what are now Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas. A few were Pilgrims, several were Quakers (something I never knew) and a number were Huguenots (far more than I realized) who came here to escape religious persecution. Some came as indentured servants or prisoners of war, some as wealthy planters or traders. I’ve found four ancestors accused of being witches in colonial Massachusetts, and one hung for heresy. Many fought in the Revolutionary War, and many would fight in the Civil War, for the South. I qualify as both a “Daughter of the Revolution” and a “Daughter of the Confederacy” many times over. In other words, I’m the product of settler colonialism, both Northern and Southern.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was that one branch of my family tree was triracial (Native, Anglo, African). My great, great, great grandmother was Annie Jean Jacobs of North Carolina. The North Carolina Jacobs have been multi-racial for generations, and can be traced back to one slave, Gabriel Jacobs, who was freed around 1690. My father told me that my grandmother had some Native American ancestry, although he kept changing the name of the tribe: Tuscarora, or Waccamaw, or Lumbee. He didn’t say anything about her African American ancestry because it had been a family secret, I think, for years. Studying the census, I can see that my Jacobs ancestors made a choice around 1850 to present as white; they had previously identified as free people of color. Other Jacobs identified as Native Americans, and I have found records that classify the same person as “Mulatto”, “White”, and “Indian”. The more that I look, the more stories I uncover about the “tri-racial isolates” (as anthropologists call them) of North Carolina. Their histories are case studies about the complex realities of racial identity in early America. I can see on paper the effects of changing laws (for example the one-drop rule) on the Jacobs over generations.

I wish I could share these discoveries with my father, but he isn’t speaking to me, because I don’t like Trump or the Confederate flag.

***

When people ask me where I am from, I tell them Atlanta, Georgia. If they ask me if I consider myself Southern, I say yes. I suppose if I tracked all my days from the ages of 0 to 18, most of them would have been lived above the Mason Dixon. But I spent the first 6 years of my life in Georgia, and my ancestors have lived in the South since before the Revolutionary War. Moving as a child to the most Yankee of places—Mystic, Connecticut—didn’t change that.

For those who aren’t locals, Mystic is beautiful historic village on the coast of Connecticut, close to the Rhode Island border. The Mystic Seaport is there, and the Charles Morgan, the only wooden whaling ship left in the world. Mystic is a place where the lines between past and present constantly blur, and it is easy to time travel there (especially as a teenager on acid).

After my stepfather got a job at the Mystic Seaport, he moved us into a house on Pequot Avenue, a street that cuts across the hills above town, running parallel to the river, down to the sea. Clift Street climbs up from the river to meet Pequot Avenue at its top. At the intersection of Clift and Pequot, there is an odd little roundabout, just a circle of grass, that forces drivers around it for no discernible reason. The roundabout isn’t a speed bump or an abandoned garden; instead it served for many years as the base for a statue of John Mason, a local colonial hero.

Mason’s statue was erected to commemorate a raid that he led on the Pequot tribe in 1637, afterwards known as the Mystic Massacre: “Major John Mason… said, We must burn them, and … brought out a firebrand, and putting it into the matts with which they were covered, set the wigwams on fire. Within minutes, Mistick Fort was engulfed … In one hour, more than 400 Pequot men, women and children were killed.”

The Pequot War is a pivotal moment in colonial history; the tribe was vanquished so the English could continue to take over Connecticut. Mason’s statue was placed near the approximate location of the Pequots’ fort, and its purpose was forthright: it was to mark, in space and time, the successful displacement of natives by settlers. The local people (including some Mason descendants) who devoted themselves to the cause of raising a memorial on Pequot Avenue—a considerable investment of time, energy, and money—did not question his heroism. Their intention was that the statue would evoke awe and gratitude in its viewers. After all, without Mason, there wouldn’t be white people in Mystic, or Connecticut for that matter.

As a kid, I didn’t understand that my house was built where hundreds of Native people burned to death. But the woods behind our house scared me, and I never explored it. I waited for the school bus at Mason, sometimes leaning against him, or climbing over him, or chasing my friends around him. I read the inscription on his base again and again—“Erected AD 1889 By the State of Connecticut to commemorate the heroic achievement of Major John Mason and his comrades, who near this spot in 1637, overthrew the Pequot Indians, and preserved the settlements from destruction”—but I didn’t wonder about the story being told, let alone the stories being left out. He was huge, bronze, and he had a sword. Looked like a hero to me!

But as I grew older, my feelings about Mason and his statue changed. I was not alone. Mason and his troops, despite their best efforts, didn’t kill off all the Pequots, and descendants of the massacre survivors still live in the area. After getting federal recognition in 1983, they built a huge casino on their reservation, Foxwoods, which became a spectacular success. Regaining economic and political power in Connecticut after centuries of marginalization, the tribe again became a force to reckon with, and they directed some of that force at taking Mason down. For them, the statue was an insult, the equivalent of a murderer doing a victory dance on top of his victims, and its removal was imperative. After years of efforts by activists, Mason was relocated, peacefully, away from the site of the massacre, leaving only grass behind. There was some local fuss but certainly nothing like the deadly riots over the Robert E. Lee memorial in Charlottesville. My stepfather, an old Yankee through and through, was fascinated by the archeologists digging around his yard. He did not protest Mason’s removal, unlike some of our neighbors, but he was once a history teacher, and better prepared than most to think through the complexities of public memorialization.

***

When the topic of Confederate memorials started appearing in headlines a few years ago, my first reaction was their removal was a bad idea. I imagined all the statues in little towns across the South, and then Charlottesville-style violence erupting at each one because of outsiders coming into peaceful communities. Leave those statues alone, I thought, don’t make trouble!

But then a friend from Mystic reminded me of Mason coming down. The statue’s removal and relocation were reparative acts. Instead of just accepting history as told by “the winners”, Pequot activists demanded acknowledgement of other perspectives. For them, Mason is nothing to celebrate; he destroyed their culture. By challenging the established narrative of his heroism, they made room for other views, for example that colonization is a cruel and destructive process, based on theft and murder. Their perspective is valid, and could apply to many other memorials on American soil as well.

My initial resistance to the removal of Confederate memorials was due to my consideration of only one side of the story. There are several men in my family tree who fought for the South. My mother’s elderly relatives in Eatonton, Georgia, still referred to “The War” and told stories passed down about Sherman’s March (his troops stole all the food but spared the Steinway piano). My father told me more times than I can count that the display of Confederate memorials and flags is intended to “honor our ancestors”. What he never mentioned, and still doesn’t seem to consider, is the perspective of the descendants of slaves. The Civil War and its aftermath are still quite present for them too, but there aren’t any flags or statues for their ancestors, although they suffered much more than ours did before, during, and after “The War”.

Many of my ancestors once owned slaves, and fought a war so that they could keep on with that owning. There is no way to separate that truth from the existence of Confederate memorials. Public sculptures aren’t just gravestones, created to honor individual family members. They are monuments in common space that everyone sees while going about their daily business. In my opinion, we should certainly remember and memorialize our dead, but we can’t ask (or force) others to honor them, as Confederate statues in public space demand. There are many bodies in Southern ground unmarked by even the smallest of stones: the bodies of people stolen from their families, then abused, and then buried in strange soil. We should remember and honor their lives too, rather than continuing to erase their histories.

***

Two years ago, in July 2017, I attended a festival organized by my father, Ben “Cooter” Jones, at his Dukes of Hazzard museum and store in Luray, Virginia. Although I was glad to be with my family, I was uneasy about everything else. My father had created the festival as a response to the ongoing controversy over Confederate symbols. It had been two years at that point since the Charleston shooting, and during that time, my father had doubled-down on his defense of Confederate flags and memorials, even serving as spokesperson for the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Because of his role as Cooter Davenport on The Dukes of Hazzard, my father still has a certain celebrity. His events can draw thousands of fans. As a public figure, his opinions carry weight and have consequences outside our family. While wandering the midway, I tried to laugh with the crowds at the monster truck races and wrestling matches, but what I really felt was dread. I kept repeating “freedom of speech, freedom of speech” to myself, as if that would fix what was going on around and inside me. My father’s anger at “Political Correctness” was spilling out more often, both onstage and off, and he was directing some of it at me, the lefty, queer New Yorker. The audience gave him validation for his beliefs, something I could no longer do.

In August 2017, just a month after my father’s festival, a group of white supremacists held a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, a town an hour south of Luray. They came to protest the removal of the Robert E. Lee memorial. They flew Nazi and Confederate flags, burned torches, and chanted racist and fascist slogans like: “Jews Will Not Replace Us.” During the rally, James Fields, a neo-Nazi, rammed his car into a crowd of counter-protestors, killing Heather Heyer and injuring almost 20 other people. He was sentenced to life in prison for this act, after pleading guilty to 29 hate crime charges.

My father is holding another festival this summer, two years almost to the day of the Charlottesville riot. I wonder if he chose the dates that he did because he is aware that some of his fans were likely at the rally in 2017, flying Confederate flags purchased from his stores. Perhaps he is trying to offer them an alternative venue for their complaints, to make things safer for them and for those they disagree with. I hope so.

I’m sad about my estrangement from my father, because I love him, no matter what differences we have. This is not our first falling out, and perhaps we will be able to reconcile again. But it is more likely that our Civil War will continue. My father is furious because he feels that his freedom of speech is under assault, although in reality he remains completely free to fly the Confederate flag and to state his beliefs. And I’m furious too, about his demands that I respect and agree with ALL of his opinions, while not being allowed to have any of my own. It is an oppressive dynamic, a dictatorship rather than a relationship, and a double standard that is no longer acceptable to me.

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Reader Comments

  1. Jedah Mayberry

    It’s interesting the stories we fabricate to shield ourselves from the unsavory details of our family histories. There’s something noble in growing up working-class poor, pulled up by our bootstraps, the wrong side of the track providing a creditable jumping off point. It is convenient for me to believe my family tree is not descendent from African slaves. Despite two corners of my square rooted in the south – Savannah, Georgia and Houston, Texas, I take solace in knowing that we are West Indian (Guyanese) and Native (Blackfoot Indian) in equal measure.

    I am most troubled when the dividing lines between groups of people are drawn exclusively along the gross differences between us – skin color, country of origin, place of worship/religion. When an attacker sizes up their target from a distance, based on a single characteristic used to distinguish a group he, for his own outmoded reasons, has elected to vilify, with no regard for individual worth. Whether in Charlottesville or Charleston or Pittsburgh or Baltimore or Orlando or Ferguson or Staten Island or El Paso or… The list is staggering.

    I wonder what AncestryDotCom would have to say about our collective consciousness as a nation. How would that entry read? Would my father have crossed paths with your father? Born and raised in Harlem, my father landed in New London and later Groton after signing up to serve his country. He retired at the rank of Lt. Cmdr culminating a twenty-two year Navy career. Could my grandfather have known your grandmother? Your grandfather my grandmother? How long ago did the tide turn against factions packing in so tightly to stifle any meaningful outside interaction? How far backwards have we slid as a nation to make relishing in our differences fashionable again?

    • Jedah Mayberry

      I’m holding out hope for the pendulum to swing back in the opposite direction, for anything to begin to make sense again.

      Excellent read. Looking forward to more.

      • R V L Jones

        I am right there with you, hoping and praying that things get better soon.
        Thank you very much for reading the piece and your feedback!

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