By John March
My mother, Mary March, died last December at the age of 91. On a weekend this spring, my brother and sisters and I gathered in Cincinnati to celebrate her memory and make a final division of her belongings. Mom had been born and raised on a farm outside Lexington, Ky., and although she was a daughter of the South, she had crossed the Ohio River as a young woman to make her life among people with little or no Southern heritage. She was not escaping the South, but she was escaping the farm. As a young girl, she had dreamed of life in the city, and Cincinnati was, if not New York, sufficiently far from the coal oil lamps of her childhood.
In going through her belongings, we came upon a folder of papers saved by my father, the family archivist. It was the usual miscellany: some poignant thank-you notes, a copy of Mom’s undergraduate thesis, a vaccination record, some newspaper clippings – and the transcript of a brief reminiscence by my great-grandfather, George N. Murphey, a doctor in Paducah, Ky., together with a copy of the last will and testament of his father, Nathaniel Green Murphey, dated Nov. 3, 1884. Together, these two items shine a light on an element of my family’s history – my Southern heritage, such as it is – that I would have preferred not to know.
In his reminiscence, my great-grandfather pays tribute to his father’s generosity and particularly mentions his father’s having adopted “eight orphan children, six nieces and nephews, and two grandchildren” besides seven of his own children. “If my father ever showed any partiality in this large household of children,” his admiring son wrote, “it was in favor of the orphan ones.” Thus Nathaniel Green Murphy, my great-great-grandfather, a generous man.
Also, as I have noted, the same folder of papers included a transcript of Nathaniel’s will. The will made nine separate bequests, some of land and others of money. And then there was this one:
“To my grandson Charlie F. Mullins, son of my daughter Bettie, I have given one tract of land near Paducah, Kentucky, valued at One Thousand Dollars, and have previously given my daughter Bettie during her life time One Negro Woman valued at One Thousand Dollars, the above to be in full of their entire interest in my Estate.”
Land to some heirs, money to others, and One Negro Woman.
This is the legacy of the same man who, according to his son’s memoir, never turned a hungry stranger from his door – but who also owned another human being, now and forever nameless, and tendered that woman as a gift to his daughter.
Certainly there are other parts of my southern heritage (ham biscuits, thoroughbred horses, the pungent aroma of tobacco curing in my uncle’s barn), but there is also One Negro Woman, and I cannot escape her or deny her. This is the stubborn fact: My ancestors on my mother’s side owned human beings. Yes, it was in the distant past – that will was executed more than 130 years ago – but there it is all the same, my Southern heritage “in full,” to use the language of the will.
In the South, among whites, it was common to romanticize the Civil War, to pretend that it was about “independence” or economic exploitation by the North or states’ rights. “My father loved the South,” my great-grandfather wrote in his reminiscence, “as dearly as he did his own life. And when her glorious cause was lost, it broke his proud Southern heart.”
In this manner did my forebears conceal from themselves the true nature of the Civil War, which was, of course, a war to abolish Southern slavery, a war to free black men and women so they could no longer be bequeathed as property to others and, on the Southern side, a war to preserve the institution and culture of human bondage. Not a glorious cause but a hateful one.
So now when I read a letter to the editor of this paper objecting to the removal of a Confederate statue, I am moved to say, “Very well, let the statue stand. But you will permit me to climb on that bronze horse and rider and hang a sign around the rider’s neck. It will read: “One Negro Woman.”
John March lives in Seal Harbor.