By Richard Mammana
The Yankee is comfortable in his complacency about racial inequality in the United States, imagining himself unsullied by the slaving stains of American history. I was such a one until I began reading the wills of my mother’s New Jersey ancestors. Everyone who has completed third grade in Pennsylvania knows that slavery had been abolished there in 1780, but almost no one knows that there were still 16 slaves in New Jersey in 1865 who were only manumitted by the Thirteenth Amendment. The peculiar institution was phased out gradually in the Garden State in what modern scholars call blandly a “ragged road to abolition.”
This becomes a matter of personal interest because my maternal family never treated the Delaware River as a boundary and always knew it as a permeable membrane. The German Beidlemanns and Troxells, Dutch Van Attas or Van Ettens, and English Howells and Harts were likely as not until the 1950s to marry across the river, to be born and to die in hospitals on the Pennsylvania side but to live on the New Jersey side, and to be buried wherever one’s wife’s church was in whichever state. It was no accident that I was born on Ferry Street, because it was the crucial ferry that moved goods and people over the water before there was a bridge. Those of us who learned how to swim in the Delaware were given the proud moniker of River Rats, and I still prefer river water to the chlorinated stuff.
When I was small, my grandmother mused with an attitude other than shame that we had been among the last slave-owning families in the North, and that there were “Black Howells” to whom we weren’t related, but who had her surname because they had belonged to our family on Long Island. I thought little about it until I began to discover the names when I was in graduate school and fought losing battles with insomnia. The slaves were named and enumerated in estate inventories. The oral history had been correct, however embarrassing and distressing, and soon I had documentation.
- My great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather Daniel Howell (born 1680 at Southampton, Long Island; died April 25, 1732 at Ewing, New Jersey) does not mention slaves in his will dated at Trenton, August 30, 1725. His estate inventory almost seven years later, however, gives the values of 24 swine, 50 sheep and negro man Jack about 50 years old (£20), negro woman and her child (£40).
- His son my great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather David Howell (born in New Jersey, 1705; died October 24, 1775 at Ewing, New Jersey) does not mention slaves in his will dated December 17, 1774 at Trenton, Hunterdon County. His widow, my great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother Mary Baker Howell (1707-1786) left a will dated 1782 in which she distributed her furniture and funds to her children and grandchildren, noting that her second son Joseph is to receive negro Bob.
- My great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather George von Geissel (born September 24, 1730 in the Oberpfälz, Germany; died in Greenwich Township, Warren County, New Jersey March 13, 1808) immigrated in 1755 and was naturalized with an oath of allegiance to King George II on August 20, 1755. In a January 1, 1802 codicil George specifies that he wishes to have tombstones made for himself and for his wife, after her decease. He also settles the disposition of a silver tankard, and gives Negro, Pompey, his choice of going with any one of my family.
- My great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great uncle John Hart (born 1713 in Stonington, Connecticut, died May 11, 1779 in Hopewell, New Jersey) signed the Declaration of Independence and owned four slaves whose names we do not know. He had died destitute and widowed on a farm ruined by the British during the Battle of Monmouth, and he left no will or estate inventory I have been able to find. His brother Daniel Hart, also my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great uncle, was killed along with his son by his own slave Cuff on October 12, 1767. Cuff, also called Coffee, was of course Kofi in his homeland, as in Kofi Annan, and we know at least that he came from today’s Ghana. Cuff killed both Harts with an axe and then killed himself in the woods.
The colonists buried my kin in sacred ground and burned Cuff’s body in a vile attempt to mete out punishment on the dead — no doubt also to make an example of the man and his bad deed. I wonder what provoked him specifically, and whether there was a moment of understanding and repentance for my uncle before or as the axe fell. Cuff’s presence in the family oral history is powerful enough that when any one of us discovers it independently, we feel a kind of nausea and shame we eventually confide in one another with a shock of mutual recognition: oh, you’re having the dreams, too, aren’t you? It seems almost verifiable empirically at this stage that the intergenerational trauma of what was done to Kofi and what he did as a result repeat themselves for everyone who looks at the history very carefully. Two hundred and fifty years are still not enough time to titrate the mutual violence into dispassionate names, dates, and places.
One of the most baffling things for me in this research was the discovery that parents considered it meet and right to give persons to their children as gifts. I thought it initially some kind of familial attitude or kindness that Pompey could go with any one of the six Lutheran daughters of German George, but that pablum dissipated quickly. Manumission was an option all along for every one of my ancestors who owned another human being.
It was equally baffling to see that one of the Germans owned a slave — the great majority of such countrymen having come to the New World as indentured servants who could not have afforded to purchase someone, and many of them belonging to religious sects that would have opposed slavery on principle even then.
Ten slaves, four men with names: Jack, Bob, Pompey, and Cuff; a woman and child with no names but a precise value in pounds sterling; four other children of God with no gender or names assigned in the historical record.
Once I knew the names, they began to haunt both my dreams and my waking hours. Anonymous people from the distant past are easy to overlook in one’s moral inventory however deep the dive may be. Names make the brutality of what was done to them personal and harder to ignore.
Being myself, it first became my duty to find out when and where they had died so that I could visit and pray at their graves. The hydra of my naïveté had one up on me here: because they lived and died in a young America where they were considered chattel rather than persons, the only records of their lives were what I already had in the estate documents of their owners. They did not appear in censuses, even the slave censuses New Jersey conducted some decades after they would have crossed muddy Jordan rather than the Delaware or the Lehigh.
Still being myself, it occurred to me to write to the churches where my progenitors were buried, to ask if there were a section of adjoining cemeteries where slaves would have been interred. If so, I asked, still being naïve, could I help to place grave-markers in the general vicinity of their burials? Again, nothing doing. The only monuments to their memory will be in the mental architecture of my heart for as long as I am able to speak about them in atonement and sad recognition.
Yet there is an ancient and pious practice of reading the entire Psalter from start to finish after someone beloved to the mourner dies — all 150 psalms on no set schedule, but with the deliberate intention of conforming one’s own heart to the mind of Christ by using words that are mirrors for every human emotion, and that lift every human emotion Godward. It isn’t precisely praying for the dead, but it is something I keep close on my chest and undertake with utter seriousness whenever I learn of a family member, however distant, dying.
And so Jack, Bob, Pompey, Cuff and their six unknown fellow-sufferers have each now had all of the Songs of David recited for them. I do not doubt that all of them — including Kofi — are gathered to the bosom of Abraham where they sleep the sleep of peace and there is neither sorrow nor sighing, where the tears are wiped from eyes that shall not weep again. Did they need it? No. Did I need to do it? Yes. But was it virtue-signaling to God or to myself, or to the friends with whom I have shared about it? Probably.
I broke each time in the very homestretch at Psalm 137, Super flumina Babylonis:
By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, * when we remembered thee, O Zion.
As for our harps, we hanged them up * upon the trees that are therein.
For they that led us away captive, required of us then a song, and melody in our heaviness: * Sing us one of the songs of Sion.
How shall we sing the Lord’s song * in a strange land?
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, * let my right hand forget her cunning.
If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; * yea, if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.
Remember the children of Edom, O Lord, in the day of Jerusalem; * how they said, Down with it, down with it, even to the ground.
O daughter of Babylon, wasted with misery; * yea, happy shall he be that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.
Blessed shall he be that taketh thy children, * and throweth them against the stones.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost; * as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
And what was any of this other than the most dramatic and religious of bandages for the tender conscience of a liberal traditionalist? It isn’t much more than that because it can’t be much more than that. In this case, there is no possibility of repair even in the religion that defines itself as a system in which irreparability is an illusion.
It pricks my heart when I reflect on my own paths in life in view of this uncomfortable genealogy. From infancy, I had been infused with the intangible gifts of memory, reason, and will as well as faith and hope; but none of them would have been allowed to flourish as they sometimes have without the privilege that came from the color of my skin, my sex, my social locations, and the various circumstances of immense encouragement with which I was raised. So, too, none of this privilege would have been expressed in the way it has been without the stolen lives of the men and women who labored without pay for the support of those whose arms held the hands that held the hands that held me. I have worked hard for what things I have attained in life, but even that hard work was possible only because of an ancient lie called slavery. If I am not obligated to complete the work of reparation, neither am I permitted to rest from it.
A Sunday School teacher told me when I was 15 or 16, “Richard, you have an over-developed sense of guilt. Most things aren’t your fault.” I asked Mr. Haynes what he meant, and he gave me a Sphinx’s reply to the effect that I would understand some day. I think I do now, but he spoke as someone for whom emotional labor didn’t likely come as it does to me.
In the middle of life, I have more African and West Indian friends than African American friends. Some of the happiest times of early adulthood for me — before I had children and they multiplied every happiness — were worshiping for two too-short years at St. Andrew’s Church in Stamford, Connecticut, where my white Bahamian wife and I were some of the only Caucasians, and where I received the gift of tears after most communions because the congregation looked like heaven. “This is the very house of God and gate of heaven” printed itself on my mind as I knelt next to people who do not look like I do, and whose people came from places different to my people. But I do little to dismantle systemic racism and inequality in my immediate proximity, and I am sure there are aspects of my thinking and behavior that still perpetuate it.
It wonders me today that my daughters have no concept of race or skin color. They are the products of a combined twelve years of Quaker education, and the only social divisions they understand as significant are differences of language. They have been taught that every person they meet is a Friend: “Who is that friend over there?” they will ask about someone they haven’t met. “Why does that friend look sad?” “Why are there so many friends at the park today?”
This was initially a cause for self-congratulation: aren’t I a wonderful parent for bringing these girls up to be blind to visual racism? But it has since become a reason for self-reproach: these two little girls must be aware in age-appropriate ways of realities in American society that still need to change, and from which they and their parents have benefitted. Training their little hearts in wisdom will mean someday, many years from now, explaining to them about Jack and Bob and Kofi and Pompey and the Six Lost Ones: how they are inheritors of an uncomfortable truth on this wise and on many others; how (as I often think to myself) it is entirely possible that our ancient family did horrible things to the ancient families of people we meet by chance or choice each and every day.
They don’t need to understand the geopolitical complexity of any of this, but it bears saying that even in the progressive northeast Bos-Wash corridor, there are neighbors with age-old enmity toward one another no different essentially from the relations between Hutu and Tutsi neighbors, German and Polish neighbors, Korean and Japanese neighbors, Israeli and Palestinian neighbors, Russian and Ukrainian neighbors, Tamil and Sinhalese neighbors, Tibetan and Chinese neighbors. When we have wronged one another, in whichever direction the wrong goes, new duties of acknowledgement and effortful understanding emerge when the reasons for the wrong are rooted mainly in the curious category of race.
In the meantime, one of the places where we must live is always going to be De profundis (Psalm 130, “out of the depths):
Out of the deep have I called unto thee, O Lord; * Lord, hear my voice.
O let thine ears consider well * the voice of my complaint.
If thou, Lord, wilt be extreme to mark what is done amiss, * O Lord, who may abide it?
For there is mercy with thee; * therefore shalt thou be feared.
I look for the Lord; my soul doth wait for him; * in his word is my trust.
Let them be even as the grass growing upon the house-tops: which withereth afore it be plucked up;
My soul fleeth unto the Lord before the morning watch; * I say, before the morning watch.
O Israel, trust in the Lord; for with the Lord there is mercy, * and with him is plenteous redemption.
And he shall redeem Israel * from all his sins.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost; * as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
Richard J. Mammana is archivist of the Living Church Foundation and a member of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is a parishioner at Christ Church, New Haven and the founder of Project Canterbury, anglicanhistory.org.
The following works were consulted in my research:
Calendar of New Jersey Wills, Administrations, Vol. V—1771-1780, (Trenton: MacCrellish and Quigley, 1931).
Calendar of New Jersey Wills, Administrations, Etc., Vol. XI—1806-1809), (Trenton: MacCrellish and Quigley, 1947).
Faris, David and Emma Howell Ross, ed. Descendants of Edward Howell (1584-1655) of Westbury Manor, Marsh Gibbon, Buckinghamshire, and Southampton, Long Island, New York (Baltimore: Gateway Press, 1985).
Honeyman, A. Van Doren. Documents Relating to the Colonial and Revolutionary History of the State of New Jersey, First Series, Vol. XXXIV.
Hutchinson, Elmer T. Documents Relating to the Colonial, Revolutionary and Post-Revolutionary History of the
State of New Jersey (First Series, Vol. XL)
New Jersey State Archives. New Jersey, Published Archives Series, First Series. (Trenton, New Jersey: John L Murphy Publishing Company).