UU minister discovers slave-trading ancestor.
A UUA committee was formed in response to the “Truth, Repair, and Reconciliation” resolution passed at the 2007 GA mandating that the Association, as well as its constituent congregations, review its history to find instances of oppression. The resolution further charges these organizations with acknowledging accountability for past wrongs and working towards reconciliation with the oppressed groups. “Only by knowing our truths can we act boldly on our spiritual journey of healing,” the resolution reads. The resolution requires that progress reports be made at the 2008 and 2009 GAs.
The Rev. Tracey Robinson-Harris, the UUA’s director of Congregational Services, and the Rev. David Pettee, the UUA’s director of Ministerial Credentialing, both members of the UUA committee, will reveal some of their initial findings at a 3-hour GA workshop called “Truth, Repair, and Reconciliation.” They will be distributing a report researched and written by consultant Gordon Gibson about the history of the UUA and its predecessor organizations. They will also be asking other congregations to share stories of their own discoveries.
“My hope is that we can engage congregational leaders in saying more about their own congregations’ history,” said Robinson-Harris, “and then figure out how to make that story an opportunity for them to be more active in the world and to understand the benefits and struggles that might have gone into getting them to where they are.”
One of the inspirations for the resolution was UUA President William G. Sinkford’s 2007 GA annual report in which he called for racial reconciliation. “Should we collectively acknowledge that some of the beautiful white clapboard Unitarian churches in New England were built with profits from the slave trade?” he asked. Sinkford also recalled that $1 million was committed at the 1968 General Assembly to be put toward black economic development. Only part of that money was ever distributed. “Doesn’t our moral balance sheet still carry an unpaid debt?” he asked.
Sinkford cited the South African Truth and Reconciliation process initiated by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the wake of apartheid’s end as a precedent for this undertaking. Sinkford will be meeting with Tutu next fall in Africa to find out how the reconciliation process has gone and to find out how it might be applied to an American context.
“There’s a kind of liberation that comes with being able to actually know our past and talk about it freely,” Sinkford said in an interview. “If we’re not able to talk about it freely, the past gets built into the walls in ways that we have a hard time seeing.”
Sinkford advised caution in approaching the reconciliation process. “This is difficult work and touches someplace deep in the core of who we are,” he said. “It should be done very gently and very respectfully. The fact that decisions were made long ago that we didn’t make in this era, is a reality. One needs to understand the context in which those decisions were made, even if you disagree wholeheartedly with the decisions themselves.”
One of the groups responsible for passing the 2007 GA resolution was UU Allies for Racial Equity, an organization of UUs who identify as white and are committed to anti-racism in accountable relationship with the UU community of color. The group was responsible for showing the documentary Traces of the Trade—the story of filmmaker Katrina Brown’s discovery that she was descended from the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history—at the 2007 GA. They also raised money to bring James Loewen, author of Sundown Towns, a history of discriminatory municipal housing practices, to speak at GA.
The Rev. Wendy von Zirpolo, minister of the UU Church of Marblehead, Mass., is ARE’s president. “The resolution was basically an extension of what we’d already done,” she said in a telephone interview. “We see ourselves not only as a voice of allyship, but as a movement seeking opportunities to continually engage our congregations in the work of owning our own identities, our own roles, and in taking a truthful look at our history. . . . We have these heroic stories of our abolitionists, but that’s only half of the story. As an allies movement we’re called to own our entire truth.”
The Rev. David Pettee has been involved in the reconciliation process on a personal level. An avid genealogist, he discovered two years ago that one of his New England forbears was a slave trader and that others were slave owners. “Even though two and a half centuries had passed, I felt determined to learn as much as I could about this unwanted legacy,” he wrote in an essay. His efforts to delve into his past led him to West Africa, where he and his wife visited the slave fortress in Ghana where his slave-trading ancestor John Robinson traded rum for enslaved Africans.
Further using his genealogical skills, Pettee was able to locate a woman descended from Cuff Simmons, one of the Africans enslaved by an ancestor. He contacted the woman, Patricia Mann of New York City, and they have since met several times.
Both Pettee and Mann were interviewed by Tom Ashbrook on NPR’s “On Point” radio talk show on May 16 in a segment called “Children of the New England Slave Trade.”
“I didn’t know what to make of the phone call at all,” Mann told Ashbrook when he asked how it felt to receive Pettee’s first call. “But it was like a gift to find out this information! My mind had just started to wander over what exactly my grandmother meant when she said her ancestors could be traced back to the Mayflower.”
Mann said, however, that her four children ranging in age from 8 to 23 had mixed feelings about this new information. “My 8-year-old was very happy to meet Dave and his family,” she said. “My oldest two don’t know what to make of it. They haven’t come to terms with any of it. They haven’t seen or experienced or felt some of the history that I’ve gone through in my years on the planet.”
Pettee acknowledged in a later interview that, “There’s a big jump between the process of seeking the truth and then figuring out what to do with that information. I don’t think it’s up to people from the dominant majority to then request repair and reconciliation from people who have experienced institutional oppression,” he said. “If that comes as a consequence of making amends or repair, that would be a blessing for all.”
And what does building a new relationship based on historic wrongs accomplish? “I think if all people are able to claim the full dimension of their histories, the good and the bad, this would allow for conversations that wouldn’t have taken place otherwise,” Pettee said. “To me, it’s about humbly joining in the struggles with those who have been the subject of historical and systemic oppression—and no longer denying that we come from places and structures that have been historically complex and oppressive.”
Pettee agreed with Sinkford that this is difficult work, and he urged congregations to work with one another. “For a time, I struggled with the illusion that I was one of the few people who had this family legacy,” Pettee said. “What I have since found is that’s not the case at all. . . . This is really difficult work to do alone and congregations are wonderful places to begin this kind of conversation and to find support to continue it.”
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Jane Greer is a former senior editor of UU World magazine.