By Charlton Hillis
In 2008, SouthernReader.com ran my article, “Hunting for Major Bibb.” It was the account of a genealogical trek to Russellville, Kentucky in search of the grave and house of a fourth-great-grandfather. That story chronicled my sister and me finding the house, which turned out to be an antebellum museum, and rummaging through overgrown rural cemeteries for a grave found only later, by others. The story surrounding the house and our ancestor was worth the telling. At his death in 1839, more than two decades before the Emancipation Proclamation, Richard Bibb emancipated fifty-eight people. His will included financial provisions and land.
In recent years I heard from Le Datta Grimes, a University of Kentucky PhD student, who told me of a documentary in progress on that story worth the telling. “Invented Before You Were Born,” by Jonathan Knight and Le Datta Grimes, is a film you won’t want to miss. As intriguing as that was, something else came up much sooner on the calendar. There was to be a family reunion at the SEEK Museum at the Bibb House. The house had undergone a change into a museum which focused on the flip side of the story, on the enslaved and those freed from slavery.
The Bibb family reunion held the first weekend of August 2019—hopefully the first of many—was for the descendants of the emancipated, but it was also to include descendants of the slaveholder. There would be food; there would be fellowship. There would be speakers; there would be discussions. No one knew what would come of it. No one could predict exactly what might happen on a hot summer day in Kentucky in the volatile political climate of 2019.
My sister, the family genealogist who orchestrated our first trip, could not come down from Alaska. My husband was on board to go with me, and two cousins from Texas drove up. Other than that, I had laid eyes on no one but a couple of other descendants and some of the crew involved in the documentary.
The house and its story demanded a different view this time around. For me, this meant outside of family history and anything my ancestors did. It meant a view in the grip of Christ, who would have us see everything with new eyes. Out of this, I’ll touch on things that caught my eye and no doubt skip things that should be covered.
A new look meant pushing through a fog from a lifetime of reading old novels with old plantation houses and a whole way of life lived on the backs of a people forced into livestock status. It meant trying to see beneath the layers of time, the scars and still bleeding wounds, the preconceptions and the politics. It meant trying to see across the still existing chasm between people with brutally conflicting legacies.
This gathering, this family reunion, this place—unprecedented? Maybe. It is believed to be the only public museum in America to tell the stories of both the slavery and the emancipations that happened on the same grounds. This day in August, the large white Palladian-style Georgian house and grounds remained the same on the outside. On the outside, it might fool anyone into thinking it just another antebellum museum.
Inside was stark transformation. Though not completed in time for the reunion, much work had been done, thanks to local historians Michael Morrow and Gran Clark and many other volunteers. A brief look: In the foyer is a brutal slam, a fiercely direct route back into another world. A glass case showcases iron shackles. The notation reads, Wrist Shackles with Key, Rattle Shackles for the Ankle. Found in Logan County. They are chillingly wicked-looking pieces of metalcraft.
The beautiful period décor of the previous trip is absent. In its place, enlarged displays of historical documents, wills, letters. A letter from Richard Bibb’s oldest son to his brother: he himself opposed emancipation but honored his father’s will. Brief bios, with headshots, of the major players, black and white. A long, handwritten price list names people in three columns, horses in one—some of the horses priced higher than some of the people. The work of one master craftsman is highlighted in detailed fireplace carvings. Like the ones who labored to build the house, he did not work for wages.
On a wall, a small faded newspaper advertisement is the loudest thing in the room. In one fell swoop it offers for sale two ten-year-old boys, two stud colts and a 136-gallon still. The colts, race horses, rate names.
On an easel is a hand-painted scene of Liberia. This room is devoted to colonization, a controversial trial effort born of anti-slavery views. Richard Bibb was a friend of Henry Clay, one of the founders of the American Colonization Society. In 1832, Bibb sent thirty-two people to West Africa, where former slaves would found the nation that would come to be known as Liberia. Before the ship arrived at its destination, more than thirty freed people died of cholera, three of them Bibbs.
And then up the stairs, past the second floor bedrooms, up to the attic where they slept, those in bondage. Stifling hot this day in August. 110 degrees, someone said. One small window at the end of the long, rough, low-ceilinged room. Someone has put a wooden rocking chair with a quilt, near the middle. The emptiness is heavy with much more than the heat. Hold that thought.
Back in the large, tree-shaded yard at the round tables, blue tablecloths each boast a small, quiet centerpiece of worn, mostly iron, antiques—a ladle, a small pot, a candle snuffer, other household items. Metalcraft, this time made useful, even lovely. Later the wind will get up and the rain will drive everyone inside, where closer quarters loosen tongues. It is as if planned.
People hesitate, begin conversations, snap pictures. If this were for a magazine, two senior citizens make the cover: In the foyer, highlighted by a ray through the upper front glass, a black woman in a wide red hat and a white-headed white man in a sailboat print shirt stand long in discussion. A youngish couple sporting many tattoos sit together on the floor beneath a long window. Two white-haired women bend heads over a display table of documents. Children weave in and out through the crowd.
Then outdoors again after the rain, where there are speakers and table discussions. Attorney and writer Traci D. Ellis is the guest speaker. She tells us this: she is not normally one to hear voices, but upon approaching the house this weekend, her first time, she heard voices. This may be one of the easier things to understand out of the whole day. Her words take us back to the attic where, completely overcome, she sank to her knees by that wooden rocking chair and hugged a quilt. There are other speakers. Richard Bibb is far from the focus; one speaker at least gives him due credit for what he did. There are historical accounts, there are family stories, there are cut to the heart moments. There are raw feelings expressed; there are nods to healing. We hear the word rage; we hear the word courage; we hear the word rape; we hear the word cousins.
Oral history has it that some black Bibbs and white Bibbs are related. A small girl named Catherine received the largest allotment of any of the emancipated slaves. A photo of Catherine Bibb Arnold now hangs above a mantle in the museum. A fair-skinned woman by report and in the photo, she shows particular similarities to a picture of George M. Bibb, Richard’s oldest son. One of her descendants was an elderly lady when interviewed for the documentary. “All my life,” she says quietly, “I’ve heard Major Bibb was Granny Kate’s father.”
When we break for discussions on race relations, at our table is an older white couple, veterans of the Civil Rights movement. A middle-aged black couple who, despite education and careers, are veterans of overt discrimination. A well-dressed older black gentleman, tight-lipped, inscrutable. A conservative couple, white, senior citizens (my husband and me). A fifty-something progressive white man. A young mother, a black woman from Atlanta.
At that one table alone, there are enough past and current differences to fuel a fire. No one holds back. Voices now and then rise, but not at one another. We are asked why we came. The answer I won’t forget is that of the young woman from Atlanta. She later elaborated for me:
“We came for the kids…to not just hear talk about following Christ, but to see us actually living it out, tangibly, by showing love to people that some will say we ought not love and receiving love in unlikely places and spaces. And to be forgiving as we have been forgiven…all in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ…I wanted them to see God’s hand in the past and present. They’ve had a really hard time understanding how slavery was allowed to occur (haven’t we all?), and the reunion was a chance for them to explore His goodness and mercy in the answered prayers of our ancestors…We came for the kids. To strengthen their faith.”– Amber O’Neal
Later, one stands to represent each table and sum up the conversations. The one I won’t forget—a young man stands and gives the glory to God. His exact words are lost to me, but he, too, named the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.
At no time does it feel like a feel good event where smiles and hugs flow freely—still, there are smiles and there are hugs. As with the kitchen in separate quarters, as with the whole event, I’m skipping over much. People not given credit, quotes not quoted.
One I will quote is the one that kept running through my head. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” —Jesus Christ. And when asked who that neighbor was, He told an account of a Samaritan and a Jew. If you know anything of the long and extreme hostility and prejudice between the Jews and the Samaritans, you will see the legacy of slavery in the United States and know He spoke to us.
The love your neighbor as yourself view means that I, a white descendant of slaveholders, can go back in my mind and sink to the floor in that rough attic and try to hear the voices as if they were my ancestors. This is not in any way to take away from others’ more personal experiences. In Christ, we can and must do such shoe shifting, skin shifting, even though we will never on this earth perfect that.
More than once at other times I have been asked, “Why do you think he (Bibb) did what he did?,” and that quote would run through my head then as now. Impossible to connect the dots. A minister, as he was, could certainly quote that and preach it. Maybe that’s what worked on him all those years. Maybe it ate at his soul, as he talked with Henry Clay about those anti-slavery views. Or maybe he, like many of us, compartmentalized his life into segregated sections. Maybe he preached love while keeping slavery in a box on a shelf, but that box grew thin and worn with age until it finally started cracking open. Who knows?
And all the voices of those he held in bondage and all the voices of those now focused on the story say, But. But he should never have done it in the first place, and they are, of course, right. It’s often too late for the victims by the time we learn love, or the box cracks open.
The King of the universe, the Giver of life, our only Ancestor who matters, went to the cross under the banner of love and forgiveness—the kind of love and forgiveness that does not get to pick and choose. That’s our legacy.
In Him we are sisters, and we are brothers. Christ the Creator made of one blood, or from one man, depending on the version, all nations of the earth. Then He made the people who follow Him a family. The enormity of God in Christ can destroy earthly ties, shrink them to nothing— “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword,” Jesus said. Then He turns around and enlarges, enriches them beyond anything we’ve known before.
“In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek” was an outrageous statement in the first century. “In Christ there is neither black nor white” is outrageous still, to many, but the power of the cross erases racial barriers. Many will dismiss that as so much whitewash, but many already experience it. That’s the difference in the hope we have in Christ, as opposed to the best efforts of man on his own. The power of the resurrection eclipses man’s inhumanity to man. That’s our legacy.
The power of the resurrection can shred pedigreed careers into garbage (ask the apostle Paul) and recycle a dark past into fuel for a glorious future. Forgetting history is not an option; transformation is, and the resurrection transformation is eternal.
No social movement, no political action can work guaranteed changes, because all that originates from the exact same source that begat slavery and every other evil perpetrated by man—the human heart. Its efforts are faulty at best and always susceptible to failure. Only the maker of the human spirit is able to fully wake us and promise permanence.
Black and white. Liberal and Conservative. Old and young. Christians and non-Christians. It spanned all that: the generations, the races, politics and religions. If this were no more than an ordinary picnic, it would be out of the ordinary. It was a metamorphosis of things and, for many, of hearts and viewpoints. Both the documentary and the museum will soon be completed; hearts and minds a work in progress for years to come.