Yesterday I spent some time on the phone with a lay genealogist. He was nice enough to help me out in my quest, and actually assist me in tracing my great-great-great grandmother back a bit further. As it happens the gentleman, who is white, has an ancestor with the same last name as my ancestor. As it happens, his family is also from the Eastern Shore, Worcester County. The name is not a particularly common one (Smack) and those who share it all live in the Snow Hill area, right up the road from my mother's family seat of Berlin. He had never encountered any African-American Smacks before.
It's long been family lore that my mothers people were not slaves. A lot of us laughed at that, given how black folks, of a certain generation, tend to be ashamed of slavery. Apparently, the lore is at least partially true. In 1860, my ancestors (in that line) were free and, apparently, relatively prosperous landholders ($900 in land, $3000 on hand.) Where does a black man (listed as a mulatto) get access to those kind of resources in the upper South, in 1860?
The places this could go are absolutely dizzying. The "white Smacks" have been in this country since the 1600s, and came to Maryland from Virginia. Tobacco farmers I'd bet. The "black Smacks" could be anything from the descendants of black indentures. They could be the freed descendants of a union between a slave and a slave-master. Or they could just be people who knew how to mind their money.
I am not a religious man. But there is something about retracing the steps of your ancestors--a chill sweeps over you, a mixed sense of the inevitability of death, and the irrelevance of it. For a moment, as an individual, you almost feel yourself ceasing, but with that comes this sense, this awareness, that you never were an individual. You were part of something else. That something else dissipates around 1820, into the smoke of incomplete census records and possible bondage. Or not. And then the thing I started with--the strangness of a white man, on the other end of your phone, a possible distant cousin.
Brothers are not quite ready for this. Still I hope to see Berlin in summer.
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is a national correspondent for The Atlantic
, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of The Beautiful Struggle
, Between the World and Me,
and We Were Eight Years in Power