My Turn: Unraveling my white supremacist history

Janine Roberts at Crooked Run in Culpeper County, Virginia.

Janine Roberts at Crooked Run in Culpeper County, Virginia. CONTRIBUTED


Published: 06-16-2024 8:19 PM


There were rumors that my Roberts great-grandparents were enslavers in Culpeper County, Virginia. I began researching them before a 2023 southern road trip with a friend of 50 years, Delores Brown. Exploring Georgia, where she lived as a child with her sharecropper grandparents, the National Lynching Memorial and the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, walking the Pettus Bridge in Selma — all catapulted me further into family history.

I thought, if they enslaved people, it was just a few. Around 25% of heads of households in the South “owned” slaves, and of that 25%, 15-17% had 1-9 enslaved people. Only around 7-8% of enslavers had 10-99 children, women, and men forced into grueling labor.

After seven hours online, I discover a “property” tax list for Culpeper County for Joseph Roberts, my fourth great-grandfather (1760-1834). His “property” is listed as: “Sawney, Will, Jacob, Adam, James, Joe, Voll, Kesar, Lett, Jenny, Easter, Lucy, Sarah” and “7 small negroes.”

I curl into myself, gut-punched; these are people, not his “property.” Thirteen names, most likely imposed by so-called “masters.” Seven people with names unwritten; probably children 8 and under. Eight, the age of my granddaughter. Images in my mind of her picking tobacco leaf-by-leaf, absorbing nicotine through her skin, vomiting and weak with green tobacco sickness.

I’m ashamed of my earlier minimizing thoughts.

I dig deeper. Within two months, I hold in my hands a copy of the Feb. 14, 1782 will of Benjamin Roberts (1706-1782 ), my sixth great-grandfather. With a magnifying glass, I read tight cribbed handwriting an eighth of an inch high. In it, Benjamin bequeaths to my fourth great-grandfather Joseph Roberts, “One Clock, one Feather bed, two Stills,” and what he has no right to “give”: “Sixteen negroes viz Sawney, Seth, Rose, Nell, Nan, Winny, Alice, Jacob, Ginney, Sarah, Bett, Jack, Eve, Will, Georgia, & Easter, to him and his Heirs forever.”

I’m aghast. Forever?! and no distinctions made between “two Stills” and human beings?

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There’s more: Sam, Tim, Sue, Molly, Dolley & Adam are left to Benjamin Roberts Jr. while Lewis & Leanor, Richard & Lett go to two grandsons. Phyllis, Harvey, Simon, Dennis, and Reuben, along with three unnamed “negroes,” are “left in the care” of my sixth great-grandfather’s executors. Thirty-four people in all.

I say their names softly, then louder. Repeat them; a litany, a prayer. But how can I say a prayer for them when it was my kin who bought and sold them, worked them from dawn to dark? Three without even their imposed names recorded. What were their given names called out with a lilt, with love, in the enslaved quarters?

Near the end of the will: “Benjamin Roberts, a grantor, voluntarily conveys title of property to grantees.” Fissures in my heart. Nothing is voluntary for the 34 people in bondage and their lives and livelihood. Or, for that matter, the actual property of the bondspeople, which is illegal to pass down.

Embedded in the will as well are the forced labor camps my great-grandparents ran on some 2,000 acres stolen from the Manahoac. But what happened to the people my relatives enslaved? I can’t find wills, deeds, or tax property lists for my relatives in the 1830s and ‘40s.

By the 1850s, my second great-grandfather William Roberts was in Kansas with no bondspeople. I thought, maybe some of my relatives had a reckoning and freed their “slaves.” I scoured Free Negro Registers. Nothing. I trek to Culpeper with my friend Delores.

There, in the County Courthouse with Virginia activist Zann Nelson, we unearth two key documents. The first showed “a contract this 24th day of August 1838” made by my third great-grandfather George Melton Roberts (1787-1860). He received from James Shotwell $263.52 and 1/2 cents in exchange for his inheritance from my fourth great-grandfather, which included “six slaves, to wit Kale, Sam, Priscilla, Maria, Wyatt, and Ellen.”

In the second document (9/17/1851), widowed Elizabeth Roberts, my fourth great-grandmother, “grants unto the said Carter B. Cropp, the following named property to wit: certain slaves namely Sam, Maria, John, Ellen, Susan, Martha, Sarah, Hand, Wyatt, Louisa, Andrew, and Spencer with the increase of the females thereof.”

Deep jolts, increase of the females; the babies do not belong to their mothers and fathers! My goddaughter has a 3-month-old. Lele is not hers?

No one was freed. My relatives paid off debt with human lives, including the unborn.

Delores and I roam land along Crooked Run that my ancestors stole. Find a summer kitchen where enslaved people worked, and slept in sweltering lofts.

We study new markers about Black heritage put up by the town and local groups, Right the Record, and the African-American Heritage Alliance. Welter of sadness, recognitions of deep resiliences, fury that fuels accountability.

Ideas percolate: support’s community-based reconciliation projects; add the names I’ve found to; create and fund a marker (with oversight from local Culpeperites) about what I’ve uncovered. More sleuthing about the people my ancestors enslaved.

Excerpt from “Accosting My Own White Supremacy,” by Janine Roberts, professor emerita at UMass Amherst.