Obama told of family’s slave-owning history in deep South
An amateur genealogist has revealed a surprise in the family tree of the black contender in the race to be the Democrats’ presidential candidate
Reproduced from The Guardian. First published on Sun 4 Mar 2007 12.03 GMT
It is a question that few thought a man aiming to be America’s first black President would ever have to answer: did your family once own slaves?
But that question is now likely to be asked of Senator Barack Obama, who is bidding for the 2008 presidential nomination of the Democratic Party, in part on the appeal of his bi-racial background.
As the son of a black Kenyan father and a white Kansan mother, Obama has seemed to embody a harmonious vision of America’s multiracial society. However, recent revelations have thrown up an unexpected twist in the tale.
Obama’s ancestors on his white mother’s side appear to have been slave owners. William Reitwiesner, an amateur genealogical researcher, has published a history of Obama’s mother’s family and discovered that her ancestors have a distinctly shadowy past.
Reitwiesner traced Obama’s great-great-great-great-grandfather, George Washington Overall, and found that he owned two slaves in Kentucky: a 15-year-old girl and a 25-year-old man. He also found out that Obama’s great-great-great-great-great-grandmother, Mary Duvall, also owned a pair of slaves listed in an 1850 census record. They were a 60-year-old man and a 58-year-old woman. In fact, the Duvalls were a wealthy family whose members were descended from a major landowner, Maureen Duvall, whose estate owned at least 18 slaves in the 17th century.
The news comes at a time when Obama is engaged in a fierce battle with Senator Hillary Clinton to woo black voters in their bids to get the Democratic presidential nomination. It also comes ahead of appearances by both Clinton and Obama today in Selma, Alabama, to mark the anniversary of a famous 1965 civil rights march. This is hardly the best time to be exposed as the descendant of slave owners.
Reitwiesner has posted his research, which he warns is a ‘first draft’, on his website, wargs.com. However, the news is unlikely to be a serious political problem for Obama, despite the fact that some black commentators have accused him of not being a real black American. Nor is he likely to be alone in finding out that his white ancestors once owned the ancestors of his fellow black Americans. America, like Britain, is caught in the grip of a frenzy of genealogical research. Dozens of websites have sprung up, allowing fast and easy access to all sorts of historical records and prompting many Americans to research their family trees.
That can throw up some very surprising results. In fact, last week Obama was not even the only black politician to find out some unusual personal history. The civil rights campaigner, the Reverend Al Sharpton was stunned to discover his slave ancestors were owned by the late politician Strom Thurmond, who once ran for President on a staunchly racist segregationist platform. The pair might even be related. The news prompted Sharpton to issue a statement about his private agony at the revelation. ‘Words cannot fully describe the feelings I had when I learned the awful truth. Not only I am the descendant of slaves, but my family had to endure the particular agony of being slaves to the Thurmonds.’
Obama’s campaign team have handled the news of his family’s slaving past a bit more casually and a lot less emotionally, issuing a statement saying such a family background was ‘representative of America’. That is certainly true. Slavery was the economic bedrock of the American economy in the South before the Civil War. It would come as no surprise that anyone tracing their family roots back to the pre-war South would find that his descendants had owned slaves.
But more edifying discoveries can come from looking at the past too. Another of Obama’s ancestors, his great-great-great-grandfather, Christopher Columbus Clark, fought for the Union army in the Civil War. As a result Obama can also lay claim to relatives who risked their lives to end slavery. ‘While a relative owned slaves, another fought for the Union,’ said Obama spokesman Bill Burton in a statement. Perhaps it is just another case of Obama’s complex past showing that he can have it both ways.
The following correction was printed in the Observer’s For the record column, Sunday March 11 2007
The article above was incorrect to claim that the Rev Al Sharpton’s slave ancestors ‘were owned by the late politician Strom Thurmond, who once stood for President on a staunchly racist, segregationalist platform’. Al Sharpton’s great-grandfather, Coleman Sharpton, was a slave owned by Julia Thurmond, whose grandfather was Strom Thurmond’s great-great-grandfather.
An Obama spokesman did not dispute the information and said Obama’s ancestors “are representative of America.” – Chicago Tribune
While a relative owned slaves, another fought for the Union in the Civil War. And it is a true measure of progress that the descendant of a slave owner would come to marry a student from Kenya and produce a son who would grow up to be a candidate for president.Barack Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton, 2007
The records could add a new dimension to questions by some who have asked whether Obama–who was raised in East Asia and Hawaii and educated at Columbia and Harvard–is attuned to the struggles of American blacks descended from West African slaves.
Gary Boyd Roberts, a senior research scholar at the New England Historic Genealogical Society, said he did not think the slave-holding history was “particularly unusual.”
“If you have a white Southern mother, or a mother from the middle states who has ancestry in the South, it doesn’t strike me that that should be very surprising,” he said. While most such families did not own slaves, many did, Roberts said.
Reitwiesner’s research identifies two other presidential candidates, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), as descendants of slave owners. Three of McCain’s great-great-grandfathers in Mississippi owned slaves, including one who owned 52 in 1860. Two ancestors of Edwards owned one slave each in Georgia in 1860.
It was unclear Thursday night whether Obama was aware of any slave-holding ancestors, but he makes no mention of them in his 1995 memoir, “Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance.”
Genealogical experts who reviewed the Obama family tree at the request of the Sun would not vouch for its findings.
“You just can’t casually throw some documents together and make a sophisticated analysis,” said Tony Burroughs, author of “Black Roots: A Beginner’s Guide to Tracing the African American Family Tree” and a consultant on a New York Daily News project that found that relatives of former Sen. Strom Thurmond appear to have owned the ancestors of civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton. – – Chicago Tribune
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