WASHINGTON — Whenever cousins Joe Gardener and Fred Dickey visit their family cemetery, a remote and wooded panorama on top of Hogback Mountain in north Georgia, they send up prayers to their Irish American ancestors who settled the area in the early 1840s.
These days, they also honor more than two dozen black slaves buried alongside their white owners.
"A common response to the issue of slavery is, 'But my family never owned any slaves,' " said Gardener, an Atlanta architect and a direct descendant of George Dickey and Hannah Taylor Dickey, great-great-grandparents of Atlanta-born author and poet James Dickey. "Well, our family did own slaves."
A generation after "Roots" author Alex Haley popularized genealogy among African Americans by tracing his family's history from the west coast of Africa to rural Tennessee, the Dickey heirs are among an increasing number of white Americans to uncover family secrets.
To the dismay of some relatives who would rather not know, they are discovering slave ownership--and sometimes even black ancestry--in their own families.
As author Edward Ball details in his best-selling "Slaves in the Family," such revelations can split apart a once-stable family. Ball's research led to the discovery of African American family members, the products of forced sexual relations between slave masters and their black property. His work so angered some cousins that they no longer speak to him.
Filmmaker Macky Alston's search for his family connections led to the discovery of two Alston family reunions--one white and one black, held within miles of each other during the same week--and inspired his quest to consolidate the annual meetings.
And, for Will Hairston, head groundskeeper at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., his family's Southern pronunciation of a shared last name was all that separated them from the hundreds of black relatives in the region.
Like converts to a new religion, these white Americans are trumpeting their discoveries, embracing African Americans as kin in a shared legacy. There are no figures documenting the phenomenon, but a wide array of historians and social observers reports growing numbers of white Americans seeking to make amends with known descendants of slaves owned by their relatives.
Jeff Hitchcock, director and co-founder of the Center for the Study of White American Culture, in Rosell, N.J., said some white Americans may be eager to find distant black relatives because so much of the national attention on race has focused on African Americans. Whites often feel left out of the conversation, he added.
"There is a growing trend among white people to be reflective" of their race's role, Hitchcock said. "And, if they sometimes find [black] relatives, it's as if they've been misled to think whiteness is such a big difference. That's why they want to tell other white people about their discovery."
Chip Morgan, a staff archeologist with the Georgia Historic Preservation Office in Atlanta, said white Southerners are among those most eager to heal racial wounds that linger from slavery. "The whole white guilt trip is coming to bear on some of these people and it rubs them the wrong way," Morgan said. "With the distance and time from slavery, there are more and more young professional whites who want to know the truth that had been kept secret from them down through the years."
Public Records Back Up Oral Histories
Not everyone thinks that white Americans' pursuit of public reconciliation with the descendants of slaves represents a critical or positive turn in race relations.
"People who are attempting to come to terms with this may be well-meaning," said Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, professor of history, literature and women's study at Emory University in Atlanta. "But there seems to be a move afoot to transform slaveholding into personal guilt instead of membership in a broader social system.
"We, as a society, seem to like confessionals a lot nowadays," added Fox-Genovese, who has written about slavery's impact on contemporary society. "It's almost as interesting to be guilty for slavery as it is to be victimized by it."
Ball disagrees, arguing in an interview that whites who feel guilt are the "ones who keep secrets hidden."
As he undertook the research for his book about his family's slaveholding past, Ball expected to run across black people who might have been descendants of those slaves. "I also thought I might find some African Americans who were cousins," he added. "But I made no special effort to do so."
His work, however, led him to thousands of pages of public records concerning his family that coincided with the oral histories of the blacks he interviewed. The circumstantial evidence convinced him there were former slaves in his family.
But the reaction among some others in his family "was like going into an operation without anesthesia." Frequently one relative or another would ask, why stir up a history that nobody wants to know about? he said.