(As part of our Lenten focus on racism and equality, members of our Sacred Conversation on Race Ministry Team will be writing the E-pistles for the next month. This first one is written by Margaret R. We thank her for her offering. — Michael)
A conversation with Erma, my dad’s second cousin, is 90% listening and 10% trying to get a word in edgewise. She is a local history enthusiast, with a lifetime of research in the history of the counties and towns of southeast Iowa. She has read everything she can find about it, interviewed elderly residents, and pored over census records, church records, and the plat books documenting land ownership since the white settlement of the area in the 1830s. Genealogy is like catnip to Erma.
So, I found myself in the dining room of dad’s Assisted Living residence, eating supper with Erma and my Aunt Helen — and listening. At one point, Erma stopped for breath, and reached over to pat Aunt Helen’s arm. “Your great grandfather was a slave hunter, you know.”
I didn’t know that. I don’t know if Aunt Helen knew. She was silent, and so was I. “Look it up. There was a trial in District Court.” Why didn’t anyone tell me this? Did selective family recall omit this shameful memory? It seems so, but thanks to Erma, I know it now.
The Underground Railroad went through our corner of Iowa. We knew of houses with secret spaces where runaway slaves hid, waiting to be guided to the next farm or house. We knew who was running away, but it didn’t occur to me that someone was pursuing them. One of those slave hunters was my great-great grandfather Samuel Slaughter. Did someone pay him, or was he just helping a neighbor? Did he believe that slave owners have a right to own other human beings? It doesn’t matter — any and all reasons for his actions are horrifying.
Ruel Daggs was a slave-owning farmer in Clark County, Missouri. In 1848, nine of his slaves ran away and made their way across the Iowa border, 40 miles north, to Salem, to be sheltered by Quakers. Samuel Slaughter and his men caught up with the runaways, and after a confrontation, five of the runaways escaped and went on to Canada, but four women and children were taken back to Missouri. Under the Fugitive Slave Law, Daggs sued the Quakers in US District Court, seeking compensation for the five escaped slaves. He won and was awarded $2,900.
The legal prose is chilling: “Sam, a black man, aged 40 or 45 years; Walker, 22 or 23, a yellow man; Dorcas, Sam’s wife; Mary, Walker’s wife; Julia, 18 years old; Martha, under 10; William, a small boy; and two younger children, names not remembered. The men worth $900 to $1,000 each; the three women, $600 or $700 each; Martha from $250 to $300; William about $200. Unable to say what was the value of the two children. The services of the men valued at about $100 per year; of the women, $45 or $50.” The slaves, captive human beings, were Daggs’s property. Their monetary value as persons was far above the value of their services.
I understand that the slave trade is woven deeply into our country’s life and history. I have friends who descended from slaves, and friends who descended from slave owners. I see great buildings and college campuses built with slave labor. Today, every day, we see political and social injustices that are rooted in slavery times. I saw much of this as an abstraction, but not any more. My father’s father’s father’s father was a slave hunter.
See you in church,