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Slimantics: The bitter fruit of a family tree

 

Slim Smith

 

 

Until a few weeks ago, my family tree was pretty much a sapling for all I knew of it. I came along late in my parents' lives and never knew my grandparents, other than their names. 

 

So, for me, family tree went only as far as Tippah County, Mississippi, of the early 20th century. 

 

But, a while back, I renewed contact with a cousin, Gayle Newby, who had an account of my father's line stretching back 10 generations. I'll spare you the full chronology and point to two of my ancestors -- John Dunnam, the person where our recorded history starts and his great-great grandson, Enoch Dunnam, who is my grandfather four times over. 

 

John Dunnam (1690-1727) was man of means, a planter in the Berkley County, South Carolina. 

 

Most of what is known of him comes from his will, which was executed on Feb. 15, 1728. There, among the itemized list of his estate -- acreage, buildings, cattle, farm equipment -- were listed the names of 14 human beings -- identified as Negro men: Scipio, Prince, Jack, Hector, Mingo; women: Diana, Jenny; boys: Adam, George, Pompey, Gloster; Diana's child: Rose; a girl: Maria; and Flora, who is identified as a "wench." 

 

There is no escaping it: I am a direct descendant of slave-owners, a sickening thought. 

 

Next, I note the story of Enoch Dunnam, John's great-great grandson. Enoch moved to Tippah County in the 1820s, the first of what is now eight generations of Mississippians in my family. 

 

Enoch buried one wife, married another, produced seven children and fought in two wars (Mexican-American and Civil War), all by the time he was 37 years old, which was all the time allotted to him. 

 

Enoch Dunnam died fighting for the Confederacy in the Battle of Lovejoy Station, Georgia, in September 1864 as part of a futile attempt to arrest Sherman's siege of Atlanta, He is buried among soldiers in Thomasville, Georgia. 

 

I am a descendant of a man who owned slaves and a man who fought and died to preserve slavery. 

 

I cannot say that guilt is the prevailing emotion I feel over an ancestor who died almost 300 years ago and another who died more than 150 years ago. Regret is probably a better description.  

 

I would have much preferred to have been from a long line of poor folks who earned what they got from the sweat of their own brows. 

 

You could make the argument -- as many do -- that John and Enoch Dunnam should not be measured by contemporary standards, that they lived their lives consistent with the values of their times. 

 

Yet even in their times, there were those for whom slavery was considered the abomination we understand it to be today. 

 

Apart from their views of slavery, I do not know what kind of men John and Enoch were, but they were humans with human failings, the most prominent being a lack of empathy. 

 

In their times, it was seeing black people not as human beings, but rather, as property.  

 

In our time, that lack of empathy endures in different forms. 

 

When you think about it, the whole idea of Christianity can be distilled into that single word, "empathy." 

 

Yet, you see little evidence of empathy these days coming from Washington and, in particular, from the Trump administration. It is not applied to LGBT people, immigrants, Muslims or any number of people judged to be among the "others."  

 

When we talk of walls and bans, of "religious freedom" laws and Confederate flags and monuments, it is not that we don't believe others when they say they are harmed by these things. It's that we just don't care. 

 

I would like to think we are as far removed from the attitudes embraced by John and Enoch Dunnam as we are by the years that separate us from them. 

 

I do not believe we are. 

 

I see the residue of those attitudes, passed down through the generations, the bitter fruit of our family tree.

 

Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is ssmith@cdispatch.com.

 

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