June 21, 2018
At this writing I recently returned from two weeks in North Carolina. Except for briefly dipping into the northern part in the late 1970's visiting a friend, who was born there, I had never been there before. However a couple of branches of my mother's family lived there before the American Revolution so my family is steeped in North Carolina history.
I didn't start with family history, however. I started out visiting Biltmore, a Vanderbilt mansion south of Asheville. It is still owned by the Vanderbilt family and is huge - almost 179,000 square feet! It looks like a French chateau and is quite lovely. An added benefit was that they were having an exhibit of glass sculpures by Dale Chihuly, a Washington state artist who does amazing things with glass.
I visited the Cherokee Museum and the Cherokee village which lies in the Blue Ridge mountains. Most of the Cherokees were forced to go to Oklahoma in the 1830's along what came to be known as the trail of tears. My Cherokee ancestors had already gone to Tennessee in the 1820's so they did not participate in "removal," but some "cousins" did. The Cherokees who live in western North Carolina hid in the hills and made deals with the American government in order to stay in the area. Sunday, I worshiped at Living Waters Lutheran with the Cherokee people. The worship service began with smudging (cleansing with smoke) and ended in good Lutheran fashion with a pot luck.
I spent the next week "ancestor hunting" in libraries. One of the more disturbing things I discovered was that my ancestors were deeply involved in the slave economy. The will of my 7th great grandfather, Gilbert Strayhorn (d. 1803) is typical: "I will and bequeath to my son John, twenty pounds in money. Fourthly, I will and bequeath to my son William, a negro man named Martin. Fifthly, I will and bequeath to my son James, a negro man named Dick. Sixthly, I will and bequeath to my son David, a black mare named Flower, and a horse named Lightfoot. Seventhly, I will and bequeath to James Hart, my son-in-law, one good girl named Rachel, and a bay mare named Fannie." Virtually ALL of my ancestors gave people away in their wills along with pistols, land, cows, sheep and a good suit of clothes.
There were, of course, monuments to the Confederacy in many of the towns I visited, including one on the grounds of the state capital at Raleigh. While I was there, an African-American family came to the grounds and wandered around. I wondered what would I, as an African-American parent tell my children about this monument? Whose heritage does this monument celebrate? And in all my wanderings around the state, I saw no monuments and only a few signs commemorating the African-American contribution to building the South.
I also caught myself in my own thinking. I found Barnesville, an unincorporated town in southern North Carolina which has something to do with my Barnes ancestors - I just don't know what. And I was thinking, "This is really cool. We were among the first settlers in this area. But my next thought was, "No, we were among the first white settlers in this area. The native Americans had lived in this area for centuries." And even though my Cherokee ancestors come from this same area, I was thinking as if European settlement was the most important. Even though I believe (or at least think I believe) in the equality of all people, I obviously picked up the idea that what is important is what happened to Europeans. I thank God for that insight.
In Hillsborough, just north of Raleigh, I am related to most of the families that founded New Hope Presbyterian Church. It was thrilling to put my hands on the logs of a cabin that my 7th great grandfather built, to visit farms that are still owned by descendants of those families, to see the names of my ancestors who fought during the Revolutionary War, and especially to stand between Bill and Bob Strayhorn, descendants of Gilbert who helped to found New Hope Presbyterian.
The reunion of the USS AJAX (AR-6) was, as usual, wonderful. We visited the aquarium and the battleship North Carolina. I rode in a horse-drawn trolley and saw an alligator in the river. And to meet up with shipmates, old and new, was fantastic.
The trip was fascinating and sometimes challenging. The sin of slavery and Indian removal continues to affect me in ways I did not realize. The 4th commandment tells us "I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments." While the sins of the past will continue to haunt us, God promises continued love to the thousandth generation. I find a lot of hope in that. And Jesus continues to change me, sometimes through the uncomfortable challenges that I encounter. I met some really interesting people and reconnected with very distant relatives. We are truly one family here on earth, surrounded by God's love.