Historical Events and Present Realities

I have fallen down the rabbit hole of genealogical research. I have always liked doing research and I am interested in my own family’s history. Some of it is very easy to find. My parents are buried in the same cemetery as my grandparents and both sets of great-grandparents on my dad’s side of the family. My grandma and I used to go to the cemetery to take flowers on “Decoration Day” aka Memorial Day. My husband and I keep up the tradition. That now means for us either a very full morning or two separate trips to the cemetery where his parents are buried; the large very old cemetery in Peoria where much of his family and some of mine is buried; the rural cemetery where my family mentioned above is buried; and the old cemetery where one of his great-grandfathers is buried. This gentleman died in a mine accident when he was going into the mine after an explosion to try to save those who were trapped. The United Mine Workers paid for his burial and gravestone and built a house for his widow and her five children.

So, what have I discovered in the quick race to a ship that constitutes finding my family and when “we” first arrived? One or two trails end before that ship, but it is kind of astonishing. One of my female ancestors was born in England and moved to Jamestown early enough to give birth there in 1631. One of the men was a baronet in England and arrived in Maryland in mid-1600s. One family line ends in Virginia in the mid-1600s; I don’t know when they arrived on this continent. The fourth one arrived here from the Netherlands in 1661 and had a grandson who was a Captain in the Revolutionary War.

I have just started looking at all of the information one can find. I can already tell that we have been Presbyterians or Reformed Christians on both sides of my family almost forever. I always knew that we were Scotch-Irish, but this just confirms it. It is also weird that both sides of my family lived in similar areas in Maryland and Pennsylvania and Ohio. I guess the Scotch-Irish people tended to congregate.

A part of what I have found falls into the category, for me, of “Be careful what you wish for.” I had always been pretty confident that no one in my family ever owned another human being since I knew that we came to Illinois from Ohio and Pennsylvania. Well, I have seen one will so far where one of my female relatives in Maryland was leaving a specific enslaved person to one child and another enslaved person to another child. Ugh. I so wanted to think that my family had never been a part of the whole history of profiting from the labor of people who were not compensated for that labor, and who had no choice about their labor, and who were subjected to conditions and treatment we do not want to imagine.

Of course, the fiction that I wanted to maintain that no one in my family participated in the evil of slavery is just that—a fiction. Enslaving people from Africa is part of the sin that continues to create the world in which we live, along with the idea that it was the right of Europeans to take over a land that had a rich culture already in place in North America. Even if my people had come to the Midwest from Europe after slavery was abolished, we still would have had the advantage of being white. We could buy land wherever we wanted to do so, work in jobs we chose, go into stores without being suspected of bad intent, and on and on and on. We could also choose to continue to be Christians; it was not forced upon us by our conquerors or enslavers.

As we think about our families and about those who have gone before us, we can truly be thankful for the blessings we enjoy. We also need to remember that some of those blessings came at a cost to other people that might be hidden from us or from which we might want to turn away. How do we repair the breach created by slavery and by “manifest destiny”?

In the midst of continuing to struggle with those questions, we still have a call to share the gospel. Let us be aware as we do so of the history that goes with such sharing, and be gentle as we continue to bring hope in the name of Jesus.

The Rev. Susan (Sue) Krummel
Executive Presbyter, Presbytery of Chicago