From apology...to moral action on slavery

By Pearl Duncan
28 Mar 2007

My ancestors had a folk saying, "One hand don't clap." In that respect, words without actions do not uplift the boats, the little people who've been left behind.

On March 12, 2000, Pope John Paul II said a Day of Pardon Mass, and asked forgiveness from the descendants of the oppressed people of the world, for the atrocities committed against their ancestors by the Church. These were very moving words, but no actions by the Church followed his words.

On Wednesday, February 8, 2006, the Church of England, leaders of Anglicans and Episcopalians, apologized for its role in the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, and for slavery on American soil. This time, with this apology, if enough of us speak up, we will find enough voices and hands to help lift the boats, the little people, who were sunk or left behind.

How many people have we heard say, especially on T.V.'s talking head shows, "I bear no responsibility for slavery - moral, historic, economic, or otherwise, for my ancestors were not in America when the business of slavery happened"? But today, the consciousness has been raised, and we know now that the slavery that plagued America was a worldwide war.

So, unless some of us have ancestors who came from Mars or Venus, they participated in churches, synagogues, mosques, businesses, families, colleges, and other institutions that were involved in trading, owning, profiteering from slaves, and whose people were having children with the slaves who were brought to America.

I found records of my own ancestors, both African slaves from Ghana and other places in Africa, and burgesses, noble merchants and traders, from Glasgow, Scotland. The records I found in the Archives of the Church of England. The ministers who kept these records were threatened and called, "ministers to the slaves." My African American ancestors were slaves and free people who rebelled and escaped the institution of slavery and lived in the wilderness. The rectors and curates traveled under threats against their lives to assist these Maroons.

A few years ago, during Princess Diana's funeral ceremony, I remember calling my father, a Baptist minister, and asking him, "Why are they singing the same hymns we sing in our church and Sunday School?" Even though I'd uncovered records of my ancestors from the Church of England files, I did not make a connection between the living history of my family and the religious groups that led slavery.

My African ancestors' records from 1655 to 1838, prior to the years when they were emancipated from slavery in the Jamaican Colony, I found in the Church of England Archives under the heading, "Dissenters Births" "Dissenter Baptisms, " "Dissenter Marriages," "Dissenter Deaths." Prior to Emancipation, these ancestors and others were banned from registering their children's births or their marriages and deaths in the government's civil records.

Church leaders sanctioned the trade of African slaves by royals, nobles and merchants until the legal slave trade was suspended in 1807. (The illegal slave trade continued.) Church of England leaders owned thousands of slaves on vast plantations in Barbados until the 1834 Emancipation, and with other leaders of churches and colonial governors, set the tone for how slaves should be treated in the Colonies. The Church of England's slave-owning leaders, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, which thought it was mandated by God to own slaves, branded each of its slaves' flesh with fire-red-hot-irons, so that others would know that humans with the letters, S O C I E T Y, were theirs.

Now, as in Colonial times, actions not words, of people, brought about change, even on a tiny scale.

A few Anglicans shared the Church of England book of hymns in 1707 with Africans, who were not allowed in the church, but who worshipped outdoors. Quakers and Moravians were the first to build schools to teach African settlers to read and write, and record the documents of their lives. The Catholic Church, in 1667, gave permission to the Danish government in the Virgin Islands to minister to African slaves. Ursuline nuns from 1720 to 1834 organized a Catholic mission, school and hospital for African Americans in New Orleans. The Lutherans ministered to slaves in 1757; the Methodists, nonconformists to the Church of England banned slaveholding in 1780 and 1784 and formed a mission for slaves in the South in 1820. The Baptists ordained a Virginia freed slave and minister, Rev. George Leile, who built and led the first African church in America, in 1775.

And earlier, Puritans defied the penalty of the Colonial regime and, some, like Cotton Mather, published an article in 1706 saying Africans were full human beings. The Quakers, Society of Friends, protested slavery in Pennsylvania in 1688; and the Huguenots protested in New England in 1641. Presbyterians helped shelter and defend Maroons and the children of escaped slaves such as my Scotts Hall Maroon ancestors in Jamaica in the 1600s and early 1700s. But it was the charismatic styles of the Baptists and Methodists Great Awakening in Massachusetts in 1734 that blended with the Africans' spiritual styles, and assisted those who built a free life on the run, in hiding, and with seared flesh on the plantations.

The Church of England of Anglicans was established at Jamestown, Virginia in 1607, but the Archbishop of Canterbury had no representatives in the Colonies, so ministers of various denominations did the moral thing, among the human devastation. After the American Revolutionary War in 1776, both the Church of England's missionary arms, the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge, and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, were established, but they too owned slaves and plantations.

The ministers who registered my African slave's and free people's records in the 1700s in the West Indian Colonies did not have to get the permission of the Archbishop of Canterbury. There were no bishops in the Colonies, not until a Scottish bishop set down in Connecticut in 1783, then two more in New York and Philadelphia in 1787. They were consecrated by the Archbishops of Canterbury in 1792, and one more in 1824 in the West Indies Colonies. Episcopalians organized in Philadelphia in 1789. The people who did the moral thing did not need leaders to do so.

So the vote by the Church of England's General Synod, its national assembly, apologizing for the Church's role in slavery, in anticipation of the 200th celebration of the legal end of the slave trade, should serve as a wake-up call to all of us to get involved in the solutions. The Church's leaders voted 238 to 0.

But legal, moral and historical actions must follow an apology. In 2005, after I applied to Scotland's Court of the Lord Lyon, a Parliamentary group formed in the 13th-century to review and verify the ancestry of the kings, queens and nobles of Scotland, and presented civil certificates of my post-Emancipation ancestors, and the will, property lists and Church of England records of my pre-Emancipation ancestors, Scottish burgesses, nobles, merchants, who had children with my African ancestors from Ghana and other places, the Court granted me a coat of arms. I like to think that my requests for national, church, archival, and ancestral families' records motivated some of these leaders to apologize. That's the first step.

The second step to airing the history and researching-telling-and-acting on what happened requires searching the records. The next step is granting these ancestors what they lost, that they are due.

Pearl Duncan lives in New York is Author of the book-in-progress, "DNA Birthright Says Nobles, Slaves, Rebels & Roots." You can visit her website at: www.pearlduncan.com

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 England & Wales License. Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.