Considering My Own Racism: My community’s history regarding slavery

I grew up steeped in history.

My home church, Jerusalem Lutheran, was completed in 1769. Yes, 250 years ago. It still has an active congregation.

The church has a balcony, which the adults of my childhood described as “the slave gallery.”

View from the Jerusalem Lutheran Church balcony, which was the slave gallery

That just seemed normal to me. That there were slaves – and that they sat separately from the congregation. I didn’t ponder them in their role in the community around the church, a former town known as New Ebenezer.

I never wondered who these enslaved people were and what their lives were like. They were just a part of the church and community history, like the fingerprints in the church bricks. I saw these fingerprints often but never thought about the daily lives of these ancestors and the decisions they made.

Fingerprints left by an Ebenezer brick maker

It hasn’t been until I’m an older adult that I started thinking about the slavery issue in my home community.

The first settlers of Ebenezer came from German and Austrian areas in 1734 and the following years to escape religious persecution. The settlers from my father’s male ancestral line came in 1749.

This video presents some of the history of the Salzburger community. It looks to be from the 1980s or 1990s and really captures what my childhood experience was in this community. I recognize people who were a part of my church life growing up, and it includes Amy LeBey, who was one of the main historians and storytellers of our Salzburger history.

Daddy talked about his (and my) ancestors a lot and shared many of the same stories mentioned in the video. So did many people in our community. It was a point of pride to be a Salzburger, someone with deep roots in the one of the original 13 colonies of the United States.

But I don’t ever remember either Daddy or any other community members spending much time pondering slavery and its effects on the community. You hear Miss Amy mention slaves in this video (mentioned above) but she’s talking about being a slave in terms of not owning your own property and working for someone else – in Europe.

She doesn’t note the irony of people who immigrated to Colonial Georgia to be free – but who still enslaved other people. That was not at topic anyone I knew considered at the time this video was made.

During my growing up years, I don’t remember anyone ever noting this irony when talking about our ancestors and the importance of freedom for them.

Apparently, they thought freedom was only for people with a European ancestry.

Near the end of Daddy’s life there was a movement to acknowledge the enslaved people buried in what I knew as “the slave cemetery.” I can’t find exactly which year that cemetery was acknowledged with this marker, but my guess is late 1990s or early 2000s.

The “slave cemetery” isn’t a cemetery at all. There are no marked graves. There is no border or fence. There are only woods with this marker at the edge by the fenced Jerusalem Lutheran Church Cemetery.

“Cemetery” for enslaved people

These two “cemeteries” are next to each other. Notice the big difference.

View of Jerusalem Lutheran Church Cemetery from the marker for the slave cemetery

Yet this seemed “normal” to me – until the past few years. I can walk around this cemetery and find the grave markers of great great grandparents – and probably ancestors from even further back.

One of my great great grandfathers. Buried in Jerusalem Lutheran Cemetery. You can see the cemetery wall in the background. The slave cemetery is just beyond it.

But my black friends who are my age can’t do that. Their great great grand parents lie in unmarked graved. They didn’t even have last names. They were only known as Christine or Mary or Daniel or David – names that sounded nothing like the names of their African ancestors. And they can’t find their African ancestors. Because their soon-to-be African American ancestors were captured and enslaved and treated as property, like livestock, often with absolutely no record of their existence.

In Ebenezer Record Book, published in 1929 and translated by A. G. Voigt, I do find a record of enslaved people. They were baptized, as indicated in the listings below. The first entry in this book was in 1756 and the last in 1800.

I scanned through the index of the book, looking for names of my ancestors to see if they owned slaves then. They didn’t – but guess who did?

The pastors of the church.

Boltzius was the first pastor of the congregation. He was the leader of the community from the very beginning of the Salzburgers’ lives in America, and he founded the congregation before the voyage over the Atlantic Ocean. Rabenhorst and Triebner were later pastors of the church and leaders of the community.

These church and community leaders were among the first to own enslaved people. Pastor Rabenhorst had nine slave babies baptized – nine babies added to his property. You see the contrast in the listings. Enslaved babies didn’t have sponsors other than their owners. Free babies had sponsors or witnesses from the church congregation.

When the Colony of Georgia was founded in 1733, slavery was banned (along with “spirits,” Catholics, and lawyers). But that ban didn’t last long. My Salzburger ancestors didn’t live in the colony for very long before they purchased slaves.

I know many people argued that owning slaves in the 1700s and 1800s was an economic necessity. And I know that much of my clothing and many of my electronic devices today were probably made by people who are enslaved or in a situation mighty close to it.

My hypocrisy has deep roots.

So many questions come up as I think of how racism has been a part of my own personal history. And I think of how this deep hypocrisy manifests in me today, not only in my own racism.

And I wonder how I never have thought deeply about slavery in my home community and in my family history – until lately.

How did I never question slavery when every Sunday at church I saw the slave gallery, the place where Daddy rang the church bells while standing directly behind the benches where once sat the enslaved people of our community?

How did I not think about the lives of the people who lay in unmarked graves adjacent to the marked graves of my parents and grandparents and great and great great grandparents in a cemetery full of other ancestors and community members from many generations?

How was I so blind to this past?

How did I not consider the effects of this past on my present?

And the biggest question of all:

How will I let this knowledge change my self of today and how I choose to live?

Jerusalem Lutheran Church, October 2016 after Hurricane Matthew (note the damaged cedar tree)
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11 thoughts on “Considering My Own Racism: My community’s history regarding slavery

  1. I think the marker was laid for the colored cemetery while John Barichivich was pastor at Jerusalem. Those dates escape me, but I believe it was closer to 2009. There should be articles in the local papers’ archives. The current Cemetery fence is relatively new, mid1980’s , it was a gift from a former member. Many unmarked graves were discovered outside this current fence. I believe that area Is marked by stone posts. The congregation welcomes all, please join us on Sunday mornings.

  2. I thought Daddy talked about the marker when he was alive, but I could be wrong. Maybe he just talked about the fact that African-American slaves were buried there, and the marker came long after his death. I did a quick search while I was composing this piece, and I did see Pastor Barichivich in a news story, but I thought it was commemorating the marker and not laying it. Maybe I misread. I knew about the fence donation in the 1980s. That fence does not include the slave cemetery or the other unmarked graves. I found this http://visitebenezer.com/sites/jerusalem-church-cemetery/

    Here’s the story I found: https://www.savannahnow.com/effingham-now/2012-05-26/dedication-graves-unknown-held-new-ebenezert It says there was a “dedication” so I guess that means the marker was laid then. My memory had it being laid earlier. Apparently my memory is faulty!

  3. “How was I so blind to this past? How did I not consider the effects of this past on my present? And the biggest question of all: How will I let this knowledge change my self of today and how I choose to live?”

    I am not excusing, only explaining the answer to your first questions. We were blind to the past because everyone around us behaved like this history was normal, far in the past, not our decision and so not our concern. I remember Grandmama telling me “We didn’t own slaves!” when I asked about the past. I remember not understanding why “that negro woman” still lived on the farm but earned no wages and being told “she always lived there” – meaning she was probably a slave descendent who was bartered a ramshackle house for free labor. I was eleven and I knew that was unfair. But what was there to do about it at that time?

    Which brings me to your final question regarding today. The best you can do today is not forget or turn a blind eye to the past, then work to see that the past is not revived by how you treat individuals. By what causes and legislation you support for groups who experience inequality. Not letting people around you keep the past as a norm by not being silent. Writing this blog with honesty and grit is how you confront today.

    Thanks for continually making us think. Being uncomfortable is a condition for growth.

    • Ah, Judy, but you asked questions – and I didn’t. You were wondering why things were the way they were, and I just accepted them. I didn’t notice them as unfair. It wasn’t until I was older that I started to question.

      Thank you for your affirmation that my questioning now through these blog posts is a way to confront the inequality. A small one, but a way nonetheless.

  4. Just read this. I so appreciate your writings, Krista. And I appreciate how you gently nudge us/me to reconsider how to move forward.

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