Monday, March 19, 2018

Mary Gordon: Highland County's Forgotten Child

"On this day in 1857, Mary Gordon, a "free" black child of about 2 years old, was bound out as an apprentice to Stuart C. Slaven until age 18 to learn the business of housekeeping. Slaven was ordered to pay Mary $25 when she reached the age of 18; Mary died at age 16."

This was the account of Mary Gordon's life provided by the Highland County Historical Society. She was born free, but died in bondage. How?

I was at my desk typing when I heard the jingle that has become synonymous with the Highland County Historical Society's problematic way of dealing with slavery. For the better part of two years I've listened to "On This Day" segments that have ranged from very good to downright awful. The history of this area + a lack of diversity + the affinity many citizens have for the Civil War vis-a-vis the Confederate army = the perfect conditions for the continued degradation of bound and enslaved people. 

For several months I've wanted to reach out to the team that produces these tracks, but I know how these conversations tend to go. I have never figured out how to talk about race without triggering the need of some well intentioned person to add the usual qualifiers: "not all", "quit being so sensitive", "my people were oppressed", or my personal favorite: "I don't see color". 

I have to overcome the trap of moral authority. That is my biggest obstacle when writing and/or talking about race. At times, being "right" has negatively affected the way I have shared information. I have a natural air of certainty when it comes to the issues I research, write, and talk about. My "preaching" style can put people on the defensive. This has stopped them from listening. Instead of sharing information and perspectives, people start defending themselves from attacks that aren't part of the conscious dialogue.

With all of that said, the excerpt that started this blog was easily the most problematic 25 seconds of radio I've heard in a long time. Mary's life was treated like a footnote. We learned she was the "free" property of Stuart Slaven. Her interests and dreams didn't make the cut. The fact that a historical society chose to exclude or couldn't produce any more information about her time on Earth is a testament to how little her life still matters. She was born, washed dishes, did laundry, possibly suffered the fate of other young girls who were bound, and then she died.  

I don't ascribe malevolent motives to those who reported on Mary's life. A lot of the information used in these features come from court records and documents that never considered the humanity of the people they were chronicling. This dehumanizing was intentional during slavery. God fearing Christians had to justify their mistreatment of people "made in the image of God", but we can do better. This kind of talk too often gets classified as political correctness. It's easier to call something "PC" and avoid it than it is to investigate things that make us uncomfortable or we don't understand. 

I want the historical society to know It's possible to hurt people without meaning to. It's possible to engage in problematic behavior without knowing it. It's possible for a predominantly white community to unintentionally alienate the minorities among them. This doesn't make a person, institution or a community writ large good or bad. It just means there is more work to do. All of us are susceptible to our own lack of understanding.

A lot of people don't know what it meant to be bound. If you don't know, then it's possible to think living in bondage is better than being a slave, but that isn't true. Being a bond servant was often worse than being a slave. Many of the "free" Blacks who found themselves in bondage never lived to see the freedom they were working for. There were more mixed race "free" Blacks than "free" Blacks with no outward signs of European blood. These mixed race "free" Blacks were often the children of rape. Was Mary Gordon a child of mixed race? Did Stuart Slaven father Mary? Child birth was the leading cause of death for women under 30 during the mid 19th century, was Mary pregnant at the time of her death? Who gives an apprenticeship to a two year old? Did Stuart pay any reparations to Mary's family after her death? These are a few of the questions I have about one of Highland County's forgotten children.