My family owned slaves. I wanted to know more about that.
By Claire Suddath
April 29, 2021, 4:00 AM EDT
Claire Suddath, age 6, in James Z. George’s law library
Photographer: Taken by a family member
My family owned slaves. I think it’s important to say that. My relatives don’t talk about it very often, not because it’s some deep, hidden secret or anything. It’s just some things are easier left unsaid.
But it happened. If you worked backward from my present-day life in New York, you’d eventually get to my great-great-great-grandfather, James Zachariah George, who was a colonel in the Confederate army, chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court, and later a U.S. Senator. He also owned a plantation in the Mississippi Delta called Cotesworth. Until a few years ago my grandmother’s cousin lived there, in the same grand, gable-roofed white mansion and surrounding nine hundred acres that James Z. George and his family — my family — had owned for more than 150 years.
I was six when I visited for the first time, too young to know much about slavery or the Civil War. I saw how stately it was, and also the poverty in the surrounding town of Carrollton. As I grew older, I learned more, of course. But it didn’t feel like enough. I never learned what living back then was really like. Who was James Z. George, anyway? And who were the people he enslaved?
I’d been a journalist for more than a decade when I turned my reporting inward to my great-great-great grandfather, his legacy, and Cotesworth. In 2017 I wrote about what I learned in a story for The Delacorte Review, a longform magazine associated with Columbia University. This year, my editors at Bloomberg asked if they could include it in the season finale of The Pay Check, which has explored the origins of the racial wealth gap in America.
James Z. George’s plantation, Cotesworth, in Carrollton, Mississippi.
Photographer: Claire Suddath
In earlier episodes my colleagues examined how, over hundreds of years, White people—people like James Z. George—deliberately and systematically limited economic opportunity for African Americans. There’s no shortage of stories, from redlining to affirmative action to the tens of thousands of Black farmers who sued the Department of Agriculture for discrimination—and won. Even so, my editors pointed out, it’s unusual that someone with a tangible connection to the underside of that history is willing to talk about it.
They’re right. It would be easier for me to push it aside. I have plenty of other relatives who didn’t own slaves. If I wanted to, I could focus on the Polish immigrants in my mom’s family and leave it at that. But then I’d be telling a partial truth; just as important, I’d be complicit in hiding an uncomfortable reality.
While I was reporting my original story, I heard the same rumor over and over again: That George had fathered children with women he enslaved. If that was true, it would mean that the Black people living in Carrollton with the last name George were most likely my blood relatives.
Slaves’ quarters at Cotesworth as they were in 2015.
Photographer: Claire Suddath
You can read the original story here, about what happened when a man named Carlos and I took DNA tests to find out if the rumors were true. And you can read about everything else I found, including George’s successful effort to re-write Mississippi’s constitution to subvert the newly passed Fifteenth Amendment, the one that said a man couldn’t be denied the right to vote because of his race. George came up with the “understanding clause,” or the idea that eligible voters should be able to read the state’s constitution or, when it was read to them, explain what it meant. During Reconstruction, more than 80,000 former slaves were registered to vote in Mississippi. After the understanding clause was implemented, fewer than 9,000 were left on the voting rolls.
This isn’t some unfortunate historical anecdote that the country has long since overcome. The tactics today are subtler, but their intent is the same. In 2013 for example, the day after the U.S. Supreme Court released Southern states with a history of voter suppression from Justice Department oversight, North Carolina passed a new law that, among other things, required voters to show only specific forms of photo ID and shortened early voting by a full week.
Those changes may not be immediately recognizable as discrimination. But when drafting the law, the legislature researched the possible consequences and found that more than 60% of Black voters in the state voted early (compared with 40% of Whites) and were also more likely to lack a driver’s license or passport, the two most common forms of identification required by the new law. When the law was eventually struck down in court, a three-judge appeals panel called it “as close to a smoking gun as we are likely to see in modern times” that proved outright, intentional racist discrimination by a state.