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Betsy Glenn: Black or White?

I’ve been researching my ancestry for a very long time. It’s as if someone dropped a precious vase from 400 years high and it shattered into a million pieces and counting. I have been on this journey for 40 years and I am still amazed by what I learn.

What I have discovered about my paternal lineage has instilled me with pride. The long trail of entrepreneurial spirit that still manifests in the family today. But that search was made easier when a cousin, Barbara Russell Wilson, captured much of the history in a rough diagram of the family tree before those who could see into the past carried their perspectives and their secrets to the grave. It has been the cornerstone on which my research has been built and documented back to 1831. It revealed surnames before Russell that would have never emerged from my own efforts. Names like Reeves, Chesnut, Phillips and Graham, all slave owners whose drive for fortune and wealth drew them to the Kentucky frontier from Virginia and South Carolina. But the same could not be said for my maternal line. The very light complexion of my mother and grandfather suggested a dark past.

My maternal 3rd great grandfather, Isam Glenn, was born enslaved in Kentucky in 1820 as was his wife, Dellie, in 1818. The 1870 Census records, the first to enumerate African Americans by name and not by value, show a family who remained close but indicates trials that are gut wrenching. Isam, then 50, had 3 daughters, Hulda, 23, Adeline, 22, and Betsy, 20. Though they all are listed as black, of Isam’s daughters’ 10 children, 6 were listed as mulatto in the 1870 census.

Hulda’s first 3 children, born when she was 17, 18 and 20 years old, were all mulattos. One of Adeline’s 2 children was mulatto born when she was 20. Betsy, a house servant, was 13 years old when she was impregnated with her first of 2 mulatto children. There’s little mystery about the race of their father but who he was will almost certainly remain unknown. The only documentation I can hope to find would be a record of the children as property. Betsy’s first child was a boy named Robert. Betsy is my 2nd great grandmother and Robert my great grandfather. Despite being denoted as black in the Census, which I must question, Betsy’s descendants were very light skinned. Her grandson, Plush Elder Glenn and my grandfather, might have “passed” as a young man. The degree of his whiteness belies his grandmother being black.

Photo of my grandfather, Plush Elder Glenn, pipe in hand as I remember taken in Los Angeles circa late 1960s.

This branch of my family lineage was enslaved by the Glenn family for generations. Why? Were the children, conceived by rape, somehow held with some level of affection? Or were they just the “increase” as was the term used to denote the product of women. I will never know without some written document revealing such. Now the search begins for which of the Glenns in the surrounds of Hopkinsville, Kentucky were their enslavers. What documents did they leave behind? And what events were never recorded or documents destroyed to hide the truth?

Would you call this “Cancel Culture”? The recent wailing about this practice is so ridiculous as to be infuriating. That effort has been at work for people of color since the arrival of the “20 and odd” at Fort Comfort, Virginia in 1619 aboard the White Lion,[1] or the westward, genocidal march to destroy the native population and their culture under the banner of Manifest Destiny.[2] And now apoplexy runs rampant over the teaching of Critical Race Theory,[3] which explores the deliberate embedding of racial bias into the American social, legal and justice systems. The Virginia Slave Codes of 1705,[4] the Dred Scott Decision in 1857,[5] Red Lining[6] that still exists today are examples of thousands of decisions made to buttress the dominance of white people at the expense of people of color and Black people in particular. The hypocrisy, all in the service of white supremacy, is staggering.

Much of my ancestry was canceled; the teaching of its understanding is being criminalized; and rights to the vote to change any of this are being denied.

[1] The White Lion was an English privateer operating under a Dutch letter of marque, which brought the first Africans to the English colony of Virginia in 1619, a year before the arrival of the Mayflower in New England.[1] [2] The U.S. government authorized over 1,500 wars, attacks and raids on Indians, the most of any country in the world against its Indigenous people. By the close of the Indian Wars in the late 19th century, fewer than 238,000 Indigenous people remained, a sharp decline from the estimated 5 million to 15 million living in North America when Columbus arrived in 1492. [3] critical race theory (CRT), intellectual movement and loosely organized framework of legal analysis based on the premise that race is not a natural, biologically grounded feature of physically distinct subgroups of human beings but a socially constructed (culturally invented) category that is used to oppress and exploit people of colour. Critical race theorists hold that the law and legal institutions in the United States are inherently racist insofar as they function to create and maintain social, economic, and political inequalities between whites and nonwhites, especially African Americans. [4] [5] Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. (19 How.) 393 (1857), was a landmark decision of the United States Supreme Court in which the Court held that the United States Constitution was not meant to include American citizenship for people of African descent, regardless of whether they were enslaved or free, and so the rights and privileges that the Constitution confers upon American citizens could not apply to them.[3][4] [6] Widely acclaimed upon its publication in 2017, The Color of Law demonstrates that racial residential segregation—the fact that some neighborhoods are almost exclusively African American while others are almost exclusively white—is the result of explicit government policy rather than personal choice and random chance.


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