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Hard Truths

By the Reverend David Pettee.

One of the more important things that Unitarian Universalists try to do is to "seek the truth in love." This might sound easy to do. "So, what's so hard about it?" you might ask. Well, what happens when you think you know one story, but while seeking the truth about it, an entirely different story comes out? This happened to me a few years ago.

In my family, I am the person who knows more than anyone else about our ancestors. My grandfather used to be this person, as was his father before him. Over time, lots of great stories about our family were collected and passed down. I was so proud of all that my ancestors had done that I decided to keep learning as much about them as I could.

The Internet has made the search for old records so much easier! While my grandfather needed to use his vacation time to go and do research, I can sit at my computer and find these same records at my fingertips. And one day, in 2006, I found that an old record from the 1770's was searchable online. I typed in an ancestor's name, and living in his house in Rhode Island were four enslaved Africans. This was a huge surprise! I think the story made my ancestors feel embarrassed, so they had stopped talking about it, and gradually it was forgotten.

That there had been slavery in New England was also a surprise. I had thought that slavery only existed in the South. But slavery was practiced in the North for two hundred years! The more I learned about the truth, the more I wanted to know what really had happened. And after a year of researching, I learned that not only did I have several family members who enslaved Africans, I also had an ancestor who was a captain of a ship that brought slaves from Africa. This news was hard to accept at first, and made me feel ashamed about my family.

But my decision to "seek the truth in love" did not stop there. Because I came to know so much about my ancestor who was a ship's captain, I decided to go to Africa. I wanted to see with my own eyes the places that he visited. Amazingly, some of the buildings were still standing. Walking in his footsteps made the history come alive even more. The most unexpected thing was that I began to feel different inside. While the story was about bondage, I began to feel liberated from feeling so ashamed... free to talk truthfully about a story that still is so uncomfortable for so many people.

When I got back home, there was even more work to be done! I wanted to locate a person whose ancestor had been enslaved by my ancestor. I wanted to share all that I had learned, hoping that this information might help this person better understand their own family history. I felt that our two families were already joined by our common history.

Even though the life stories of African Americans were often not recorded in official public records, I learned that African Americans kept their own records. They did the best they could to leave a trail behind for others to follow. One day, looking at records of my ancestor, I found mention of an African American with the same last name! I began researching him, and gradually, his life story began to emerge. It became clear that he was one of the enslaved Africans from my ancestor's home. I found out who his descendants were, who their descendants were... and traced that family all the way to the present day.

A year and a half after I first began seeking the truth, I called Pat, who lived in New York City. I was really afraid she would be mad at me because of what my ancestor had done to her ancestor. But she wasn't mad at all. She was grateful that I had made the effort to learn as much as I could, and that I was willing to share it all. Pat knew very little about her family history. My information filled in a lot of gaps of missing information.

Pat and I have become good friends. We refer to one another as cousins. We have since met other people, those with ancestors who were enslaved and those with ancestors who enslaved others—for important and truthful conversation. While the legacy of slavery still makes a lot of people unhappy, we are learning that by being willing to face the truth together, we can build a new legacy. What started out as something so embarrassing and shameful for me now feels very hopeful, and I've made a number of great new friends!

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

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Last updated on Thursday, October 27, 2011.

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