By Xuefei Chen Axelsson
Stockholm, June 30(CED)– More than 100 U.S. leaders – lawmakers, presidents, governors and justices – have slaveholding ancestors, a Reuters examination found. Few are willing to talk about their ties to America’s “original sin”.
chiseled block of sandstone in the U.S. Capitol’s visitor center serves as a reminder that the home of the nation’s Congress was built in part by enslaved Black people. A bronze plaque says the stone, originally part of the building’s exterior, “commemorates their important role in building the Capitol.”
Many lawmakers need look no further than their own family histories to find a much more personal connection to slavery in America, a brutal system of oppression that resulted in the deadliest conflict in U.S. history.
In researching the genealogies of America’s political elite, a Reuters examination found that a fifth of the nation’s congressmen, living presidents, Supreme Court justices and governors are direct descendants of ancestors who enslaved Black people.
Among 536 members of the last sitting Congress, Reuters determined at least 100 descend from slaveholders. Of that group, more than a quarter of the Senate – 28 members – can trace their families to at least one slaveholder.
Those lawmakers from the 117th session of Congress are Democrats and Republicans alike. They include some of the most influential politicians in America: Republican senators Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham, Tom Cotton and James Lankford, and Democrats Elizabeth Warren, Tammy Duckworth, Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan.
In addition, President Joe Biden and every living former U.S. president – except Donald Trump – are direct descendants of slaveholders: Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and – through his white mother’s side – Barack Obama. Trump’s ancestors came to America after slavery was abolished.
Two of the nine sitting U.S. Supreme Court justices – Amy Coney Barrett and Neil Gorsuch – also have direct ancestors who enslaved people.
This series was reported by Tom Bergin, Makini Brice, Nicholas P. Brown, Donna Bryson, Lawrence Delevingne, Brad Heath, Andrea Januta, Gui Qing Koh and Tom Lasseter.
And in 2022, the governors of 11 of the 50 U.S. states were descendants of slaveholders, Reuters found. They include eight chief executives of the 11 states that formed the Confederate States of America, which seceded and waged war to preserve slavery. Two are seeking the Republican nomination for president: Asa Hutchinson, former governor of Arkansas, and Doug Burgum of North Dakota.
South Carolina, where the Civil War began, illustrates the familial ties between the American political elite and the nation’s history of slavery. Every member of the state’s nine-person delegation to the last Congress has an ancestral link. The state’s two Black members of Congress – Senator and Republican presidential candidate Tim Scott and Representative James Clyburn, a powerful Democrat – have forebears who were enslaved. Each of the seven white lawmakers who served in the 117th Congress is a direct descendant of a slaveholder, Reuters found. So too is the state’s Republican governor, Henry McMaster.
Reuters found that at least 8% of Democrats in the last Congress and 28% of Republicans have such ancestors. The preponderance of Republicans reflects the party’s strength in the South, where slavery was concentrated. Although white people enslaved Black people across Northern states in early America, by the eve of the Civil War, slavery was almost entirely a Southern enterprise.
The Reuters examination reveals how intimately tied America remains to the institution of slavery, including through the “people who make the laws that govern our country,” said Henry Louis Gates Jr, a professor at Harvard University who focuses on African and African American research and hosts the popular television genealogy show Finding Your Roots on PBS.
Gates said identifying those familial connections to slaveholders is “not another chapter in the blame game. We do not inherit guilt for our ancestors’ actions.”
“It’s just to say: Look at how closely linked we are to the institution of slavery, and how it informed the lives of the ancestors of people who represent us in the United States Congress today,” Gates said. “This is a learning opportunity for each individual. It is also a learning opportunity for their constituency … and for the American people as a whole.”
In addition to the political leaders Reuters identified, “there are millions of Americans who are descendants of enslavers as well,” said Tony Burroughs, a genealogist who specializes in helping Black Americans trace their ancestries.
What’s unclear is how the proportion of leaders who descend from slaveholders compares to that of all Americans. Among scholars, there is no agreement on precisely how many Americans today have a forebear who enslaved people.
Ancestral ties to slaveholders have been documented previously for a handful of leaders, including Biden, Obama and McConnell. Scholars and journalists have also extensively examined slavery and its legacy, including how the North profited from the institution, and the role slavery played in decisions of past political leaders during the formation of America and after emancipation.
The Reuters examination is different. It focuses on the most powerful U.S. officeholders of today, many of whom have staked key positions on policies related to race. It reveals for the first time, in breadth and in detail, the extent of those leaders’ ancestral connections to what’s commonly called America’s “original sin.” And it explores what it may mean for them to learn – in personal, specific and sometimes graphic ways – the facts behind their own kin’s part in slavery.
Few were willing to discuss the subject: Only a quarter of those identified as having slaveholding ancestors offered any comment to Reuters. Among the silent are politicians who previously have spoken publicly, sometimes eloquently, about the legacy of slavery and the need for racial healing. The reticence underscores the enduring sensitivity of slavery as a political issue, an unease that genealogist Burroughs suggests is greatly amplified for many people when one’s own kin are linked to the brutal institution.
“You probably have a lot of people who are struggling” to process the information about their families, said Burroughs. He said the granular detail Reuters provided the leaders – names, places and circumstances linking their families to slavery – makes the information especially powerful. “But it’s hard for them to be in denial when they have the specific facts in front of them.”
To trace the lineages of the political elite, Reuters journalists assembled tens of thousands of pieces of information contained in thousands of pages of documents. They analyzed U.S. census records, including antebellum tallies of enslaved people known as “slave schedules,” as well as tax documents, estate records, family Bibles, newspaper accounts, and birth and death certificates. The records – in some cases, family wills that show enslaved human beings bequeathed along with feather beds and farm animals – provide a visceral link between today’s decision makers and slavery. In doing so, they expand upon the antiseptic story conveyed by the sandstone monument in the Capitol’s visitor center.
The Reuters research was then vetted by board-certified genealogists, who reviewed each case that linked a contemporary leader to a slaveholding ancestor. Among the examples of lawmakers and their ancestors’ ties to slavery:
U.S. Senator from South Carolina
DIRECT ANCESTOR: Joseph Maddox
NUMBER ENSLAVED: 8
‘the original sin of the country’
The great-great-great-grandfather of Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina. After the death of Graham’s direct ancestor, Joseph Maddox, a receipt from the sale of his estate was prepared. Dated February 1, 1845, it shows the sale of eight people Maddox had enslaved. Among them were five children: Sela, Rubin, James, Sal and Green. The “Negro man Sam” was sold for $155.25. Their names are listed alongside items including a sorrel horse ($10.50) and a folding table ($9.87).
“Senator Graham has called slavery ‘the original sin of the country,’” an aide said in a short written statement in response to a detailed briefing on the Reuters findings about Maddox. Graham didn’t respond to an interview request. In past public remarks, he has spoken about the need to focus on building “a more perfect union rather than looking backward.”
U.S. Representative from South Carolina
DIRECT ANCESTOR: Drucilla Mace
NUMBER ENSLAVED: 15
The great-great-great-grandmother of Representative Nancy Mace, a Republican from South Carolina. The ancestor, Drucilla Mace, had a son, John Mace, who was also a slaveholder. Decades after emancipation, a formerly enslaved man was interviewed, and he recalled being made to work for John Mace, who in 1860 enslaved seven people. John Mace is the great-great-grandfather of Nancy Mace.
In an interview in 1937, the man, Hector Godbolt, recounted watching an overseer summoned by John Mace’s wife put an enslaved person over a fence plank and whip him 75 times with a “cat o’nine tails,” named for the nine knotted strands that ensure each lash inflicted searing pain. After 75 lashes, Godbolt recalled, “Blood run down off him just like you see a stream run.”
Nancy Mace initially agreed to an interview, then canceled. She later provided this statement in response to the family tree Reuters provided: “I don’t recognize these people named and can’t confirm they are relatives, but slavery was a stain on this country and we as Americans should be grateful for the progress we’ve made since the 1860s.”
The full 1937 interview with Hector Godbolt(spelled Godbold in the interview document), an enslaved man who was forced to work for an ancestor of Representative Nancy Mace, is part of a government collection called Slave Narratives.
U.S. Senator from Illinois
DIRECT ANCESTOR: Henry Coe
NUMBER ENSLAVED: 4
The great-great-great-great-great-grandfather of Senator Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat from Illinois. Duckworth described the facts Reuters unearthed as “gut-wrenching.” In an 1829 appraisal of the estate of her ancestor, Henry Coe, the names of the enslaved – and their assessed dollar values – are bookended by farm animals: seven sheep and a lamb, and a bull calf.
Coe left to various family members “my negro woman Margaret until she shall arrive at the age of forty years, and my negro boy Isaac until he is thirty-six years old, also my negro boy Warner until he is thirty-six years old …” and “my negro boy George … till he is thirty-six years old.” The will said that each would be freed when reaching the stated age. Reuters could not determine what became of three of the enslaved. But a Freedom Suit in Virginia in 1858 shows that Isaac Franklin – the child named Isaac mentioned in the Coe will – sought emancipation at age 36. By the 1860 census, he was listed in Frederick County, Virginia, living as a free man and working as a blacksmith.
Duckworth is a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, a service organization of women descended from veterans of the Revolutionary War. She said she hadn’t known about her familial ties to slavery. “There’s definitely political implications of the subject,” Duckworth said in an interview, when asked if she was reluctant to discuss it. “But I think it’s a disservice to our nation and our history to walk away from this. If I am going to claim – and be proud that – I am a Daughter of the American Revolution, then I have to acknowledge that I am also a daughter of people who enslaved other people.”
A Pivotal Time
The new insights into the political elite’s ancestral links to slavery come at a time of renewed and intense debate about the meaning of the institution’s legacy and what, if anything, lawmakers should do about it.
Protests over police treatment of Black people shook the United States after a white Minnesota police officer killed George Floyd, a Black man, in May 2020. Activists pushed to remove monuments dedicated to the Confederacy, and tensions flared along partisan lines. In September 2020, President Donald Trump signed an executive order precluding federal funding for training that portrayed the United States as “fundamentally racist or sexist.” Biden revoked the order in January 2021.
Politicians and jurists continue to grapple with a vast array of questions, such as the future of affirmative action in college admissions and how to teach about slavery and racism in American classrooms. One contentious issue is financial reparations for Americans whose ancestors were enslaved. In May 2022, a consortium of activist groups urged President Biden to create by executive order a federal commission “to study and develop reparations proposals for African Americans.” A House resolution submitted this May argues for trillions of dollars in reparations. Similar bills, most notably House Resolution 40 and its Senate equivalent, have stalled over the years in Congress.
An actor ‘embarrassed’
Politicians aren’t the only ones who are reluctant to discuss ancestral slaveholders. In 2015, PBS announced it had suspended a season of its genealogy series Finding Your Roots after it was revealed that actor Ben Affleck had successfully pressured its producers to omit details about an ancestor who had enslaved people. The incident came to light after a WikiLeaks dump of hacked emails showed host Henry Louis Gates Jr asking a Sony executive for advice about a star who had asked to keep that aspect of his ancestry private.
In the aftermath, PBS said the show’s third season would not run until staffing changes, including the hiring of a fact checker. The series resumed the next year.
“I didn’t want any television show about my family to include a guy who owned slaves. I was embarrassed. The very thought left a bad taste in my mouth,” Affleck later posted on Facebook.
The White House had no comment on the efforts by the activist groups or on Biden’s ancestral ties to slavery. The president’s great-great-great-grandfather enslaved a 14-year-old boy in 1850, census records show.
None of the 118 leaders identified by Reuters disputed the findings that at least one of their ancestors had enslaved people. In a letter describing the project to them, Reuters made clear that it was not suggesting they were “personally responsible for the actions of ancestors who lived 160 or more years ago.” Even so, few leaders were willing to discuss their family ties to slavery.
Reporters contacted each of the 100 current or former members of Congress and the 18 presidents, governors or justices, providing the letter along with a family tree and documents showing their ancestral link to a slaveholding forebear. Many were contacted multiple times, by email and phone, in office visits and by certified mail or FedEx.
Among those who offered a statement was former President Bush. Through an aide, Bush reiterated a comment he made at the dedication of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2016: “A great nation does not hide its history; it faces its flaws and corrects them.”
Of the 100 congressional lawmakers, 24 responded to the materials Reuters delivered. Another nine said they had no comment. The remaining 67 offered no reply.
The reticence was true of members of both parties. For members of the 117th Congress, Reuters identified 77 Republicans, 22 Democrats and one Independent whose ancestors enslaved people. Of those 77 Republicans, 10 commented on the findings. Of the 22 Democrats, 14 commented. Independent Angus King did not respond.
To explore more about the connections to slavery of each of the 118 leaders, and to see how they responded to the Reuters findings, click here.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll for this report suggests that a politician’s links to slavery might sway some voters. In a national survey, almost a quarter of respondents – 23% – said knowing that a candidate’s ancestors enslaved people would make them less likely to vote for that candidate. That number rose to 31% among respondents who identified as Democrats, and 35% among Black respondents. What’s unclear is how significant the topic is compared to race relations more broadly or other hot-button issues such as abortion.
Candidate’s ancestral ties to slavery
A Reuters/Ipsos survey asked, “Would knowing that a political candidate’s ancestors or family members owned slaves in America make you more or less likely to vote for them?” The result indicates that the issue could sway some voters.https://graphics.thomsonreuters.com/srepfiles/2023/K2RubQlihNC/en/chart-voting/interactive/index.html?initialWidth=635&childId=chart-voting&parentTitle=More%20than%20100%20U.S.%20political%20elites%20have%20family%20links%20to%20slavery&parentUrl=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.reuters.com%2Finvestigates%2Fspecial-report%2Fusa-slavery-lawmakers%2F%3Futm_source%3DSailthru%26utm_medium%3DNewsletter%26utm_campaign%3DDaily-Briefing%26utm_term%3D062723
One member of the 117th Congress with a slaveholding ancestor, former Representative Mo Brooks of Alabama, questioned what the country has to gain from revisiting the topic.
“Hopefully, everybody in America is smart enough to know that slavery is abhorrent,” Brooks, who lost a U.S. Senate bid last year, said in a phone interview. “So the question then becomes, if everybody already knows that it’s abhorrent, what more can you teach from that?”
Scholars say that establishing the grim details of the history of slavery is essential to understanding the nation’s past and bridging racial divides.
“There’s a kind of moral value to documenting this crime and acknowledging that happened, and getting into specifics about what its nature was, and that involves saying who was involved,” said Sean Kelley, an American-born professor at the University of Essex who specializes in the transatlantic slave trade.
Knowing those specifics is crucial, Kelley said, “if there’s to be a reconciliation of some kind, racially, in the United States.”
The Reuters/Ipsos survey offers some support for that view, too: It suggests that, for some Americans, knowing of an ancestor’s involvement in slavery can shape views on controversial policy questions.
White respondents who said they’re aware of having a slaveholding ancestor were more likely than other white people to support paying reparations: 42% backed the idea, compared to 24% who said their ancestors did not enslave people. The same held true for the idea of having Congress create a commission to formally apologize for slavery: 53% of white people who said they knew of an ancestral tie to slaveholding supported it, versus 39% of those who said their families had not enslaved people.
The power of knowing
A Reuters/Ipsos poll shows that Americans who said they knew their ancestors were slaveholders are more likely to support government reparations to descendants of the enslaved or to Black Americans.https://graphics.thomsonreuters.com/srepfiles/2023/K2RubQlihNC/en/chart-reparations/interactive/index.html?initialWidth=635&childId=chart-reparations&parentTitle=More%20than%20100%20U.S.%20political%20elites%20have%20family%20links%20to%20slavery&parentUrl=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.reuters.com%2Finvestigates%2Fspecial-report%2Fusa-slavery-lawmakers%2F%3Futm_source%3DSailthru%26utm_medium%3DNewsletter%26utm_campaign%3DDaily-Briefing%26utm_term%3D062723
That dynamic held true across party lines: 24% of white Republicans who said they know of an ancestor who enslaved people supported reparations, compared to 12% who said their ancestors were not slaveholders.
Genealogists say white people who excavate their ancestry could help Black Americans by finding information that enables them to trace their own ancestries. Black genealogy faces a special hurdle: Before 1870, census takers almost never recorded the names of the enslaved in the United States, instead listing ages and genders.
In researching America’s political elite, Reuters found names – almost always just a first name – of 712 people enslaved by the ancestors of the political elite. Even with a first name, tracing those individuals forward to a census where they are recorded in full is often exceedingly difficult. But white families may have other documents – such as wills, plantation records or family Bibles that list the names of the enslaved – or know where to find them.
“People don’t realize how many documents are still in the family,” said genealogist Burroughs. He asked the leaders identified by Reuters to “go back and review their family archives, and see what documents they have pertaining to slavery and make them available to the public. That will help tremendously.” Those documents could be shared with a university library, a local or state historical society or other archives, genealogists say.
Lost Wealth, Lasting Status
For most of the forebears identified by Reuters, slavery wasn’t practiced on the vast plantations romanticized in works such as Gone with the Wind. Only a few leaders had an ancestor whose slaveholdings were large enough to place them among the South’s so-called planter elites, operators of the largest tracts.
In states where slavery was legal, Reuters counted about one slaveholder for every four households in 1860, based on census data from IPUMS’ National Historical Geographic Information System.
Most ancestors of members of Congress typified the medium-scale slaveholders of the antebellum South. An analysis of census data shows that in 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, the average number of people who congressional ancestors enslaved was slightly larger than for the average slaveholder: about 15 people per forebear, compared with an average of 10 across the South. Most Southern slaveholders enslaved fewer than 10 people, however. The average was pulled higher by a comparatively small number of landowners who held larger numbers of people in captivity.
The ancestors of congressional lawmakers were nonetheless among the richest in their communities and in America as a whole before the Civil War. Almost all of the slaveholding ancestors for whom Reuters could track assets were among the wealthiest 20% of Americans in 1860, according to census data. Three-quarters were among the richest 10%, the Reuters analysis found.
Emancipation dealt a staggering blow to that wealth at the end of the Civil War. But many slaveholding families bounced back.
A 2021 study in the American Economic Review found that the largest slaveholders sustained one of the greatest wealth shocks recorded in history. But their grandsons had almost completely recovered their economic status by 1940– aided, the authors concluded, by elite kinship networks and social class connections.
In looking at the members of Congress whose ancestors were slaveholders, Reuters found that some of these families, too, recovered financially by 1940. But limitations in census data make it difficult to track wealth after 1870.
U.S. Representative from Texas
DIRECT ANCESTOR: Richard Sessions
NUMBER ENSLAVED: 96
One of the wealthiest slaveholders was Richard Sessions, the great-great-grandfather of Representative Pete Sessions, a Republican from Texas. A family history written by the congressman’s grandfather in 1975 tells a riches-to-rags story involving the Sessions’ cotton plantation along the Mississippi River: a place called Luna Landing in Chicot County, Arkansas, where more than 80% of the residents in 1860 were Black.
The family book depicts the affluence of Richard Sessions before the war. It also documents the dependency of his fortune on the labor of those he enslaved.
Richard Sessions owned about 770 acres of some of the most fertile land in the South. By 1860, census records show, the 43-year-old Sessions was among the richest 1% in America. His land in Chicot County was valued at $75,000. His personal wealth – measured largely in human property – was far greater: $200,000, or $113 million in today’s money by one calculation.
An 1860 local tax list indicates he owned $1,000 in household furniture, two “pleasure carriages,” and at least eight horses, 30 mules and 40 head of cattle.
Sessions had 96 enslaved people working his land and tending to his family, according to the slave schedule portion of the 1860 census.
Many slave schedules listed each person who was enslaved, individually, but almost never named them. The census taker’s entry for those in bondage by Sessions is even more impersonal. It grouped the enslaved by age and sex: There is an entry for three unnamed 55-year-old men, for example. Thirteen 25-year-old men. Twelve 15-year-old girls. And so on.
Then the war came, and according to the family history, Union soldiers plundered Sessions’ 27-room house.
Sessions emerged from the war as defeated as the Confederacy. About 48 years old at the time, he did not stand a chance to succeed without slavery, the family history suggests.
It “must be remembered that while he had known how to manage slaves, the prospect for dealing with free-slaves was altogether something new and untried,” the family book says. He sold his land and moved to Illinois to try his luck as a farmer. “He did not understand farming, and in the course of four crops, he had lost everything he had.”
The Sessions family later rebounded, though, like so many others. Richard’s distinguished descendants included William Sessions, a former head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who is the father of House member Pete Sessions.
Pete Sessions didn’t respond to five requests for comment.
Members of Congress often speak proudly of their ancestries, highlighting long ties to the places they serve or offering a family story emblematic of the American Dream.
U.S. Senator from Arkansas
DIRECT ANCESTOR: John Cowger
NUMBER ENSLAVED: 6
One is Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas. He describes his origins as “ a sixth-generation Arkansan who was born and raised on his family’s cattle farm in Yell County.” Cotton’s great-great-great-grandfather, John Cowger, enslaved six people in 1850: four women, ages 30, 22, 20 and 17, and two men, ages 20 and 19. At that time, Cowger was living in Mississippi, census records show. He subsequently acquired land in Yell County, Arkansas, which he gave to his son.
Cotton did not respond to five requests for comment.
Some members with slaveholding ancestors have spoken in support of racial reconciliation.
U.S. Senator from New Hampshire
DIRECT ANCESTOR: Archibald Crawford
NUMBER ENSLAVED: 10
Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat from New Hampshire, has said that Juneteenth is a day to “reflect on slavery’s legacy, and recommit to confronting the systemic racism that still exists in our society.” A few years ago, Shaheen told CNN that she can trace her family lineage to Pocahontas, who was born in about 1596. Reuters found that Shaheen’s fourth great-grandparent, Archibald Crawford, enslaved 10 people in 1840, including three boys and two girls under the age of 10.
Presented with the findings, an aide sent a statement that included information that Shaheen was once “a teacher at a Mississippi school that had recently been integrated.”
U.S. Senator from Oklahoma
DIRECT ANCESTOR: Edmond Dillehay
NUMBER ENSLAVED: 2
Another lawmaker who speaks about racial reconciliation is Senator James Lankford, a Republican from Oklahoma. In his 1827 will, Lankford’s ancestor Edmond Dillehay left to his wife “one black boy named Peter” and a “black girl named Milly and her increase” – that is, any children Milly would bear.
In January 2021, Lankford wrote an open letter to his constituents a few months before the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre. The 1921 attack by a white mob left hundreds of Black residents dead and destroyed 35 square blocks of the city.
Lankford had voiced support for creating an electoral commission to review the results of the 2020 presidential election before winner Biden took office that month – part of Trump’s multi-pronged effort to overturn the outcome. The Senator expressed deep regret for the decision. Biden beat Trump by 7 million votes, thanks in part to overwhelming support from Black voters.
Lankford had not realized, he wrote, that his support for the pro-Trump review would cause “a firestorm of suspicion among many of my friends, particularly in Black communities around the state,” who viewed the move as tantamount to backing the disenfranchisement of Black voters.
“I was completely blindsided,” he wrote of the reaction, “but I also found a blind spot. What I did not realize was all of the national conversation about states like Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, was seen as casting doubt on the validity of votes coming out of predominantly Black communities…” Lankford said he was committed to “answering questions, and addressing our challenges to strive toward a more perfect union.” The nation, he wrote, would soon look to Tulsa to ask: “How have things changed in the last 100 years?”
Reuters made six unsuccessful requests to Lankford for comment.
U.S. Representative from South Carolina
DIRECT ANCESTOR: Stephen H. Boineau
NUMBER ENSLAVED: 16
Joe Wilson is the Republican Congressman from South Carolina who famously shouted “You lie!” at America’s first Black president, Barack Obama, during a joint session of Congress in 2009. Wilson has at least five slaveholders among his forebears. His ancestors first enslaved Black people during the 1700s, Reuters found.
Among the slaveholders was Wilson’s great-great-grandfather, Stephen H. Boineau. In 1860, he enslaved 16 people, ranging from an 8-month-old girl to a 50-year-old man. Boineau also worked for another enslaver as an overseer – a man who enforced plantation rules and monitored the conduct of the enslaved.
Wilson did not respond to five requests for comment.
For most of his adult life, he has spoken passionately about the importance of heritage and history in both personal and political terms. In doing so, he has demonstrated a deep curiosity about his genealogy.
During a speech at the South Carolina General Assembly in 2000, a year before being elected to Congress, Wilson said keeping the Confederate flag flying at the statehouse was “very, very personal. And it’s personal because it’s my family,” he said. “For me, it began very early in that I was named for a Confederate general, General David Addison Weisiger.”
In that speech, Wilson – whose given name is Addison Graves Wilson – noted that ancestor Weisiger “was not a plantation owner; he was a bank cashier.” Wilson didn’t mention that Weisiger, an uncle of his great-great-grandmother, nevertheless enslaved seven people in southeast Virginia in 1860. They ranged in age from 5 to 45.
In 2009, the Congressional Record shows a statement from Wilson about his German heritage. Wilson mentioned the name of an ancestor, Daniel Weisiger, who he said was born in Frankfurt, Germany, and immigrated to Pennsylvania in 1731 before settling in Chesterfield County, Virginia.
Reuters found that one of Wilson’s Weisiger ancestors was a slaveholder in 1786. A tax book for Chesterfield County shows Daniel Weisiger’s son, Samuel, having five “negroes” on a form that also listed his cattle and horses. Samuel Weisiger gave his son the same name as his father: Daniel. In 1830, son Daniel Weisiger held 15 enslaved people, according to the census.
U.S. Representative from California
DIRECT ANCESTOR: Jesse Brownley
NUMBER ENSLAVED: 3
Representative Julia Brownley, a Democrat from California, spoke with a reporter via Zoom after Reuters emailed her a document about her ancestor Jesse Brownley. According to the 1850 census, her forebear enslaved three people in Portsmouth, Virginia. One was an 8-year-old girl.
When the reporter pointed that out, Brownley held her hand to her mouth.
“I served 12 years on a school board fighting for children,” she said. “So just hearing that strikes a chord with me.”
Brownley grew up in Virginia. When desegregation came to the public schools in her town, she said, her parents enrolled her in an all-white girls boarding school three hours from home. Her world widened when she studied political science and history at Mount Vernon College, a women’s school that later merged with George Washington University, allowing her to meet a broader range of people, including a Black roommate.
“I don’t really have many opportunities to talk about … how I had evolved into who I am,” she said. “I like to be able to talk about it and be proud of it in some sense.”
Former U.S. Representative from Alabama
DIRECT ANCESTOR: Thomas Ferguson
NUMBER ENSLAVED: 1
One of the few Republican lawmakers who addressed his family’s ties to slavery was Brooks. He represented an Alabama district in the House of Representatives for 12 years until he lost a bid for the Senate last year.
In an interview, Brooks said he hadn’t known that his ancestor, great-great-great-grandfather Thomas Ferguson, was a slaveholder. The farmer held one person – a 7-year-old boy – in bondage in Haywood County, North Carolina, according to the 1860 slave schedule. Reuters could find no records that show what became of the child’s parents. Had they died? Or was the family separated, sold piecemeal to other slaveholders?
Brooks wondered whether there might be a happier story behind why the boy was listed on the schedule. “It is hard to envision what kind of labor a 7-year-old boy could do to offset the food, shelter, clothing costs of that 7-year-old boy. Which raises the issue of whether this ancestor had the boy in his possession in a traditional slavery sense, or was intending to set that boy free once he reached the age of majority,” Brooks said.
Manumission was “highly unusual,” said historian Marie Jenkins Schwartz, author of Born in Bondage: Growing Up Enslaved in the Antebellum South. “By the age of 7, an enslaved child would be expected to be productive,” potentially helping around the slaveholder’s house, watching their children, and learning agricultural or other adult jobs, she said. “They certainly didn’t have a life of leisure.”
When he was in Congress, Brooks was one of 14 members who voted against making Juneteenth a national holiday. Brooks told Reuters that he preferred such a holiday be on a day he considered to be of broader national significance, such as when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. In addition, Brooks said he also was concerned about the cost of adding a federal holiday without eliminating a current one.
In June 2021, Brooks co-sponsored a bill called the Saving American History Act.
The bill directs that federal funding be withheld from schools that wish to teach materials based on the New York Times’ 1619 Project, a series of essays about the founding of America that argued the start of African slavery that year wasn’t just the country’s original sin but “as important to the American story as 1776,” the year the United States declared independence. The scholarship of the series has been hailed by some professional historians and criticized by others. The bill didn’t make it to the House floor for a vote.
“The Federal Government,” the bill reads, “has a strong interest in promoting an accurate account of the Nation’s history through public schools and forming young people into knowledgeable and patriotic citizens.”
“It’s always good to know history,” Brooks told Reuters.
Asked about his view on reparations, Brooks said the country has already paid one form of restitution, through a Civil War-era program proposed by Union General William Tecumseh Sherman.
“You may remember – what was it – 40 acres and a mule?” Brooks asked. “Now I’d have to check my history on how prevalent that was. But some freed slaves were given some amount of reparations, if my memory serves me correctly, and that is the origin of the phrase ‘40 acres and a mule.’”
As Harvard’s Gates wrote, Sherman did issue a special order in 1865 calling for liberated families under his protection to be issued land and, later, a mule. The property in question was a strip of land down the country’s southeastern coast.
Had the order been followed, it would have provided Black Americans assets upon which to build new lives and perhaps pass wealth to subsequent generations.
But the program ended quickly, Gates wrote. President Andrew Johnson, the Southern sympathizer who succeeded Abraham Lincoln, “overturned the Order in the fall of 1865” and returned the land “to the very people who had declared war on the United States of America.”
The United States has never paid restitution for slavery.
‘A Better Nation’
Some historians and genealogists say there is a valuable reason for white leaders – and other white Americans – to explore their links to slavery.
Many white families may have records that are not in the public domain – documents that could help Black Americans trace their own ancestries to before 1870, when the formerly enslaved were first recorded by name in the U.S. census. Before emancipation, the historical record bears scant detailed traces of individual Black Americans. Not so for white people: Old letters, family Bibles, or other records left behind by white Americans hold the potential to unlock mysteries for the descendants of the 3.9 million Black Americans who were enslaved at the start of the Civil War.
Nicka Sewell-Smith, a professional genealogist with the family history website Ancestry.com, said people frequently ask her what to do with such documents. “‘My mom had this set of papers in the attic and it has names of enslaved people … Where do I put it?’” Sewell-Smith said. (Her suggestion is to upload them to Ancestry.com, where others researching the same family can find them. The site requires a subscription.) More and more Americans are interested in genealogy, she said, and they think, “‘Oh, my gosh, I might be holding on to something in my house that other people need to even make a connection with their ancestors.’”
That shared effort might bring a divided country closer, said board-certified genealogist LaBrenda Garrett-Nelson.
Garrett-Nelson, who worked with Reuters to review its reporting, said generations of Americans “were socialized to think of African-descended families as people who had no history worth remembering.” She is a current trustee and former president of the board of trustees for the Board for Certification of Genealogists.
“We as genealogists can play a role in helping our country move toward a process of true reconciliation, something that cannot happen until we honestly face the past,” she said.
U.S. Representative from Washington
DIRECT ANCESTOR: John Wiggins
NUMBER ENSLAVED: 3
Congressman Rick Larsen, a Democrat from the state of Washington, learned from Reuters that his ancestor enslaved people. Among the papers a reporter shared with Larsen was an 1828 will left by his ancestor, John Wiggins. Unlike the U.S. census forms during that era, which gave only the numbers of enslaved people held by a household, the will listed names – a fact Larsen highlighted in a statement to Reuters.
“When he died in Nicholas County, Kentucky, records show John Wiggins left three enslaved persons – Gilbura, George and Agg – to his wife,” Larsen said.
Larsen continued: “I want to honor Gilbura, George and Agg. It may be difficult to document their family tree, yet I truly hope there is a record of their lives where their descendants thrived in this country as whole persons with the human dignity they deserved.” Reuters could find no record of the three in the 1870 census.
For Representative Gregory Meeks, a Black congressman who represents a district in Queens, New York, the search for his ancestors continues. The top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Meeks said in an interview that he has spent years trying to trace his family history back before 1870.
Meeks grew up in New York but spent summers in South Carolina, where his parents were from. Born in 1953, he said he remembers traces of the Jim Crow South during his visits. His grandfather once ordered him to hide under the bed because of rumors the Ku Klux Klan was coming through York County.
In search of his ancestors, Meeks checked real-estate papers, church documents and birth records. He also spoke to older relatives from South Carolina.
In an interview at his office, Meeks said he was working to “put some of those pieces together.”
He has found the birth certificate of his grandfather, a man born right after emancipation. The information it gives for that man’s father – Meeks’ great-grandfather – “shows that he was a slave,” Meeks said.
“I’m still in the process, actually, of trying to dig deeper,” he said.
Meeks said he has talked about family heritage with one of his white congressional colleagues, who “goes all the way back to the 1600s with his family … I’m jealous of that, because I don’t have any ability to do that, but he can talk about his family and have a history, a record of them – and I’d like to be able to do that also.”
About 15 years ago, Meeks said, he took a DNA test that showed his family came from the Mende people of Sierra Leone. Last year, he led a congressional delegation to Africa. In Sierra Leone, the lawmakers stopped at Bunce Island, a former slave-trading port.
“It was the most emotional moment for me on the trip,” Meeks said. “All you can do is sit and pray to God and close your eyes, which is what I did, knowing that my ancestors were whipped, put in chains and put into the hulls of slave ships.”
Meeks said he plans to keep searching for the details of his ancestors’ story so he can share it with his grandchildren and “tell the truth of what took place with our family, how they made it through slavery.”
That way, Meeks said, they can “be proud of what we had to overcome in this country, to be a part of it and to make it a better nation.”
A REUTERS SERIES
REPARATIONSWhere some of slavery’s descendants stand
MAKING AMENDSA history of reparations
METHODOLOGYHow we researched the genealogies
RESOURCESWebinars for researching your roots
- More Reuters investigations and long-form narratives
- Got a confidential news tip? Reuters Investigates offers several ways to securely contact our reporters
By Tom Bergin, Makini Brice, Nicholas P. Brown, Donna Bryson, Lawrence Delevingne, Brad Heath, Andrea Januta, Gui Qing Koh and Tom Lasseter
Contributed: Grant Smith and Maurice Tamman
Art direction and illustrations: Catherine Tai
Design: John Emerson
Video production: Jane Ross, Emma Jehle
Visuals editor: Jeremy Schultz
Edited by Blake Morrison
- Follow Reuters Investigates
“All We Are is Memory”On a journey to the town where her ancestors lived and died, a Reuters journalist considers how today’s America can learn from, rather than avoid, its racist past.“The Slaves Built That”The discovery of slaveholders in the family raises questions about past and present – and sparks a search for a living descendant of people his ancestors enslaved.No RecourseMerck’s asthma drug, Singulair, has been linked for years to suicides. But lawsuits over it are stymied by one of Corporate America’s go-to legal defenses.A Distant WarReuters traced the stories of three African men who travelled to Russia in hope of advancement, then ended up fighting for Wagner on the battlefields of Ukraine.