Growing up my mother spoke passionately against racism. She abhorred prejudice of all kinds. It surprised me as a child, as I never observed anything close to racism in the quiet little southern California town in which I grew up. However, my mom’s passion likely grew from the time she spent in the south, serving in the Army in the early 1960s. It was an era of horrendous discrimination and segregation, and it clearly affected her.
In my naiveté, I was so proud of my mother’s New England heritage. Clearly my mother’s ancestors had no role in slavery. We were Yankees. My ancestors served on the Union side in the Civil War. However, as I studied more, I came to understand that New England has fought hard to rewrite history, trivializing their role during those critical years. Many of New England’s many ship captains earned their wealth transporting slaves to the U.S. New England’s farms supplied produce to those involved in the slave trade. During the colonial era, one in four New Englanders owned at least one slave. Okay, so my Yankee roots aren’t as great as I once thought.
However, my father’s southern roots pain me no end. My ancestry there is firmly planted in Mississippi, Alabama, and Texas. In addition to the Yankees, I have Confederate soldiers in my family tree. I am afraid to know what role my southern forefathers played in the issues surrounding slavery, and how their descendants treated their dark-skinned neighbors after the end of the Civil War.
So it was with great joy that I recently learned that my second cousin five times removed, Bishop Davis Wasgatt Clark, a Methodist minister and renowned author, was a devoted abolitionist. Born in 1812 on Mount Desert Island, Maine, Davis was the first president of the Freedman’s Aid Society, which provided education for freed slaves and their children. They were instrumental in raising the literacy rates of blacks immediately after the conclusion of the Civil War, a priority for slaves to be able to find profitable occupations. Clark College was named in his honor, and later merged with Atlanta University to become the Clark Atlanta University. More details can be found on the NAACP website at http://www.naacpconnect.org/blog/entry/hbcu-profile-clark-atlanta-university.
Davis Wasgatt Clark was not the only outspoken person in his family. His grandfather and namesake, Davis Wasgatt, had alienated himself from friends and neighbors in Eden (now known as Bar Harbor), Maine, when he became a staunch Anabaptist. Davis was also a Revolutionary War soldier, a solid patriot, and one who felt that actions spoke louder than words.
While New England was far from innocent in the evolution of slavery in the U.S., and my ancestors likely did have some sort of role that I will eventually discover, right now I’m pretty proud of my Maine ancestors. Of course, my Wasgatt family stands out prominently among them.