Until my sister Lucretia began digging into genealogical research, it never occurred to me that my family had anything to do with the abomination of slavery. My mother’s California family was one of modest means, while our Texas-born dad grew up in abject poverty.
So, imagine our surprise when we discovered that we were direct descendants of Major Richard Bibb, a wealthy Kentucky plantation owner who came to believe that slavery was wrong and freed his slaves upon his death in 1839. Thanks to the leadership of Russellville, Kentucky’s J Gran Clark and Michael Morrow, there are now two separate but related SEEK (Struggles for Emancipation and Equality in Kentucky) Museum sites in Russellville which tell the stories of three generations of enslavement at Bibb’s 1817 urban plantation, as well as the struggles and accomplishments of newly freed persons after the Civil War in a vibrant neighborhood called The Bottom.
This past weekend, my sisters and I travelled to Russellville for a reunion of the descendants of those enslaved by Major Bibb and his family, as well as the descendants of Major Bibb. It was actually my second visit to SEEK, having visited this past October with my sister Lucretia. Both visits have been deeply emotional experiences. The contrast between the opulence of the Bibb mansion built by the enslaved folks and the cramped, stiflingly hot attic where up to a dozen slaves were forced to live while on call 24 hours a day seven days a week is incredibly stark. And the historic buildings that make up the SEEK Museum in the Bottom speak both to the horrors of the post-Civil War experience for newly freed blacks as well as to the resilience and perseverance of folks denied equality and justice. One house, for example, is devoted to the experience of African-Americans lynched for alleged crimes against white people. Another depicts the one room schoolhouse where scores of black children were educated, including the pioneering journalist Alice Allison Dunnigan, the first African-American woman to become a White House correspondent. Her statue was unveiled as part of the weekend’s festivities, and her story is one of great accomplishment despite continuous run-ins with discrimination in her field.
One of the most gut-wrenching experiences for me took place on the lawn of the Bibb house where we broke into mixed-race groupings. Led by moderator Traci O’Neal, author of The Exceptional Negro, we engaged in dialogue about our shared history and personal experiences with racism. One man in my group spoke eloquently about what it was like to “put a mask on” every day to go out into the world and experience discrimination at work, be regarded suspiciously if you dared to browse in a store, and never be sure if you’d make it out alive if you (or your children) were pulled over by the police (DWB or “Driving While Black”). He was furious about Louisville’s lack of investment in its historically black neighborhood in the West End. When it came to politics, he said, “We try to cast our vote for whoever we think will hurt us the least.”
As he spoke, my emotions were all over the place. I hurt for all that black folks in this country continue to go through. I was filled with rage that my African-American grandson faces and will continue to face these daily challenges in the way he is perceived and treated by others. I was also saddened by my naiveté as a young person involved in the civil rights movement in the 1960s. We really thought (as perhaps every generation does) that we could change the world, and that we could bring about a more just society. And here we are decades later, living in a country where our president is a xenophobic, misogynistic racist whose encouragement of white supremacists is contributing to the slaughter of innocent people.
By the end of the weekend, I felt that it is hard not to feel discouraged, but it is also hard not to feel that hope and healing are possible through honest dialogue and commitment to social action.
I felt grateful that the gentleman who put it out there that life as a black man is horrendous felt safe enough to take off his mask and let us know how he really felt and what he had gone through. And I was especially grateful when he hugged me at the end of our discussion. I think he knew I was really listening—and hurting with him.
But my favorite hug came from an older African-American gentleman who sat next to me throughout the discussion and patted me each time my tears came. As our group boke up, he embraced me and said, “Can you feel the love in this hug?”
“Yes,” I told him. “And I hope you can feel my love, too.”
I know that love is not enough to fix the racism that is baked into every aspect of our society. But it’s a beginning. We can never abandon our quest for a more just society, and I am grateful to the Seek Museum for helping us along the way.