November 20, 2007
This article is the second by David Pettee on his exploration of his family history. Pettee's research led him to the discovery that his ancestors had been slaveholders and traders.
The day after Thanksgiving in 2006, as I was reconnecting with my family's history as New
England slaveholders, I contacted Keith Stokes, an expert on early
Newport, Rhode Island, African American history. As I talked
with him, I began to sense his impatience. He urged me to resist the temptation
to be satisfied with just uncovering my own family history, and challenged me to
locate a descendant of an African who had been enslaved by my family. In doing
so he hoped I would more fully understand and experience accountability.
I took his challenge
seriously, but was dubious that I would be able to identify a slave owned
by my family. Yet one day, while reviewing the probate inventory of Jonathan
Simmons, the son of my ancestor Edward Simmons—a Newport slave holder—I
noticed that someone named Cuff Simmons had submitted a bill to the estate. The
name Cuff grabbed my attention. Every other Newport resident with that first name was of
African descent. When I found a probate record that identified Cuff Simmons as a
"colored man, deceased," I began to wonder if there might be some kind of
After many months of active research with primary source records, I could come to no other conclusion
other than this one: Cuff Simmons had been enslaved by Edward Simmons from
1772 until 1800. What had been an anonymous legacy sprang to life. I set out to
see if Cuff Simmons had ever married, and if so, if he had raised a family
and might have living descendants. It dawned on me that this was no longer my
While most African Americans were no longer enslaved in Rhode Island by 1800, public documents rarely
share much about their lives. I was fortunate to find a land deed that recorded
the sale of a parcel of land that Cuff had inherited through his wife Hope when
she died in 1830. My heart rate quickened when I learned that this same land parcel had been
originally purchased by my ancestor and later sold to the uncle of Hope Simmons.
The land passed through Cuff's descendants, one generation after the next, until
1940 when it was finally sold. Early in the twentieth century, most of Cuff's descendants had left
Newport and settled in Jamaica, New York. It turns out that they have lived in
that same New York City neighborhood for nearly eighty years.
My search for a living
descendant of Cuff Simmons finally concluded after cross-referencing a name in the 1930 Federal Census with the same name in the 2006 Jamaica, New York phone book. I
found the widow of Cuff's great-great-great grandson right where I expected she would be.
The decision to contact
an eighty-seven year old woman out of the blue with a fateful story involving
slavery is no trivial matter. In imagining how I might approach her, I
spoke with Amy Potter of the Center for Justice and Peacemaking at
Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. She was an organizer of their "Coming to the Table"
project, which in 2006 successfully gathered together the descendants of
former slaves and slaveholders for dialogue. She assured me that in her
experience, when whites were willing to reach out to blacks to acknowledge a
familial history involving slavery and slaveholding, the response was
usually warm and appreciative.
Comforted by her words, I
drafted a letter to this elderly woman with which I shared history, hoping to
explain this convoluted story: who I was, the historical connection between our
two families, and my desire to share what I had learned in person if she was
interested and willing to see me.
Two weeks passed with no
response. Since I had her contact information, I swallowed hard
and placed a phone call. Patricia, the daughter of the woman I was trying
to reach, answered the phone. Caught off guard by the voice of a clearly younger
person, I asked Patricia if her mother had read my letter. Patricia imagined that if her mother hadn't
recognized the handwriting, she would have thrown the unopened letter away.
"What was the purpose of your letter?" Patricia asked.
Somehow, I awkwardly
sputtered through the basic details of the story. When I asked Patricia if
she had ever heard of Cuff Simmons, she responded, "Of course. He was one of my
ancestors on my grandmother's side." I felt an overwhelming sense of relief.
Over the next few weeks, Patricia and I spoke several more times about meeting.
In advance of my visit, I sent a notebook containing all the documents that
linked our two families, and two books that chronicled the life of Sarah Harris,
her great-great-great grandmother.
In 1833, Sarah
Harris had become a student at Prudence Crandall's School for Girls in
Canterbury, Connecticut. The enrollment of a black student set off shock waves across New England. Local
Unitarian minister Samuel J. May became a critical supporter. The ensuing
controversy eventually led to the passage of racist legislation and the school
house was vandalized. When the safety of her students could no
longer be guaranteed, Crandall closed the school, providing another
rallying point for the abolitionist cause.
Sarah Harris would become
a confidant of Frederick Douglass. She named one of her sons, Charles Frederick
Douglass Fayerweather (Patricia's great-great grandfather), after the famous abolitionist. Over time in Patricia's family, this inspirational story had
been completely forgotten. It was my privilege to bring it back into
In my introspection prior to our visit, I worried that I might represent a target for long pent-up anger and resentment. Even though Patricia had gracefully welcomed my interest in
visiting her, I kept struggling with the false but deeply-held conviction that open conversation about slavery and white privilege with people of color was a
dangerous threshold that should never be crossed. I knew I needed to find a way
to break through the force field that perpetuated my unnecessary segregation
from people of color.
On July 8, 2007, I flew to Jamaica, New York. In the cab ride
from the airport to Patricia's house, I had the distinct memory of the last time
I had felt so nervous—just before my own wedding! Crossing a border can have
this kind of effect. We spent the better part of a day together—Patricia, her
mother, husband, three of their children, and me. They were generous
with their hospitality and welcomed me like I was a member of the family. Having learned so much about their
family, I felt like I already was.
Patricia was kind enough
to show me around Jamaica, taking me to the important places in the life of her family that included the
Antioch Baptist Church founded by her grandfather. As we walked in her neighborhood, she introduced me to her friends as someone who “had
helped me trace my genealogy all the way back to slavery. The way she did so
made me feel that I was still inside the circle—not an outsider.
As Patricia and I spoke
about our shared heritage, I was reminded again of what I already knew—that
truth-telling and repentance can be an antidote to the abuse of power that was
institutionalized in the practice of slavery. The elements of our history that
are shameful and horrific must be named and remembered. We must be willing to
believe that there is a way out of the cycle of despair and hopelessness that
lies at the core of this brokenness. Without the commitment to remember and be
held accountable for all of our history, the apocalyptic conditions that allow
for the dehumanization and genocide of other people will continue to emerge. As
the philosopher and poet George Santayana reminds us, "Those who cannot remember
the past are condemned to repeat it."
On Columbus Day, with my
daughters Hannah and Sophie in tow, we met with Patricia and her family for
a guided tour of the African-American community in Newport, Rhode Island. Our shared time together was powerful and
healing. For me, the visit brought full circle a pilgrimage begun a year
and a half ago, when I discovered that my family owned slaves in Newport. Pat told me that our time in
Newport made her family history real in a manner that she had long desired, and that so many gaps
of memory had been filled, repairing a kind of relentless genealogical
It is my hope that the long and complicated journey that our
respective families have weaved together over nearly two and a half centuries
will continue, and that from it, we can reclaim a sense of balance, dignity, and
honor for ourselves. May our future be grounded in the vision of nineteenth
century Unitarian abolitionist and minister Theodore Parker, who prophetically
observed, "The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward
Rev. David Pettee (email) is Director of Ministerial Credentialing for the Unitarian Universalist Association. In this position he is charged with overseeing the formation process for individuals pursuing ministerial fellowship.
Rev. David Pettee
For more information contact
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Last updated on Thursday, August 1, 2013.
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The Pettee and Simmons families met to discover their mutual history in Newport, Rhode Island during the autumn of 2007. Photo courtesy Keith Stokes.
"Claiming Our History, Warts and All" by David Pettee
"Truth and Reconciliation: Unitarian Universalist Reflections"
"Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History"
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