E. Ann Neel Teaches Her Own Ties to Slavery and The Work of Healing

Ann Neel, co-author of Entangled Lives, descends from slave owners.

You can call me Ann. I’m a still-not-fully-retired professor of an interdisciplinary kind of historical sociology of race and gender who always assigns family history projects to my students if at all justifiable. I have found that the experience of placing one’s family history in the larger social context of white supremacy, social class hierarchies, and patriarchal gender relations can lead to a critical consciousness, which, at its best, can bring about a commitment to work with others to make a better world. My intense focus on the legacies of enslavement/Jim Crow has a genealogy of its own, which is too lengthy to detail here but I’ll try for some highlights (and even this is too long!).

After spending the first 7 years of my life on the white side of a small Jim Crow town in Mid-Missouri, I moved with my family to California after “the War,” where I remained through college and graduate school – the latter in sociology at Berkeley in the notorious 60s. Although trained in social research, at Cal I discovered that teaching was definitely my calling with  race relations a specialization.  Also outside the classroom many of us learned much about the nature of power and challenging authority in those intense times — becoming Friends of SNCC, participating in the Free Speech Movement, and raising our consciousness through Women’s Liberation.

In 1975 I was hired to coordinate Women Studies and teach Comparative Sociology at the University of Puget Sound.  For my first sabbatical from UPS I chose to return to Missouri to do research on pioneer women in the region of Randolph County, the origins of my paternal grandmother. I was astounded to find myself face-to-face with slavery in county census and probate records, with some of my ancestors among the slaveholders!

I began my “linked descendants” work by tracing the life of Amanda, one of eleven enslaved people listed in my 3great grandfather’s probate record. Following her children’s records into the present, in 1990, I found a living descendant of Amanda’s named Mary Frances Berry, with whom I shared Amanda’s history.

That year, Pam Smith of Chicago, searching for an enslaved ancestor from the same county in Missouri, was referred to me. We became immediate family history buddies on the phone.  A few years later, on a research trip to Randolph County, Pam discovered that her known slave ancestor was OWNED by one of mine!  Recovering from that jarring reality, in 1996 we developed an ever- evolving slide presentation we call “Entangled Lives” –about our respective family histories, our friendship, and our struggles to come to terms with the ugly past we share. We’ve presented EL innumerable times in many states and have spent several years working intensively on co-writing a book, (that unfortunately, we were unable to complete). At the national gathering of Coming to the Table last year we found that we were not alone in our mission to face the legacies of that painful history; joining a “Linked Descendants” group made perfect sense.

Slaveholding was ubiquitous and tragically “ordinary” in the heritage of so many of us whites in this country over the generations. I believe there are millions of living descendants of enslavers in the U.S. today who need to begin the work of hard honesty (Dave’s blog title!) — if possible, with descendants of the people their ancestors enslaved.  This first step of acknowledgement is just one part of the necessary cooperative social action necessary to get to a place of racial healing, which this blog promises to further.  Those of us whose ancestors benefited from slavery — whether they held one, two, several, or hundreds of slaves — must begin by addressing the extent of the damage[h1]  done.

Although I retired from Puget Sound in 2001, besides keeping up on my reading and research, doing genealogy, painting, gardening (sort of), and conferring with Pam Smith on the phone, I still teach one class in Race Relations to the wonderful students at Santa Rosa Jr. College.

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