Ancestral Recall: Learning That One (and Probably More) of My 4,096 10th-Great-Grandparents Owned Slaves

Having done my ancestral research on Ancestry.com’s family tree builder, I have come to see just how many people it took to lead to me. Every ancestor above me was the result of a procreation of two more ancestors above that one…and so on and so on…

That means that every generation above has twice as many people as the generation below it, and that leads to a lot of people. It means that I have two parents, four grandparents, and eight great-grandparents. And it also means I have the following:

Great-Grandparent LevelNumber Ancestors at That Level
2nd16
3rd32
4th64
5th128
6th256
7th512
8th1024
9th2048
10th4096

As I wrote in a previous post, I was excited to learn that about a quarter of my DNA comes from ancestors who hailed from England, and history (and my research) shows that many English immigrants to the United States came in the 17th and 18th centuries. My ancestors settled in Maryland and Virginia, many of whom arrived in the 1600s. As both Maryland and Virginia permitted slavery, the thought crossed my mind that some of these distant ancestors might have been involved in that atrocity.

When I dug farther into my past, I learned that a man named Thomas Greenfield was one of my 4,000+ 10th-great-grandparents. When Ancestry.com’s family tree algorithms suggested Thomas Greenfield as the potential father of my 9th-great-grandmother Joan Greenfield, I looked at the supporting information and added him to my tree.

He seemed to have a lot of information about him, including a picture of a gravestone that apparently existed at a ceremony about 25 miles from my home in a small town called Croom, Maryland.

In 2011, a man named Michael Schaffer photographed the gravestone and loaded it into Ancestry.com. The inscription on it reads:

Here lies the body of Colonel Thomas Greenfield, late one of his Majesties Honourable Councell of Maryland, who died the 8th of September Anno 1715 in the 67th year of his age.

The picture is also on another website called FindAGrave.com, which is owned by Ancestry.com. On the FindAGrave.com page dedicated to Thomas Greenfield is the description of his life:

He came from England to the Maryland colony in 1668 at the age of 21. He had attended Cambridge University. His transportation, along with 11 others, was paid for by Thomas Trueman, Esq [his future father-in-law, according to Ancestry.com records].

He settled on the Brandywine Creek which was south of the Patuxent River and near the village that he named after his hometown, Nottingham. He married Martha Trueman at the age of 32. His estate was named Magookin which was near Baden, Maryland and became quite wealthy with his large tracts of land, slaves and tenants.

I don’t know where the information came from so I can not guarantee its veracity, but it seems reasonable. And according to it, he owned slaves.

Until I saw this, I never thought it possible that any of my ancestors could have owned other human beings and forced them into labor until they were freed or died from overwork. Of course, this is exactly what happened to a number of my Jewish ancestors who died in the Holocaust in concentration camps during World War II. Now, according to this unverified yet plausible information, I had ancestors who were a part of both atrocities, one group as victims and another ancestor as the culprit.

As other ancestors were land owners in Virginia and Prince George’s, Anne Arundel, and Somerset counties of Maryland, I presume a number of them also were slave owners.

It is quite obvious that I can’t go 300 to 400 years in the past to Thomas Greenfield or any of these other extremely distant ancestors and inform them on the horrendousness of slavery. I also have no information that indicates their “wealth” transcended generations and that I am now benefiting in anyway by their conduct.

The only thing I can do now, knowing that this is even a bit of my past, is to do what I have continued to do, and that is give back to communities who are still viewed as lesser or not as qualified as someone with a lighter skin pigmentation. I’m grateful for all of the opportunities I have had and I understand that a good number of them probably became because of the hue of my epidermis. But that is why I pay it forward. That’s why I have been a volunteer music instructor, donor, stage set builder, gala committee member, and evangelist for the Sitar Arts Center in Washington DC since 2015. It’s why I volunteer at the DC Central Kitchen. It’s why I joined the CIA’s Diversity in Leadership Study and Director’s Advisory Group on Women in Leadership, and it’s why in 2018 I was selected as a finalist for the CIA’s major diversity and inclusion award, the Donald R. Cryer Award. And it is why I will keep speaking out against the denigration of minorities and support policies that provide equal opportunities for every person, regardless of the color of their skin, their national origin, sexual orientation, sexual identity, or any other category by which people judge others, except the one that matters: doing their best to better their lives.

I can’t change what my 10th-great-grandparents did, but I can accept it and pay it forward and do what I can to make my community a better place.

For more on my ancestry and family tree, check out these other posts:

Ancestral Recall: A Series of Posts Dedicated to Sharing My Lineage

Ancestral Recall: Tracing My European Jewish Heritage to Poland, Moldova, and Russia

Ancestral Recall: Explaining My Genealogical Ties to 15th Century Germany (and a Dash of France)

Ancestral Recall: Discovering My English Heritage and My Ancestors from Colonial Maryland and Virginia

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