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