Thulani Davis, journalist, novelist, and now historian, is a sixth cousin to one of the most important antebellum presidents, Tennessee’s James K. Polk. At least three of her great grandparents were members of some of the South’s great slaveholding families. One of her great-great uncles, Leonidas Campbell, was a Confederate Army officer and a man who succeeded to the Mississippi State legislature in the wake of his black predecessor’s lynching—on Campbell’s own plantation. Still, it should come as no surprise that Davis is herself black and at least three of her great-grandparents were slaves. It should come as no surprise because Davis’s very tangled and intertwined ancestry of slaveowners and slaves is not so unusual. As My Confederate Kinfolk argues, such knotted relationships may be characteristic of the histories of millions of Americans today; which means, too, that this history, and its public denial, stands as a cornerstone of the ongoing problem of race in America.
In My Confederate Kinfolk Davis centers her narrative on the life of her maternal great grandmother, Chloe Tarrant Curry, born a slave in 1850, and on the family of her maternal great grandfather, William Argyle Campbell, born in 1852 as the youngest son of a prominent slaveowning family. Chloe and Will began living together in the mid-to late-1870s, had a child, Georgia, Davis’s maternal grandmother, in 1878, and remained together until Campbell’s death in 1902. Through the telling of the story of the Curry and Campbell family, Davis seeks to re-frame a popular understanding of American history, emphasizing the centrality of the African American story and the power of African American culture, while debunking the romanticism of a "lost Southern civilization."
In accord with her book’s title, Davis spends the greater part of her book in tracing the lives of her Confederate kinfolk, that is, the white side of her family. In part, this may be because the documentary record is so much better for her white family—letters, diaries, property and court records, even county histories—offer Davis abundant sources for telling this side of her family history. I also suspect that Davis put the effort into researching this history precisely because these people—whatever racial animus they held—were, nonetheless, family. And this is the first thing that Davis wants us to understand.
She puts considerable effort, for example, into following the lives of three Campbell women: her great-great grandmother, Louisa Terrill Cheairs Campbell; her great-great Aunt, Will’s sister, Sarah Rush Owen; and a cousin, Louisa Cheairs, "Lulu." Davis seems to find something admirable in each of these women, despite their evident racial prejudices. Quite clearly, all three are strong women. Her great-great grandmother, for example, illegally and repeatedly crossed Union lines to bring medicines and materials to her Confederate uniformed sons, much of the time keeping a pair of grandchildren in tow. Early in the war, when she was compelled to host a dinner for Union officers in her Springfield, Missouri home, she was asked by a general whether she wished the Union forces success. "I am a Southern woman," she replied. "And you have sons in the Confederacy?" he asked. "Four…and I wish they were fifty and I were leading them’." Davis wants us to know that when we look at millions of African Americans in this country, we need to see a people shaped, not only genetically, but culturally, as the descendants of slaves and slaveowners.
Notwithstanding the energy Davis devotes to depicting her white relations, the most important character is Chloe Tarrant Curry, Davis’s African American great-grandmother. She is important to Davis not only because she represents the African American side of Davis’s family, but because she is incomparably strong and large of spirit. After her husband’s death, Chloe inherited the Campbell land and successfully defended this inheritance against her white sister-in-law’s legal challenge. Chloe became the matron of the extended Tarrant family, a woman who, although she remained illiterate her entire life, funded the education of any Tarrant child willing to put in the effort.
Born in Alabama, Chloe was still a teenager at the close of the Civil War. To help understand her great grandmother’s Alabama years, Davis draws on the journals of a Union Army chaplain, Elijah Edwards. Edwards had arrived in Selma, 20-odd miles from the Marion plantation where Chloe had been living, during the closing days of the war.
From Edwards we get a picture of what these days must have been like for Chloe and other African Americans: "Soon as it was definitely known that Lee had surrendered, the murder of negroes commenced. It seems as if the defeated could by turning upon the unhappy cause of all their reverses and shooting them in this way revenge themselves and keep up their feeling of superiority. The negroes have been shot down at sight in some neighborhoods. The policy of their murderers is to kill them since they cannot retain them as slaves."
Two months later, Edwards’s journal reports more of the same: "They still shoot Negroes and try to force others to work on their plantations asserting that there has never been any emancipation proclamation…. There is a class down here radically contumacious and barbarous."
Chloe must have experienced this "radically contumacious and barbarous" class of landowners as a 15 year old. At 18 she married a former slave 2 years her senior, James Curry, and they both worked for a number of years as domestic servants, probably in the household of Chloe’s former masters, the Tarrants. In any case, we definitely know that the two set off for Yazoo County, Mississippi in 1875, leaving four children in Alabama.
In Mississippi, Davis draws on Albert Morgan’s writings. He was a Union Army officer who stayed in the South after the Civil War, set up a plantation in Yazoo County, and hired free black labor to work his plantation. Treating these workers with dignity earned him the enmity of the region’s white landowners and the respect of the area’s black population. Because of the local landowners’ hatred, Morgan was forced off the plantation he was renting and he then became a leader of the Republican Party in Mississippi, serving in a variety of official capacities in the state. Davis reminds us that men like Morgan and Edwards were the forgotten honorable exceptions to white violence in the post-Civil War South. After Reconstruction’s defeat in Mississippi, Morgan would author a powerful account of his years in Mississippi: Yazoo, or On the Picket Line of Freedom in the South.
Morgan’s is the story of the prolonged struggle over Reconstruction in Mississippi and of its ultimate overthrow. Backed by the power of the federal government, Republicans in Mississippi won four successive elections, largely with black votes. But Mississippi whites, with former slaveowners in the lead, were determined on resistance. Here we see the white South’s refusal to accept the Civil War’s verdict. According to Morgan, "The greatest minds in the state, on the ‘superior side of the line,’ were debating the question, which would be the wiser policy for the white man, emigration and the abandonment of the State to the negro, or a general rearming of the white race with the purpose of checking by force the ‘threatened supremacy’ of the negro race. To such persons these were the only alternatives."
In uncovering Chloe’s story, Davis learns of the hatred, brutality, and violence that white Southerners used to destroy black rights following the Civil War. From Morgan, Davis learns for the first time of the organized planning that white Southerners, landowners first of all, put into overthrowing Mississippi’s Reconstruction government. In Yazoo, white leaders openly published their plans for overthrowing black rights during the election of 1875.
Davis also gleans still more important information: the tremendous dignity and courage of Mississippi’s African American population. Morgan, writes Davis, "saw in those he met what I see in my great grandmother: energy, determination, incredible endurance, and ambition." Davis especially brings these qualities to bear in the climax to My Confederate Kinfolk. When Will’s sister, Sarah Rush Owen, sued Chloe to reclaim the property, she, a white woman, lost in the lawsuit to a black woman in Mississippi in 1902.
Davis’s book is a moving testimonial to the African American spirit. At the same time, Davis’s choice of title, My Confederate Kinfolk: A Twenty-First Century Freedwoman Confronts Her Roots, underlines the incredible truth that American history is very much a family’s story, in which one part disowns, enslaves, and tramples on the rights of the other part. In using the term "freedwoman" to describe herself, Davis reminds us that the history she recounts is far from over. Those of us wishing to better understand this history would do well to read Davis’s book.
David Barber is assistant professor of history at the University of Tennessee.