Ancestors: You Don’t Get to Pick Them….But You Love Your Family Anyway

People who personally know me understand that I am huge on family ties. I love my nieces to pieces, and those nephews, too. Plus my siblings, cousins, the aunts and uncles who were there, my in-laws, my parental units, etc. etc. My family means everything to me. And anyone who is my Facebook friend knows that my current muse is The Moose, my grandniece.

I am dabbling in ancestry, and I thank my lucky stars for cousins on my dad’s side of the family (Gloria Gaddis) and my mom’s side (Patti Schacht) who have both dedicated so much time to tracking down our family histories.

Which brings me to recent news: the fact that actor Ben Affleck tried to downplay an ancestor who was a slave owner. I can’t say I blame him for his embarrassment, because it is horrible indeed to realize your ancestors once owned slaves. Still, the truth will set you free, Ben. I do think he was wrong to try to hide it.

That being said, I also share that same shame and horror, and it is something of which I also feel great embarrassment: my great-grandfather, William Cotten Downing, came from a family of slave owners. They lived in Washington County, North Carolina. Great-grandpa William was born in 1850, and was a mere teen during the Civil War. That war had great impact on him, the family, and their homestead. It had to be the most horrific time in US history for all citizens. I really don’t think any of us alive today can imagine its impact.


W.C. Downing was a writer who worked for newspapers in North Carolina. As a journalism major and writer/editor in my career, I feel a kinship with him. Where I differ from him is in his political leanings. I now have in my possession many of his poems and essays that had been handed down to my grandmother, then my Aunt Virginia, then my sister Marion, and now to me. His writings show he was on the wrong side of history, on the side of the Confederacy. They also show a compassionate, loving human being. In light of history, it is hard to reconcile those two sides. My thoughts were how could a man who supported the Confederacy be a decent, kind, loving human being? But his writings show that he was both.

Several years ago, our cousin Patti found a group of black Downings at a church in Washington County. They are the descendants of the slaves that our great-grandfather’s father once owned. Surely, there are many who share our bloodline. Patti shared communion with them and asked for forgiveness of our ancestors’ transgressions. They graciously gave forgiveness and celebrated Patti in their shared faith.

I do feel tremendous shame about this aspect of my family history. But I do realize that we don’t have control of our ancestors, and that they were products of their times. Does that make it right? Of course not. But we can’t change that. I guess it’s about admitting it and growing from that. And doing the right thing every day of our lives to make the world better.

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