“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” Marcus Garvey
I was an adult before I knew my great-grandfather, Henry D. Smith, my paternal grandmother’s father, had served one term in the Virginia General Assembly. No one actually told me. By chance, after my dad’s death, I came across a booklet at my aunt’s home called Negro Office Holders in Virginia, 1865-1895 by Luther Porter Jackson. When I asked my aunt why she had it, she simply said that her mother’s father was in the book.
“What?” I asked in bewilderment. “Why has no one ever told me about this?”
“There was nothing to say,” she responded to my astonishment and said nothing else about it even though I probed.
From the book’s summary of his life, I learned he had been born into slavery in 1834. Through hard work as a farmer and distiller, according to the very brief paragraph on him, he amassed sufficient wealth to, at one time, own over 900 acres of land, including the Merry Oaks Estate, once possessed by the family that owned him as a slave. In 1879, he was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates. End of story. But that couldn’t be the end. How did he accomplish this? Did he help others in the black community with his position and wealth? I tried to get my aunt to tell me more. Finally, she did but only a tidbit. “Your grandmother [Mary ‘Mamie’ Smith Lucas] was one of his last children, born to his third and final wife, Ella Wyatt Smith, just a few years before his death in 1901.”
“That’s it?” I persisted.
“Yes,” snapped my aunt, clearly angry. “He lost his land, cheated by the white man like we always have been. That’s it.” And that was all she would ever say about this chapter of my family’s history.
I knew that the history of black people generally had been denied to us—all of us—black people and non-black people alike. When I was a student, it was only through supplemental education that I learned about Marcus Garvey, or Langston Hughes or Charles Drew. I imagine the white community learned even less. Nothing was taught about the history of countries in Africa, but everything about the history of England. Regardless of this larger frame of history denied, what I didn’t know was that my own family also denied me my personal history.
As I have reflected on that, I think they may have been ashamed my ancestor was able to rise from slavery—to accomplish what anyone would be proud of—but wasn’t able to hold on to what he had attained. His legacy tarnished by downfall at the hands of the white community. We were bamboozled, as filmmaker Spike Lee says. A century after his death my aunt was still angry, and I suspect sad, about the trajectory of his life.
Wealth comes in many forms and often the most valuable inherited treasure is not material. It’s knowing the history—the stories—of those who came before us. The sum and substance of the people and their stories that ultimately led to our own existence. We are poorer when it is denied us. I don’t have the fullness of my great-grandfather’s story. I, too, am sad that his story did not end with the glory he probably envisioned. Nonetheless, I choose to release the familial anger and celebrate him. The late 1800s, not a generation after the end of slavery, my great-grandfather was a landowner, a business owner, and a state legislator. My heart is full of love and pride.