Only 150 years ago, if you had enough money, you could purchase another human being. Can you even begin to comprehend that? I am not a fan of the modern trend of judging our ancestors according to today’s more enlightened standards, and I’ve always been proud of my great-great-great grandfather, a Confederate general important enough to be mentioned in some histories of the time and a real Southern gentleman according to many published contemporary accounts.
Even so, I definitely felt uncomfortable when my cousin Ward (he’s my second cousin thrice removed, to be precise, and we “met” while both of us were researching the General online) sent me the picture above earlier this week. It’s a picture of the General’s wife, Elizabeth Oliver Hagan, known as Bettie, and her “personal servant,” Cornelia. All evidence suggests that there was a loving bond between the two women: Cornelia is seated while Bettie stands; the hand on the shoulder bespeaks affection; and she was buried next to Bettie (although her grave is not marked).
But I still cannot wrap my head around the notion that barely 100 years before I was born people–nice people–my great-great-great grandparents–could seriously think it was acceptable to own other human beings and call them slaves. I know that people are still being enslaved today, but it isn’t legal; it isn’t acceptable; and it isn’t practiced by respected members of society.