Family  /  First Person

I Searched for Answers About My Enslaved Ancestor. I Found Questions About America

'Did slavery make home always somewhere else?'

A few years ago, I began to look every so often at the two Census reports where my one known ancestor from Maryland appears: 1870 and 1880. I’m always hoping to discover something I missed—about myself, about my past. Every gaze is a moment of wonder and frustration. There she is, twice. In 1870, she is Easter Lowe. Born in Maryland in 1769, 101 years old, Black. In 1880, she is Esther Watkins, born in Georgia in 1789, 91 years old, widowed, Black. Both improbable and extraordinary. In rare, lighter moments, it makes me think of Mark Twain’s humorous story about George Washington’s mammy, Joice Heth, who in newspaper report after newspaper report kept getting older until her age rivaled Methuselah’s (as we say it).

Whereas Twain noted a sentimentalism toward the old plantation darky that verged on the ridiculous, my own ancestor’s imprecision is a bitter wound. And I have some awe, too, at what must have been a daunting attempt to name her age. “How to place her in history?” somebody speculated. Most of the time I feel a combination of reverence and sadness. It is unlikely I will ever know what happened or when exactly she was born. I can guess. The ages are probably wrong but could be right. There were some enslaved people who lived to extraordinarily old ages. Perhaps she was sold from Maryland down the river. Maybe from a man named Lowe to a man named Watkins who wanted to settle the Georgia frontier. And later, as Mississippi was carved out of Georgia and Alabama out of Mississippi, she, a woman who at least by one account was born before the nation was a nation, was still living, an elderly freedwoman in Madison County, Ala.

Even if I doubt her age, there is the AncestryDNA evidence that says I descend from people who lived in early 18th century Virginia. Inexact borders aside, what holds is this: we came before America was America. This woman who bore the name either of my favorite biblical queen or my favorite holiday was here, not as an accomplice to the settler colony, but as the victim of its displacement and captivity. She was a witness to the very exclusions that laid the foundation for the creation of a national identity. It is a remarkable status.

I wanted to travel to Maryland, to see something about my ancestral beginnings, but I had no idea of where to go. I ultimately chose to go to Annapolis, the capital. It is a precious town. One that is self-consciously old, like it was manicured that way. I wasn’t sure exactly what I was looking for there at first. I just went.


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