Robert E. Lee Was a Cousin of Mine

This weekend, a lot of rhetoric flowed exhorting us to respond to a horrifying display of white supremacy in Charlottesville, Virginia. One thing that resonated with me was the exhortation by some of my black friends to me, as a white woman, that I need to collect my people.

The only people who should be standing up to white people is white people! Go get your people! Too many black and brown lives lost by the hands of your own Nazi nationalist, racist, exploiters, capitalists etc in this country!!

Black n brown people need to recharge for the battle ahead in case you don’t take your job seriously and the way silence is set up #DOTHEWORK

I don’t like to think that white nationalism, homicide, and brutal ugly threatening fear-based hate are defining characteristics of my people, but they are not wrong here. So I’m gonna try to do that.

A few months ago, I tried a new genealogy app from called We’re Related which uses family trees and Facebook friendship data to identify potential new kinfolk. It isn’t a guaranteed relationship, I have had to do the hard work of proving that I am related to Johnny Cash, Chelsea Clinton, Winston Churchill, Margaret Meade and more.

My tree has nearly 20,000 people and several of my family branches reach back to the very early days of the British Colonial times in the US, mostly on my maternal side. My great-grandmother, Harriet Hackney Pryor, was from Tennessee and from several big families with roots throughout North Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky and beyond.

That’s where I discovered our connection Robert E. Lee. He’s my 4th cousin 7x removed. I saw that suggestion months ago and decided to ignore it. I had enough stress with my own direct ancestors, many of whom enslaved black people for decades and many of whom continued to derive benefit from Jim Crow and modern incarnations of the oppression of black people and other people of color. I wanted the app to be fun and light, an escape, a game.

After reading my friend’s comment, I took a breath and went back to look at the Robert E. Lee connection. His legacy was at the center of the ‘Unite the Right’ cry yesterday as the purported reason for the gathering was the planned removal of a statue of Lee and renaming the park itself to ‘Emancipation Park.’ To be clear, the statue still stands and the legal debates over removal still rage, whereas the park has been renamed per Charlottesville City Council.

Lee is my 4th cousin 7x removed. Our shared ancestor is Katherine F Jennings (1614-1678) who emigrated from England to Virginia. Her son Charles was Robert E. Lee’s ancestor. Her daughter Mary Debnam is mine – her descendants include my great-grandmother Harriet Belle Hackney.

There’s a reason this resonates with me. My great-grandmother grew up in the South during Jim Crow as a white woman. She eventually settled in Connecticut with her husband. She died before I was born and there is almost no information on her backstory that has been handed down.

She was the literal beneficiary of the Jim Crow legacy, regardless of her personal life story and experiences. The modest wealth she and her husband accrued had a direct impact on the lives of my grandparents and my mother and her siblings – it put some through Dartmouth, made a life in suburban Bethel Park possible including the support of a black woman who was the housekeeper/caretaker for the children, and was part of the foundation that made both of my uncles affluent conservative Republican Catholic men.

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Let me stop here to specify that the woman who worked for my grandparents was named Della M. Green Saunders (1910-1995) of Finleyville. She was one of the only loving and stable influences in the lives of my mother and me. I don’t want to delve into her story, because it is not mine to tell. But I do want to say her actual name and avoid a dishonest narrative of our personal relationship that does not acknowledge the larger context. I know there was genuine love from my mother, but I have no way of knowing if that meant she was compensated fairly, treated with respect, and so forth by my grandparents. I loved her as sincerely as a child could and felt loved by her. Saying her name is honoring the good that I know to be true.

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From my point of view, the most relevant aspects of the legacy of Robert E. Lee is the white supremacy fetish with his statues and those of others Confederate symbols that were used by the KKK to maintain white supremacy in the South via the post Civil War reign of white terror. And I’m reminded of that each time I drive up to Lawrence and Mercer counties where Confederate flags welcome me to rural Pennsylvania. Then again, someone had Confederate flags on display in Bloomfield during Little Italy Days last summer. From a New York magazine piece:

Neo-Confederacy is in some respects even more consciously racist than the Confederacy itself. But however you assess its motives, it has been very clearly focused not on the personalities and sacrifices of the Civil War, but on the racist South’s long and amazingly successful struggle to maintain white supremacy despite the abolition (formally, at least) of slavery and the enactment of the Civil War amendments to the Constitution that were long in conflict with southern realities. As Serwer notes, Lee was a convenient symbol of the supposed “reconciliation” between North and South that made Jim Crow possible.

To me, there’s a direct line from the person who decided to sell Confederate flags in Bloomfield to the dude with the flag on his pickup truck in Mercer County to the suburban mom who yells a racial slur when she’s frustrated to the parents who avoid Pittsburgh Public Schools to the absentee landlords to the 70-year-old white folks who were raised by black women in suburban neighborhoods here in Pittsburgh to the people who voted for Trump to … me.

There’s a fetish angle to genealogy, too. People love being related to famous people and the Internet is filled with white apologists scrubbing their legacy ties to slavery, Jim Crow, etc. My distant connection to Robert E. Lee doesn’t make me accountable for his personal choices, but it also doesn’t give me license to cherry pick the parts of his legacy that I find attractive. He certainly doesn’t need me to defend his historical legacy, not do I really care to try.

I care about the lives of my black friends and neighbors. I care about the world my nieces and nephews will inherit and how they experience it as children. I care about my complicity in erecting and maintaining oppressive systems. I care about facts, historical truth and fairness. I grew up in a family that covered every secret, no matter how small, so I am not in the least bit shocked to realize no one talked about the real experiences of our great and 2x great grandparents. I’m not surprised they shy away from true stories that are uncomfortable and difficult to accept.

You’re white tears aren’t saving our black lives! Put your war boots on and go handle ya business, that’s your people! After your protest is over, will you actually fight or continue making tweets and posts? We need action #blacklivesmatter #blacktranslivesmatter

Still, it is time for me to collect my white folks. And that includes my ancestors who owned human beings as well as those who benefitted from the enslavement of those people. That includes distant cousins who built the framework of the U.S. government and other institutions that sustain oppression. It includes the affluent immigrants who ‘purchased’ land that didn’t belong to the sellers and built villages, churches and business enterprises that depended upon a slavery driven economy to grow. It includes the thousands of living cousins whose lives were shaped by those circumstances and choices.

Denying our history is another dysfunctional choice that perpetuates an ugly, vicious reality for those who do not have other identities to cosset them. Romanticizing our family heritage is not much different from rewriting Civil War history to support an idealized noble Southern history.

I can have difficult conversations with the white folks from my family of origin and my current friends. Collecting my white people is akin to asking men to hold other men accountable when they make sexist comments/jokes/etc. It is using the shared identity, be it race or gender, to have that talk that is essential to breaking down the ignorance, willful or not. If you are a white person reading this blog, you are someone I hope to reach.

And I can hold up a truthful family history story (with citations) versus the carefully edited script others believe to maintain their comfortable white privileged worlds. I benefitted from the rewrite of Robert E. Lee’s legacy and that benefit stays with me to this day.

So what can we do? What can I do?

My go-to answer here is to encourage you to invest in the leadership of Black Americans, especially Black women. Investing might be a one-time donation, it might be reading suggested links on a website, it might be doing some critical self-reflection on how you challenge anti-blackness in yourself. It should be all of those things. It should mean ripping down all of the damn Neo-Confederacy statues and monuments and memorials. It should be resisting television shows that glorify alt-Civil War endings. It should be clean drinking water in Detroit and Pittsburgh.

It can start with you visiting these pages and listening.

Black Femme Excellence Co

Sanctuary Pittsburgh

New Voices Pittsburgh

SisTers PGH

Repairers of the Breach

Peoples Institute for Survival and Beyond

And if you clicked on this because of the genealogy implications, check out this link.

As a final note, I’ve been documenting my genealogy findings in blog format. I will be writing in another post what I’ve learned from discovering my family members who enslaved black people. I know Lee enslaved people and I think that conversation deserves its own post. I also have discovered ‘famous relatives’ who are African-American and that’s mostly because my ancestors owned their ancestors. Those are not truths I will run from or take lightly.


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