Essay: A son of the South, but no longer of the South

My great-great-grandfather owned slaves, and I now know there was no such thing as a good slaveholder.

For many people who trace their heritage to the antebellum South, that statement is apostasy. For over 150 years, proud descendants of Confederate rebels have proclaimed that our ancestors were good to their slaves, and that President Abraham Lincoln and the Yankees misunderstood the true nature of “the peculiar institution.”

When I was a child, my grandfather would say to me, “our family owned slaves, and they loved us so much they took Tomlinson as their name.” He was proud that his great uncle had died fighting in the Confederate Army. He thought I should be too.

The massacre of nine African-Americans in Charleston, S.C., however, may be a tipping point in the South’s veneration of this heritage. Even conservatives are lowering battle flags across the South. But are we ready to dismiss the myths that surround that flag and address the truth about American racism?

Into my early teens, I believed the Southern propaganda that my forefathers were not traitors to the United States, but Texan patriots fighting for states’ rights. I watched “Gone With the Wind” and imagined I was descended from chivalric gentry.

The tragic legend of the South’s Lost Cause is deeply seductive.

One day at school, though, a teacher played a recording of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech. King spoke of a day when “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” He made me wonder about the black Tomlinsons. Where were they, what did they think of their name’s origin?

That was the genesis of my book, “Tomlinson Hill: The Remarkable Story of Two Families who Share the Tomlinson Name – One White, One Black.”

I traced two lines of Tomlinsons from slave days to the present day. What I learned changed my life.

My ancestors were courageous. In an 1864 letter from the Battle of Yellow Bayou, I learned how my great-grandfather’s 20-year-old brother Will obeyed his commander’s order to retreat and was shot in the back by a Union soldier. As he lie dying, he told his comrades he didn’t want his family to see the wound and think he died a coward.

But I also read the Ordinance of Secession in which Texas joined the Confederacy because the North rejected the “beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of the equality of all men, irrespective of race or color – a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of the Divine Law.”

Far from beneficent, my ancestors tortured and sexually exploited the people they enslaved. The local newspaper reported that lynch mobs launched from my family’s doorstep.

The Confederate flag now makes me sick to my stomach.

Plausible deniability

My research also revealed how my great-grandfather joined a movement in the 1890s to rewrite Texas history books to proclaim that the Civil War was about states’ rights. I discovered how the United Confederate Veterans lobbied lawmakers to honor traitors as heroes. They erected statues to Confederate leaders across the state and built a state capitol that keeps its back to the North.

Another great-grandfather helped white lawmakers impose Jim Crow laws that denied African-Americans their rights. My ancestors, along with the majority of white Protestant men in Texas, joined the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s as an homage to the Confederate veterans who terrorized former slaves during Reconstruction.

As a U.S. Army veteran, I equate secession with treason.

Anyone who only tells the stories of heroism without relaying the stories of oppression is dishonest. That’s how we end up with young men like alleged Charleston shooter Dylann Roof.

By some measures, the Millennial generation is the least racist in American history. But according to research funded by MTV in 2011, white youth don’t like talking about race, don’t know our racist history and oppose the necessary work to build a more perfect union.

Their confusion is our fault. We denounce racism but we don’t explain how our grandparents and great-grandparents denied African-Americans a basic education or a decent wage. We don’t mention how our grandparents didn’t compete with African-Americans for their college educations or salaried jobs. Or how this history explains the social, economic and political problems we face today.

Instead we claim that laws passed in the 1960s addressed inequality, creating another myth, as powerful, convenient and destructive as the story of the good slaveholder. It gives white Americans plausible deniability for their inherited privilege.

Opening old wounds

For African-Americans, the myth steals their history and denies their experience.

Black Lives Matter protests and videos of racist behavior reveal our divided nation, but police tactics and political correctness are not the root problem. The divide exists because two communities hold divergent views of our nation’s history and what we must do to overcome America’s original sin of slavery.

The first step toward justice is to establish facts. We need truth and reconciliation commissions across the country to give everyone a chance to share their family’s truth about the past 200 years and record it so that everyone can learn from it.

Many people will oppose this idea because they are afraid of opening old wounds. They don’t want to admit that the sweet-faced old people in sepia-toned photographs were complicit in atrocities. But the family’s dirty laundry will never get clean if we don’t air it out.

Table of brotherhood

My research taught me that being born a white Tomlinson provided me more opportunities than those available to black Tomlinsons.

Making these admissions about my heritage does not diminish me; quite to the contrary, I’ve gained a better understanding of who I am and the world I live in. I’ve sat at the table of brotherhood with African-American Tomlinsons and now consider them family. Football star LaDainian Tomlinson wrote the foreword to my book.

I can say without shame or guilt that my great-great-grandfather owned slaves, and there was no such thing as a good slaveholder, because knowing the whole truth makes me stronger. Recognizing the whole truth will make our nation stronger.

The first step toward justice is to establish facts. We need truth and reconciliation commissions across the country to give everyone a chance to share their family's truth about the past 200 years and record it so that everyone can learn from it.
June 27, 2015
Houston Chronicle