A Woman Comes To Terms With Her Family's Slave-Owning Past

Jan 15, 2014
Originally published on July 16, 2014 2:38 pm

NPR continues a series of conversations about The Race Card Project, where thousands of people have submitted their thoughts on race and cultural identity in six words. Every so often, NPR Host/Special Correspondent Michele Norris will dip into those six-word stories to explore issues surrounding race and cultural identity for Morning Edition.

Kate Byroade lives in Connecticut, but she has a family history that reaches far back to the American South. She always knew her ancestors had once owned slaves, but had been told again and again, particularly by her Southern grandmother, that the family's slaves had been treated well.

"She was matter-of-fact that the family had owned slaves in the past," Byroade says, "and emphasized that we did not come from 'plantation-type' families — that our slaves had been trusted house servants."

"At first this seemed OK to me because it was OK to her," Byroade continues. "But eventually I understood that the domination of another person's free will was unacceptable."

That realization eventually brought Byroade to her six-word submission to The Race Card Project: "Slavery's legacy broke my family pride."

The idea of the benevolent slave owner is a common one, and looking past that family lore was just one aspect of Byroade's long personal journey of discovery about race.

"Even going back to her childhood, this is something that she's struggled with," Michele Norris tells Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep. "The things she saw in textbooks or the stories she saw on TV — shows like the miniseries Roots — didn't necessarily square with the genteel stories about slavery she heard at the family dinner table."

One childhood incident left a particular psychological mark on Byroade. When she was 10 years old, her class was tasked with an assignment about their immigrant ancestors.

"And I let drop that my family had owned slaves," Byroade recalls. "The school that I attended was probably about, at the time, 60 or 70 percent African-American. ... And I did not think that I was boasting."

On her way home from school that day, a group of black classmates and their older siblings went looking for her, Byroade says. "And those children ... decided that they had to chase me, and they had to scream at me, and they had to yell at me."

That episode stayed with Byroade, and deepened her interest in trying to understand this historical chasm in America — something that became even more complicated the more she learned about her own family's history.

A distant cousin discovered that when Byroade's great-great-great-great-great-grandmother arrived in the U.S. from Ireland in the 1800s, a black child immediately was purchased to serve as a handmaiden, Byroade says.

"And when she discovered that this child had been purchased ... slavery was not just this abstract idea," Norris says. "The history was then attached to a person. It wasn't just an abstraction."

The child's name was Harriet, and she "was a young child in the Indian Territory, scooped up by outlaws and used to cover a bet on a horse race," Byroade says.

Byroade takes pride in the fact that she has surrounded herself with all kinds of diversity. She lives in a diverse neighborhood, she attends a diverse church, and her kids belong to diverse Girl Scout troops. But her family pride isn't quite what it once was.

"I think you can feel pride in the legitimate accomplishments of your ancestors. But I don't think you can feel pride in the fact that they owned slaves," Byroade says. "I don't think you can feel pride that the wealth and prestige was accomplished on the backs of people who were not free, who had no say, who were subject to your whims.

"We are very shy in this culture about calling out the great wickedness of slavery, and we should not be," she says. "We must not be."

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's hear again from the Race Card Project, in which our colleague Michele Norris collects short stories about race and identity; stories that are only six words long yet capture so much depth, especially on the topic we're exploring this week: America's history of slavery, and the way we talk about that history. And people are talking about it since the release of the award-winning movie "12 Years a Slave."

Yesterday, we heard from a black man who was surprised by just how much he was burdened by discovering the details of his slave ancestors' lives. Today, we hear from a white woman whose ancestors were on the other side of the story.

KATE BYROADE: My name is Kate Byroade. I live in West Hartford, Conn., and my six words are: Slavery's legacy broke my family pride.

INSKEEP: Slavery's legacy broke my family pride - those are the six words from Kate Byroade, and our colleague Michele Norris is here to talk about the meaning behind them. Hi, Michele.

MICHELE NORRIS, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK. So, what's the backstory here?

NORRIS: Well, just a little bit about Kate Byroade. She's a librarian. She has two daughters. She now lives in New England, but her family history reaches back to the American South. And as we unpack her six words - slavery's legacy broke my family pride - we should really focus on that last word: pride.

INSKEEP: Why?

NORRIS: Well, for two reasons. First, Kate Byroade is proud of the fact that she has surrounded herself with all kinds of diversity. She lives in a diverse neighborhood. She attends a diverse church. Her kids go to diverse Girl Scout troops; that's really important to her. But there's a different kind of - I guess, more complicated pride that's based on family lore. She's always known that her family has owned slaves, in the South. Where the pride comes in is the fact that the family took some sort of comfort in the idea that the slaves that worked for them were treated better than most; that their slaves were treated well. This is a story that she heard over and over again, especially from her Southern grandmother.

BYROADE: She was matter-of-fact that the family had owned slaves in the past but emphasized that we did not come from plantation-type families, that our slaves had been trusted house servants. At first, this seemed OK to me because it was OK to her. But eventually, I understood that the domination of another person's free will was unacceptable. We are very shy in this culture about calling out the great wickedness of slavery, and we should not be. We must not be.

INSKEEP: Writing there an explanation of her six words. And this notion of the benevolent slave owner is a really common one, and you have someone here who is forcing herself to come to terms with the reality that it was, well, it was slavery.

NORRIS: Yeah. And it's been harder for her to come to terms with it, as she's gotten older. But even going back to her childhood, this is something that she struggled with - you know, when the things that she saw in textbooks, or the stories that she saw in TV and shows like the miniseries "Roots," didn't necessarily square with the genteel stories that she heard at her family dinner table.

NORRIS: And there's one particular incident that really left a psychological mark on her. It happened when she was just 10 years old. She was in school in Bloomfield, Conn. They were doing an assignment on immigrant ancestors, and she shared that story with us. We should listen.

BYROADE: And so we're there in class and actually, one of my best friends is a Mayflower descendant, but I am a Jamestown descendant. And I let drop that my family had owned slaves. Now, this school that I attended was probably about, at the time, 60 or 70 percent African-American in its population. And I did not think that I was boasting.

INSKEEP: Well, how did her fellow students respond to this disclosure, Michele?

NORRIS: Not well. And what really left the strongest impression on her was not necessarily what happened in the classroom, but what happened when she left the classroom. And she was on her way home from school; a group of black students from her school - and their older brothers and sisters from a nearby middle school - went looking for her.

BYROADE: And those children decided that I was - I don't know what they decided. But they decided they had to chase me, and they had to scream at me, and they had to yell at me. And they literally, did that.

NORRIS: Now, Steve, remember, she's just 10 years old when this is happening. She found safety in a stranger's house, someone she knew was home. She pounded on the door. And in the end, this left a mark on her. But instead of making slavery this subject that is taboo - something she never wanted to talk about - it actually deepened her interest in trying to understand this historical chasm in America and, you know, something that became even more difficult and even more complicated for her, the more she learned about her family's history.

INSKEEP: Well, what happened when some relations of hers - as we know from her submission to the Race Card Project - actually went looking for the details?

NORRIS: Well, as she expected, it really shook her up. A distant cousin discovered that when Kate Byroade's five-times great-grandmother arrived in the U.S. in the 1800s from Ireland, a black child - immediately upon her arrival - was purchased to serve as a handmaiden. And after that, when she discovered that this child had been purchased for her five-times great-grandmother, the history was then attached to a person.

INSKEEP: I can feel that as you're telling me this. It becomes a different story.

NORRIS: And I felt it when I talked to Kate Byroade. It wasn't just an abstraction. It was attached to a person - a child, a child who had a name. That child's name was Harriett.

BYROADE: She was a young child in the Indian territory, scooped up by outlaws, and used to cover a bet on a horse race. The outlaws lost, and she covered the bet to the tune of $275, and was eventually sold to an ancestor of mine. She was fortunate to become a member of the family. They set her free. They educated her, and she was able to marry respectably and was a valued member of the community of Fort Smith and Van Buren, Ark.

INSKEEP: Interesting use of the word fortunate, though, Michele, because she was kidnapped. She was snatched from her family.

NORRIS: And she was enslaved. And I asked Kate about that, and she admitted that that was an odd use of that term, but she was really referring to the fact that she was educated and lived better than most slaves, at the time.

INSKEEP: And by the way, this is another confirmation of the plot line of "12 Years a Slave," which is based on a true story of a free black man kidnapped into slavery.

NORRIS: As was this child.

INSKEEP: Now, I want to go back to the word we began with, Michele. You focused on the word pride. The six words were: Slavery's legacy broke my family pride. What does Kate Byroade do about that now?

NORRIS: Well, I'm going to defer to her. Pride is important to all of us, when we think back on our family history, but here's what she has to say about that.

BYROADE: I think you can feel pride in the legitimate accomplishments of your ancestors. But I don't think you can feel pride in the fact that they owned slaves. I don't think you can feel pride that the wealth and prestige was accomplished on the backs of people who were not free; who had no say, who were subject to your whim.

INSKEEP: Kate Byroade, sharing her story through the Race Card Project, as we talk this week about slavery and the discussions that flow from the film "12 Years a Slave." And we're going to continue tomorrow with Michele Norris as we talk to the screenwriter of "12 Years a Slave," John Ridley. Michele, looking forward to it.

NORRIS: I am, too. Thanks, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.