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The Ties that Bind: A Deeper Exploration of My Family’s History with the Slave Trade

Members of the Pettee and Simmons families, Newport RI, August 2007.
The Pettee and Simmons families met to discover their mutual history in Newport, Rhode Island during the autumn of 2007. Photo courtesy Keith Stokes.

This article is the second by David Pettee on his exploration of his family history. Pettee's research led him to the discovery that his ancestors had been slaveholders and traders.

The day after Thanksgiving in 2006, as I was reconnecting with my family's history as New England slaveholders, I contacted Keith Stokes, an expert on early Newport, Rhode Island, African American history. As I talked with him, I began to sense his impatience. He urged me to resist the temptation to be satisfied with just uncovering my own family history, and challenged me to locate a descendant of an African who had been enslaved by my family. In doing so he hoped I would more fully understand and experience accountability.

I took his challenge seriously, but was dubious that I would be able to identify a slave owned by my family. Yet one day, while reviewing the probate inventory of Jonathan Simmons, the son of my ancestor Edward Simmons—a Newport slave holder—I noticed that someone named Cuff Simmons had submitted a bill to the estate. The name Cuff grabbed my attention. Every other Newport resident with that first name was of African descent. When I found a probate record that identified Cuff Simmons as a "colored man, deceased," I began to wonder if there might be some kind of connection.

After many months of active research with primary source records, I could come to no other conclusion other than this one: Cuff Simmons had been enslaved by Edward Simmons from 1772 until 1800. What had been an anonymous legacy sprang to life. I set out to see if Cuff Simmons had ever married, and if so, if he had raised a family and might have living descendants. It dawned on me that this was no longer my story alone.

While most African Americans were no longer enslaved in Rhode Island by 1800, public documents rarely share much about their lives. I was fortunate to find a land deed that recorded the sale of a parcel of land that Cuff had inherited through his wife Hope when she died in 1830. My heart rate quickened when I learned that this same land parcel had been originally purchased by my ancestor and later sold to the uncle of Hope Simmons. The land passed through Cuff's descendants, one generation after the next, until 1940 when it was finally sold. Early in the twentieth century, most of Cuff's descendants had left Newport and settled in Jamaica, New York. It turns out that they have lived in that same New York City neighborhood for nearly eighty years.

My search for a living descendant of Cuff Simmons finally concluded after cross-referencing a name in the 1930 Federal Census with the same name in the 2006 Jamaica, New York phone book. I found the widow of Cuff's great-great-great grandson right where I expected she would be.

The decision to contact an eighty-seven year old woman out of the blue with a fateful story involving slavery is no trivial matter. In imagining how I might approach her, I spoke with Amy Potter of the Center for Justice and Peacemaking at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. She was an organizer of their "Coming to the Table" project, which in 2006 successfully gathered together the descendants of former slaves and slaveholders for dialogue. She assured me that in her experience, when whites were willing to reach out to blacks to acknowledge a familial history involving slavery and slaveholding, the response was usually warm and appreciative.

Comforted by her words, I drafted a letter to this elderly woman with which I shared history, hoping to explain this convoluted story: who I was, the historical connection between our two families, and my desire to share what I had learned in person if she was interested and willing to see me.

Two weeks passed with no response. Since I had her contact information, I swallowed hard and placed a phone call. Patricia, the daughter of the woman I was trying to reach, answered the phone. Caught off guard by the voice of a clearly younger person, I asked Patricia if her mother had read my letter. Patricia imagined that if her mother hadn't recognized the handwriting, she would have thrown the unopened letter away. "What was the purpose of your letter?" Patricia asked.

Somehow, I awkwardly sputtered through the basic details of the story. When I asked Patricia if she had ever heard of Cuff Simmons, she responded, "Of course. He was one of my ancestors on my grandmother's side." I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. Over the next few weeks, Patricia and I spoke several more times about meeting. In advance of my visit, I sent a notebook containing all the documents that linked our two families, and two books that chronicled the life of Sarah Harris, her great-great-great grandmother.

In 1833, Sarah Harris had become a student at Prudence Crandall's School for Girls in Canterbury, Connecticut. The enrollment of a black student set off shock waves across New England. Local Unitarian minister Samuel J. May became a critical supporter. The ensuing controversy eventually led to the passage of racist legislation and the school house was vandalized. When the safety of her students could no longer be guaranteed, Crandall closed the school, providing another rallying point for the abolitionist cause.

Sarah Harris would become a confidant of Frederick Douglass. She named one of her sons, Charles Frederick Douglass Fayerweather (Patricia's great-great grandfather), after the famous abolitionist. Over time in Patricia's family, this inspirational story had been completely forgotten. It was my privilege to bring it back into living memory.

In my introspection prior to our visit, I worried that I might represent a target for long pent-up anger and resentment. Even though Patricia had gracefully welcomed my interest in visiting her, I kept struggling with the false but deeply-held conviction that open conversation about slavery and white privilege with people of color was a dangerous threshold that should never be crossed. I knew I needed to find a way to break through the force field that perpetuated my unnecessary segregation from people of color.

On July 8, 2007, I flew to Jamaica, New York. In the cab ride from the airport to Patricia's house, I had the distinct memory of the last time I had felt so nervous—just before my own wedding! Crossing a border can have this kind of effect. We spent the better part of a day together—Patricia, her mother, husband, three of their children, and me. They were generous with their hospitality and welcomed me like I was a member of the family. Having learned so much about their family, I felt like I already was.

Patricia was kind enough to show me around Jamaica, taking me to the important places in the life of her family that included the Antioch Baptist Church founded by her grandfather. As we walked in her neighborhood, she introduced me to her friends as someone who “had helped me trace my genealogy all the way back to slavery." The way she did so made me feel that I was still inside the circle—not an outsider.

As Patricia and I spoke about our shared heritage, I was reminded again of what I already knew—that truth-telling and repentance can be an antidote to the abuse of power that was institutionalized in the practice of slavery. The elements of our history that are shameful and horrific must be named and remembered. We must be willing to believe that there is a way out of the cycle of despair and hopelessness that lies at the core of this brokenness. Without the commitment to remember and be held accountable for all of our history, the apocalyptic conditions that allow for the dehumanization and genocide of other people will continue to emerge. As the philosopher and poet George Santayana reminds us, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

On Columbus Day, with my daughters Hannah and Sophie in tow, we met with Patricia and her family for a guided tour of the African-American community in Newport, Rhode Island. Our shared time together was powerful and healing. For me, the visit brought full circle a pilgrimage begun a year and a half ago, when I discovered that my family owned slaves in Newport. Pat told me that our time in Newport made her family history real in a manner that she had long desired, and that so many gaps of memory had been filled, repairing a kind of relentless genealogical bewilderment.

It is my hope that the long and complicated journey that our respective families have weaved together over nearly two and a half centuries will continue, and that from it, we can reclaim a sense of balance, dignity, and honor for ourselves. May our future be grounded in the vision of nineteenth century Unitarian abolitionist and minister Theodore Parker, who prophetically observed, "The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

The late Rev. David Pettee served as Director of Ministerial Credentialing for the Unitarian Universalist Association. In this position he was charged with overseeing the formation process for individuals pursuing ministerial fellowship.