When I was working for a nonprofit organization in New York City our diversity task
force brought in a consultant to do sensitivity exercises. The consultant had us all stand in a line. First she called out statements that, if they applied to you, you were to take a step back: Person of color, ancestors came through Ellis Island, parents didn’t go to college, parents spoke a language other than English. Then she made statements that required you to step forward. Most of these I don’t remember; one had to do with having a graduate degree. I just remember that the Chief Operating Officer and I ended up by the window, while most of the rest were huddled in the back of the room. I had never viewed myself as privileged before.
I come from a very large family which none of us knew much about until recently. Mother and Daddy both were born and raised in a small farming community in Montgomery County, Tennessee. Daddy was a Jones, Mother was a Bowers. My cousins on the Jones side liked to joke that it was a wonder we weren’t all idiots, since there were Joneses and Bowerses on both sides of our family trees. My parents went through the Great Depression, and told me that sometimes they had nothing but biscuits and sawmill gravy to eat. Neither graduated from high school.
Mostly my relatives were tenant farmers or blue-collar workers. No one had gone to college before my generation. To me it was a point of pride that we had apparently been in Montgomery County forever without making much of a mark on it. We didn’t have any
glorious Civil War history to recount and apparently were too poor to own slaves.
I thought of myself as an educated, liberal person over the years, having no heritage of slavery, lynching or Jim Crow atrocities to live down. I also thought I came from a humble
background and, along with my sisters and brother, had managed to pull myself
up into the middle class. Meanwhile, my cousins Bobby Bowers and Greg Jones had been digging into the genealogy of the Bowers family. In December 2006 they printed “The Descendants of Nathaniel Bowers, Rev., and Hannah Smith.” My sister Sherrie sent me a copy, and I began picking my way through 12 generations of Bowerses.
Turns out my parents were distant enough as cousins to escape any incest jokes. However, most of my other assumptions were not particularly true. There had been land, and perhaps education. Nathaniel Bowers was a preacher and was born in Connecticut (date unknown). His wife was born in 1683. His grandson James fought in the Revolutionary War (with the rank of Capt.) and received a pension, moving to Montgomery County from New Jersey around 1820. James owned 400 acres of land—a war land grant?
During the Civil War, Corporal John Claiborne Bowers was sent home with malaria the
day before the surrender of Fort Donelson to the Union army, so he avoided
going to prison camp with the rest of the Confederate soldiers. Yet he had been there, so he may have fought. Family lore said he was paid to fight by a more affluent neighbor, which was common at the time. His widow received a Confederate Army pension.
The genealogy book noted births, deaths, pensions, deeds, census data, and even a
newspaper account of an apparent multiple murder including the husband of one
of the Bowerses in 1878. The question of slave ownership was never raised. Nothing
explained how the land had gone away.
I emailed Cousin Bobby about it, and he said he didn’t look into slave ownership. But what he did find out changed my view of our family history forever. Education, property, Revolutionary and Civil War veterans—not what I thought I knew. And still a lot of