Today I went to the Western History Workshop on Dr. Alice Echols’ work in progress project on her grandfather’s involvement with a Building and Loan Bank scandal in Colorado Springs in the Great Depression. At the beginning of her presentation she brought up the problematic nature of mining family history for history narratives. Past lives, like present lives, are riddled with tragedy as much as they are stories of success and triumph.
In my own personal genealogy research I semi-recently learned that my great great great great grandpa was a slave owner in Tennessee. Most of his sons moved to Texas as young adults and remained there until their deaths. The sons fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, while their slave owning father actually sided with the Union.
Thomas Crutcher Holt, one of the sons (and my ancestor) worked as an itinerant Methodist and Baptist preacher in the South. His son Edgar Eugene Holt moved to southern Oklahoma. And it was there in southern Oklahoma that Edgar’s son Andrew Holt, my great grandma’s oldest brother, ran whiskey during Prohibition in the 1920s and was shot down by a sheriff (and family oral history also says a U.S. Marshall) in a nighttime raid.
I don’t feel bad at all about having a Prohibition violating ancestor, though I do feel a little bad about having a slave owning gggg grandfather. I’ve decided to call this legacy guilt. It’s a non-monetary inheritance that you can’t really do anything about. The longer I’ve known about it the easier it has been to reconcile that what an ancestor did is very much in the past, and what you do as an individual in the present is far more important than the actions of any one of the hundreds of ancestors that rotated around the sun before you.
Their actions had far reaching implications and greatly impacted the lives around them, but there is no remedy for that when you are nothing but an agent of the present.
If anything, learning more about the potentially negatives aspects of my family’s past illuminates a general history narrative that often feels generic and impersonal. I’ve been pursuing information on the cultural context of my slaveowning ancestor in Tennessee and his sons’ move to Texas. It’s been an exciting journey so far to try to understand the push and pull factors of their choices through the contexts of their lives.