Ralph Northam and the Sins of His Fathers

1859 Accomack County census reveals that James Northam, Ralph’s paternal great-great-grandfather, owned nine slaves.

Liberals and progressives routinely accuse conservatives of being racist. But conservatives can’t match liberals and progressives for their all-consuming obsession with race. The latest example is an article in Spectator USA delving into the ancestry of Governor Ralph Northam, highlighting the fact that his ancestors owned at least 84 slaves.

Author J. Arthur Bloom does not argue that the sins of the father are to be laid on the children, but he does find implausible a claim by Northam that he learned about his family’s slave ownership only in 2017. “That story is harder to believe once you see that three out of the four grandparental lines of his family owned slaves. Two branches owned at least two dozen.”

The reason why this matters is Gov. Northam claims to have found out about this from his father, Westcott Northam. Westcott’s grandparents would have been the children of the slave owners listed in these census records. In all three cases, the Northam descendent a generation below the owner listed in the census records – Northam’s great-grandparents – probably would have grown up around their father’s slaves also. Is it really plausible that the family did not talk about any of this before 2017?

I read Bloom’s justification for probing Northam’s ancestry, but I still don’t see why this matters.

What is Bloom suggesting here? That Northam is lying about his knowledge of when he learned that his ancestors owned slaves? What motive would the governor have for misrepresenting the truth? What possible difference does it make if he learned of the fact in 2017 or 1987? Does the date somehow magnify his blackface offense or diminish it? Does the date somehow reflect on his character or the evolution in his attitudes towards race?

I’m not a big fan of Northam’s pledge to expiate his blackface sin by enacting new socially progressive programs at taxpayer’s expense, but I have to defend him here. I find nothing implausible about his claim. Not everyone is fascinated by their genealogy. Some people, frankly, don’t care who their ancestors are.

I know not to what extent Mr. Bloom family dwells upon his family history, but I can draw some tentative conclusions based on my family’s experience. My mother is extremely interested in her ancestry and when my father was alive, he was moderately interested in his, yet neither of them revealed much to me about their great grandparents. In modern American society, the storehouse of family knowledge typically resides with the oldest members of the families, based largely on their personal recollections. As the elders die off, considerable knowledge passes with them. When my father and stepmother died two years ago, they left a treasure trove of old family photos. Just one problem: Neither my sister, nor brother nor I knew who most of the people were.

On my mother’s side, I know that one ancestor was an English cotton broker in New Orleans. I have no idea whether or not he owned slaves. I assume that, as an Englishman — Great Britain had abolished slavery decades before — he probably didn’t. But no one has bothered to check. Family lore says that he lost a fortune in Louisiana state war bonds at the end of the Civil War, and that he moved north to make his fortune. My father’s genealogical research revealed that an ancestor in Delaware did own slaves. As the story goes, my ancestor manumitted his slaves upon his death. That’s all I know. There are many other branches of my family of whose activities I have no clue whatsoever.

The fact that an ancestor owned slaves is not something that modern-day Americans are proud of. Family lore tends to gloss over unpleasant details — Aunt So-and-So was illegitimate, Great Uncle So-and-So was a drunkard and lost his business, Grandpappy So-and-So was a cattle rustler and spent time in the hoosegow — and it should surprise no one if Northam’s family declined to pass along knowledge of ancestors’ slave ownership.

Maybe the historical amnesia will end as the Narrative of Racial Oppression moves to the forefront of national debate. With all the talk of “white privilege” and reparations, it could matter very much whose ancestors owned slaves. The sins of the fathers shall be visited upon the sons, and grandsons and great grandsons. Their privilege, it will be argued, was inherited from ancestors who extracted wealth from their slaves, and they owe restitution. As the Narrative of Racial Oppression continues to mutate, perhaps Mr. Bloom’s fascination with Northam’s genealogy could foreshadow obsessions to come.

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25 responses to “Ralph Northam and the Sins of His Fathers

  1. I was working at the newspaper and happened to be in the records room at the Montgomery County Courthouse, and took at look at 1860 Census records and learned my Shufflebarger ancestors had slaves. Never mentioned by family before that point, although I knew there was a large ancestral farm on the New River so I might have surmised there was slave labor. I didn’t know much about the Confederate military service until my own research, either. Just wasn’t mentioned. (The Shufflebargers in the Stonewall Brigade were a different line.)

    But as the Leftist Outrage Machine continues its campaign to destroy the Northams, a logical step for it to take. Expect more.

  2. This is the gist of small minds. The product of much to do about nothing. Beyond that is is banal evil. For example:

    “The essence of racism, and the reason we find it wicked, is that it falsely extrapolates from the individual to the group and from the group to the individual. It is an especially pernicious form of collectivism, striking as it does against the notion of personal responsibility which is the basis of western civilization. It judges people not by their intelligence, their kindness, their generosity, their honesty, or their courage, but by their physiognomy. Our personal characteristics are overlooked in favor of the IMAGINED characteristics of our group …

    What is wrong with this idea? … It holds that Person X is responsible for the misdeeds of Person Y, even if Person X has never met never met or even heard of Person Y. Indeed, if anything, it is more absurd even than that. It judges Person X not by the actions of Person Y, but by those of Person A who lived many years ago and whose moral code reflected his own age rather than ours. This notion is so Preposterous that it barely merits servious refutation.” See Dan Hannan, The Continuing Creep of Social Injustice, found in Washington Examiner, February 12, 2019. Emphasis Added in quote.

    Mr. Hannan’s comment also raises the important question of who exactly are the racists and bigots in American society today?

    For more see: https://www.baconsrebellion.com/wp/ralph-northam-panders-to-save-his-own-skin/

  3. I have a different take on this.

    The issue is – did the families who were slaves and their kids and offspring have the same opportunities to life as the offspring of of the folks who owned the slaves?

    Take education. Did the slaves – and their children/grandchildren benefit from equal access to education that, in turn, allowed their family and descendants to own property and accumulate wealth, achieve college or did those children and grandchildren grow up in much worse economic circumstances and have been behind every since?

    So it’s not about condemning the descendants of slave owners per se – it’s about recognizing the generational damage that slavery engendered that continues today and how we feel nowadays about white people whose ancestors were slave owners, who have done well for themselves and black folks who are still living in poverty with their kids in failing schools that reflect the demographics of the low-income neighborhoods they live in – and can only afford to live in?

    In other words, if you are white and you’ve done well – and your ancestors owned slaves – is there a connection between your own good economic circumstances and well-being and the descendants of the slaves your ancestors owned and if so – how should we feel about it?

    I do not defend the far left on this – their view is that you cannot be a legitimate leader of those who now suffer as a result of being descendants of slaves your family owned.

  4. Not all white Southern state people owned slaves. I went thru family history back to 1790, the first USA census. I thought it was odd until I did some research pointing to the fact of how poor my family was. What I had been told when asked of others who did own slaves, was that slaves were wealth. If you don’t have the larger farmland tracts, if you have a good sized family who did the work with you for a small bit of land, you couldn’t afford them. It was that simple. Apparently others were in the same boat in the area I came from, its notoriously poor now too. In the (obviously) long branches of families, you will find those who did own some slaves,but there was a big divide between rich and poor, and the looking down on the poor folks was just the same as it is now.

    So in other words: you were crapped on back then by society, etc. So don’t crap down on us now because there are only a couple in my generation are barely middle class. There are only 2 of us with a college degree, and one isn’t working and hasn’t worked for a while in their field of study.

    Take a look at the laws. They need to prosecute such people from the Bill of Rights Amendment 14, Clause 3.

  5. @V N – If you and your Dad/Mom , GrandDAD are white – did they attend better schools that their black counterparts?

    When I went to school – there were separate schools for blacks – and they were inferior to the schools that us whites attended.

    Yes we had “poor” white kids but they were going to better schools than “poor” black kids.

    how meaningful a difference is that?

  6. A great sadness of my life is all the fine people I have known who lived before the internet and so on their death disappeared without a trace, except for those ignoramuses today who, by accident of birth, can now enjoy the internet and so they can sit in their pajamas all day long without a real accomplishment to their name, but can lecture us all about the sins of our, and other’s, fathers long dead, without a clue as to who, or what, or when, they talking about.

  7. I too have known many fine people in this world including blacks…now dead… and I still remember them well… as humans, not caricatures.

    When I grew up – not only did black folks attend vastly inferior schools but they were not allowed to sit at a lunch counter to order lunch nor drink out of the same water fountains as whites, had separate bathrooms or no bathrooms they could use at all… Motels were classified as “white” and “black”… as were restaurants… and other public and private facilities. This was not 1865 – it was 1965 a hundred years after slavery ended.

    My own mother – who had a black maid – refused to let her eat off the same plates that the rest of the family ate off of. She had to have her own plates. That lady and her family lived in a shack … and she had no medical care at all… and died at home from an untreated medical condition. Her daughter who was pregnant was not allowed to have her child at the hospital in town – she had to go to Richmond to a charity hospital. The men in their family all did odd jobs.. they were no “career” jobs.. they spent their entire lives doing whatever they could do to make a living and many whites would not hire them no matter what and the ones that did often referred to them as _iggers.

    That lady and her family was not unusual. She was very much like a lot of others who were black. They led lives very different from white folks and their numbers of “poor” were many, many times the number of white “poor”.

    These are not philosophical “internet” musings. These are real-world things that many of us actually experienced on a daily basis and well remember not that many years ago.

    • “As humans, not caricatures.” Yes. You remember a time captured all too well in the movie “The Help” with its scenes of the Junior League ladies in that little southern town pressing League members to build outhouses for their domestic help so that black women would not share even their toilets with whites.

      Those were painful memories. Those were also the very sorts of hypocritical and demeaning expressions of segregation that finally penetrated the conscience of the nation as a whole and brought it down. Of course we are still dealing with the aftermath; it takes a generation and more for culture to change.

      We perpetuate those racist attitudes when we impose on future generations an obligation to compensate — whether that compensation is reparations, as some SJWs demand, or its lesser form “affirmative action.” Reverse discrimination is still discrimination.

  8. And I suspect your mother was a very fine woman.

    • Oh, my mother was a “fine” person and a loving, caring mother -no question but also a racist and the black maid was also a very fine, noble person and equally loving mother and there was no doubt in my mind that my opportunities at life as a white person were different than the opportunities for her kids who were black.

      I went to a much better school and had job offers from many places that would not employ blacks except as janitors and such.

      • Your first 2.5 sentences make perfect sense to me. The rest of what you say is pure assumption unless you have the power of an almighty God. I fear then you begin to categorize people, pre-judge them, by race, color or station.

        Thomas Sowell warned about these sorts of judgements. Suppose your parents had a white servant, and acted the same toward him or her, as they did toward the black servant. Would your views about the white servant, and his or her potential to succeed in life been the same as the black, would you then have so judged the white servant the same as the black? How much of your judgement would have been based automatically on skin color alone, or the slant of the servant’s eyes, had he or she been born of Asian parents?

        The human mind wants to categorize people, their status, their prospects, and their intentions for good or ill, including themselves, their neighbors, their servants, and their enemies, by their physical appearances, their similarities and differences, alone. This is bred deep into the human psyche of all of use. There are many reasons for this. And it is deeply insulting to all people, each and everyone of us. So we must work hard to overcome these instincts.

        This is why the writings of Ta-Nehisi Coates and his ilk are deeply insulting to all people, including their own. And why those writings and the teaching of them do so much harm. They are racists at the core.

  9. I grew up a lot like Larry, except we did not have a maid when I was growing up. I remember well the small, frame school for the black kids I passed while riding to my brick school on the school bus. I remember the signs designating which restrooms were for “Whites” and which for “Colored”.

    One of the worst aspects of the discrimination and the racist mentality was the low expectations that whites had of blacks. Many years ago, I was an adjunct instructor for J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College teaching an Introductory American Government course in the old Virginia Penitentiary in Richmond. There were a lot of memorable moments arising from that experience. One of the most vivid for me involves a young black inmate, who obviously was very bright. During a class discussion, he said that, growing up in Louisiana (I think it was), he was told that if he worked real hard in school, he might one day be able to become the head janitor in the main high school. What a deprecatory thing to say; to tell a child that the highest he can aspire to is head janitor! But, the person who told him that probably thought he was being encouraging.

    My cousin several years ago discovered that our great-great grandfather owned slaves. He was greatly surprised. I had not known about it, but I was not surprised upon learning it. I had grown up hearing about our ancestors who had fought in the Civil War and how one had been wounded and captured at Gettysburg and there was a copy of his POW release certificate. But there was no talk, at least any that I heard, about slaves. So, I am not surprised that Northam is just learning about the slaveholders among his ancestors.

    • I remember as a child being introduced respectfully to an elderly black man in Washington and told, later, by my uncle that the man was “black aristocracy” because he had retired as a senior Pullman Car conductor, “one of the best jobs a black man could hope to get.”

      While that was a matter-of-fact observation, the discrimination in employment opportunity that lay behind that remark was not something to be proud of. But at that age I took it as a given. Today we say we know better; and in any case there are the Civil Rights Acts. But discrimination persists; why indeed do MAGA hats make so many of us cringe?

      On the other hand, why, today, is there serious talk about those who practiced that discrimination owing reparations to those who suffered from it? More distant in time, do we automatically require those families who owned slaves to make reparations? It was legal at the time and none of those individuals is alive today anyway; yet we talk about these sins as heritable. We would rescind much of the achievements of this nation if we eliminated everything achieved by every person who benefited from the personal family or business wealth created or amplified by slavery.

      Legally of course I am not responsible for my father’s or brother’s torts. Culturally the limitation is not so clearcut; yet what sins of the past can ever merit legal reparations from a later generation without starting down a slippery slope with no end? Undoubtedly slavery was an economic tool which opened up large areas of the United States to development; what about slavery — and what about lesser contemporary practices such as indentured servitude and involuntary apprenticeship — was the moral evil? Was it evil to open a store selling goods or farm equipment to slave-owning planters? And on that moral scale, was the taking of native American lands and the treatment of native Americans on their “reservations” any less evil? What about the legislated takings of ordinary folks’ land which brought great wealth to the turnpike and railroad barons and the coal and oil and gas entrepreneurs? Where would the reparations stop?

      No, if we are to overcome the divisions among us we cannot practice racial discrimination to compel reparations for racial discrimination; we cannot visit those sins of their fathers upon later generations, shaming their ancestors and literally fining them for their family connection. Nothing would better guarantee that racial bitterness would persist into future generations. Even affirmative action must eventually yield to that logic. We must ensure the equality of opportunity (but not outcome) that was denied in the past and simply move on.

  10. I should clarify. The “maid” was a twice-a-week lady who cleaned house and did ironing and some meals.

    We were _not_ a rich family. I am a service brat and once my father left and was replaced by another – it was he that suggested we get some house “help” because such help was fairly cheap… back in those days.

    The school I went to offered a lot more courses that the local black school. We had College Prep courses, for instance, and in that time period – few blacks were headed to college. I’m thinking that it was in that period when blacks just started to be allowed to go to places like UVA.

    And yes.. there were very low expectations for blacks… they were not expected to do much more than basic labor jobs.

    I don’t know about Sowell – but in Fredericksburg – if you were black – no one expected you to go to college much less get a Master or PHD in economics or anything else.. and they all lived in the “black” part of town – none of them lived in “white” sections of town.

    Restaurants and lunch counters were off limits to blacks. The hospital would turn them away fairly routinely because they could not pay. Courthouses and libraries – had separate bathrooms… Churches were white or black – as were barber shops…

    and as I said before – I had no doubt what-so-ever that my opportunities at education and jobs was far better than what was
    available to blacks.

    Back then – if you were white and had real black friends – if you socialized with them – you were called a _igger lover…

    others here – their experience might have been different but mine is indelibly etched in my memory.

    That earlier life has affected how I feel now about these issues. I knew it was wrong .. but never had the courage to stand up … against it.

    And this is where blacks are coming from today when they look at someone like Northam as someone who might represent their interests. They do wonder with his background if he really “grew”
    out of that.

    • “I don’t know about Sowell – but in Fredericksburg.”

      Thomas Sowell, a black man, simply asked and discussed the profound question of what the slaves’ skin color might have had to do with their treatment as slaves and he suggested that it likely had a lot, given how the human mind works.

      In replying to your example of your family, I reversed his question, asking what if the servant (two day a week maid) in your family had been white. The larger question might be what if the slaves in Virginia had been white? How might that have changed their treatment as slaves, and their response to it then and now?

      That’s an important question.

      It helps us understand better problems and solutions. Because the problems and solutions lay in our need to far better understand ourselves: how we act in groups, and individually, and how this applies to each and everyone of us, no matter what our color is, or who our parents are, or how or poor we may be, or whatever other differences of any sort may apply to us, and/or our group, as we conceive it and ourselves.

  11. we talk about “reparations”. I’m not in favor of that. but 2, 3, 4 generations ago – some white folks were gaining wealth and property that stayed with the family whereas most blacks never had that opportunity – they never had the money and the very few that did – it was almost unique. The ones that did – usually gained that wealth by running some kind of black enterprise that catered to blacks.

    but many white folks inherited land and property acquired or owned by their ancestors…

    black folks got wealth and property from black-owned Funeral Homes and motels and restaurants not inheritance.

  12. Having ancestors who owned slaves means nothing. I have ancestors who came to Virginia in 1630.The immigrant was a Quaker who probably had to leave England because his father was a rector in the Church of England. The immigrant opposed slavery, but one of his sons owned several slaves. I also had an ancestor who was a member of the Virginia government who tried to sell some freed slaves from Maryland. Some ancestors were noble and others were downright embarrassing. The truth is we are all composed of the country’s history, both good and bad.

    • Amen, brother. And all our brothers and sisters.

      None of us are innocent, nor are any of us special.

      We all, each and every one of us, every day, are sinners, and wonder-workers. And we all have choices to make, our own choices, support each another, help each other, or condemn each other. The choice is ours alone, each and every one of us.

      No excuses. Nobody, nowhere, got any excuses.

  13. Ralph Northam was, at best, willfully ignorant. He grew up in the same county where his family had lived for generations. The family owned a farm in Modest Town. Every farm of any size on Virginia’s eastern shore used slave labor. If your fore-bearers owned a relatively large farm on the eastern shore then they owned slaves too. Many of the farms still in existence have slave quarters to this day on their grounds.

    I was in that picture until I wasn’t.
    I don’t know how that picture was on my yearbook page.
    I don’t know why they called me Coonman.
    I never knew my planter fore-bearers owned slaves.

    C’mon man!

  14. Family histories are always dicey although it is interesting to see slave holding records from the Eastern Shore. Too many times, ancestors embellish what really happened. Or they leave things out. Or they exaggerate to settle an ancient score.
    A great example isDonald Trump. If you believe anything that man says, you are nuts. He claimed to have been a self-made man but the NYT, after a year’s investigation, wrote that his father completely set up him. He had $250K as a toddler and was a millionaire when he was a pre-teen.
    It is sort of trying to remember boom boxes in the late 1960s — whether they existed or not.

    • Family history told through word of mouth becomes a whole lot less important when your family has lived in the same county for more than the past 160 years. People who were large landowners in the Tidewater and Southside areas of Virginia from 1800 – 1860 owned slaves. Ralph Northam knew his family’s history. He also knows the history of the Eastern Shore of Virginia. It shouldn’t have taken a great deal of insight for Ralph to imagine that his family used slaves to work the large property they owned. Did he specifically know the number of slaves or did he have unimpeachable documentation of his family’s slave owning past? Maybe not. Could he have surmised that they owned slaves? Of course. Like I said – willful ignorance.

    • As an aside, the first thing you see when you drive from Maryland to Virginia on the Eastern Shore is a big sign for a gas station / convenience store called Dixieland. The sign is a big Confederate flag with a smaller sign underneath that says, “The South Starts Here”. Welcome to Accomack County, home of Governor Northam.

      https://www.delmarvanow.com/story/news/local/virginia/2015/06/25/dixieland-confederate-flag/29281579/

  15. Compared to the above testamonials, I guess I am a darn Yankee, with no relatives ever living south of the Mason Dixon line.

  16. If any of you believe you should make up for the sins of your ancestors, more power to you. But do it with your own resources. From what I’ve been able to tell, all of my forebears were living north of the Mason-Dixon Line by the 1820s. And most of their ancestors living in the South sure did not have enough money to own a farm much less slaves. And I am open to receiving some financial payback since two of my 2nd great grandfathers served in the Union Army during the Civil War.

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