My life as a cotton-growing, slave-owning Southern white gentleman

My life as a cotton-growing, slave-owning Southern white gentleman

The title of this piece may leave a lot to unpack, but let’s put a pin in all that for now.

I grew up on the North Side of Chicago and didn’t get further south than Terre Haute, Indiana until I landed at Fort Polk, LA, just a month short of my nineteenth birthday.

So, no plantation for me.

I did work in a small factory my dad owned on the Near South Side (Damen & Hastings) during school vacations and such.

There were a couple of white guys, two Mexican brothers named Richie and Sam and about 15 or 20 black men and women.

I spent my time in the factory, not in the office and they probably treated me nicely because I was the boss’s son. I was also willing to do any job and take instruction from anyone willing to teach me.

Looking back, I think those workers respected and liked my dad and I think he treated them fairly.

I’m sure my family had their own set of prejudices, but I don’t remember ever hearing anyone use any sort of racial or ethnic epithet.

That was my frame of reference.

In the aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination, I jumped at the chance to put my drivers license to good use delivering food and supplies for the Catholic Interracial Council.

I wonder though, what my frame of reference would have been if I had been born on a cotton plantation, 100 years earlier.  If I had been born in 1840, I would have been about 20 as the Civil War was getting ready to erupt.

Since life expectancy at that time was about 40 years of age, I would have been about half way through mine.

Would I have had any sort of epiphany by then, or would I have just accepted that owning black people was a normal part of life?

We’re all quick to say, “I would never do that” or “I would definitely have done this,” but the reality is that nobody knows what they would do in any situation until they are actually in that situation.

Growing up with a black nanny might’ve seemed pretty normal and I wouldn’t have known what it meant when I overheard someone say that my daddy was down “pleasurin’ with the darkies.”

At some point, I’d like to think that my pondering might have led to some sort of awakening.

I ponder a lot, always have. I’m a regular Poi Dog.

Even now, when she sees me staring off into space my wife will ask me what I’m thinking about, although I might just be trying to remember where I put my Kindle.

I’d like to think that at some point it would have dawned on me that young girls being used for sex was an affront to our Southern gentility.

I’d like to think that I would have become increasing uncomfortable seeing black men beaten, maimed or killed for a variety of minor transgressions.  I’d like to think that I would have, at some point objected to families being ripped apart and sold off, never to see each other again.

I’d like to think that by the time the Civil War broke out, I would have realized that my slave-owning daddy was on the wrong side of history.

I’d like to think all that, but I have no way of knowing it.

They say that we can’t judge those in our past by the standards of today.  I don’t know if that’s true.  I don’t think we’ve evolved that much.

Today is another Throwback Thursday, but it seems that everyday is a throwback day for a lot of the folks I see in the news.

They carry flags of America’s enemies and wear symbols of oppression and hatred.  Should they, too escape judgement by today’s standards?

Subscribe to the Chicago Board of Tirade
* You will never get SPAM
* Your email address will never be sold or given away
* You will only receive emails on days I post.
* You can unsubscribe at any time
* You can contact me anytime at:

* Just type your email address in the box below and click the “Create Subscription” button.

Leave a comment