Columnist Tolley M. Jones: The price of slavery

  • Tolley Jones

Published: 9/9/2020 7:00:12 PM
Modified: 9/9/2020 7:00:02 PM

In the 1990s, Kaiser Permanente conducted a groundbreaking study into the effect of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) on children and adults. The study found that adverse childhood experiences — physical, emotional and sexual abuse, along with family dysfunction and neglect — cumulatively impact not only the emotional health of children, but also their physical health, leading to lifelong medical problems and even shortened lifespans.

Four or more of these childhood experiences can result in an exponentially-increased risk for health problems in adulthood, such as broken bones, disordered coping strategies such as drug use, and an increase in life-threatening medical conditions such as heart disease, stroke and cancer.

Additionally, research has been done about the impact of generational trauma, not only from a social perspective (such as emotional trauma passed down to children who observe the traumatic reactions of their parents) but also from a genetic and biological perspective. The research shows that trauma is passed down to children from their parents not only behaviorally, but through actual genetic changes to DNA.

This is a startling and sobering finding. Although it is true that resilience is a factor in how people cope with trauma, recognizing that trauma can be inherited on a genetic level weakens the glib insistence that simply keeping one’s chin up and focusing on the positive is enough to overcome trauma.

Clearly the problem is far deeper and requires understanding of the many ways in which the damage can manifest. In other words, trauma can be overcome but the damage is not always obvious, and therefore not always easily identified in order to overcome.

As I worked on my family tree this summer and discovered the presence of an identifiable white slave owner playing the roles of both victimizer of an ancestor and direct ancestor himself as a result of his abuse, I found myself thinking about ACES and my work with children and families who are struggling to overcome their own traumatic experiences. Understanding the severe impact that childhood trauma has on the developing brain and on physical health, and the impact of trauma on the health of children born to traumatized people, makes one view slavery from a broader — and even darker — lens.

My fifth great-grandmother Rachel was born of a plantation rape by a white slave owner against his Black female slave. There is so much trauma wrapped up in that story that I have had to think about it in small increments, because even thinking about it feels like reliving a trauma. I think about the trauma that her mother, Lucia, endured being repeatedly raped without recourse or protection from further abuse. I think about the children born out of this violence, and what it must have been like to know that your father was also your owner.

Zachariah Moore, the slave owner, was also married and had eight children — eight white children, that is. These children were born during the same timeframe that Rachel and her sister Esther were born. It is impossible that Zachariah’s wife, Mary, or their children, did not know that he was raping Lucia, or that Rachel and Esther were also Zachariah’s children.

But Zachariah was well-respected in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He was a founding member of the Donogal County Presbyterian Church. He is mentioned multiple times in the historical records of the church, and even installed the stone wall around the graveyard that still exists today. Indeed, he is buried in that graveyard, with a stone and military marker proclaiming that he was a lieutenant in the Revolutionary War.

But he openly cheated on his wife, repeatedly raped a woman who was powerless to refuse, hunted his victim down when she fled, and did not pass on his money, care, or protection to his Black children. He used rape to increase his stock of enslaved humans and then made sure to register the product of his rape with the local government, lest they inadvertently be freed before he was through exploiting them.

What must that have been like for Lucia and her children? Once they escaped to freedom, how did that severe trauma show up in their lives? How was that trauma passed on to Rachel’s children, to her children’s children, all the way down to my own children? They escaped, but did they thrive?

The fact that my ancestor’s rape is encoded in my own children’s DNA in two different ways (both by ancestry and by trauma) angers me. The fact that Zachariah’s white children received inheritances from Zachariah upon his death, thus allowing them to build their successes upon that step up, while his Black children received nothing but trauma to overcome, angers me. The fact that those inheritances his white children received were, in part, generated from the forced labor provided by his Black family, infuriates me.

Knowing that there are still people who insist that slavery is in the past and therefore not a factor in modern-day American lives, especially in the face of determined ignorance at the hands of those who benefited and continue to benefit from this history, triggers an emotion in me that I do not yet know how to name. The DNA of our society has been imprinted, and without education and acknowledgement of that fact, the damage cannot ever be fully overcome.

Tolley M. Jones lives in Easthampton with her two children. She has worked with children and families in western Massachusetts for over 30 years. She is currently an intensive care coordinator.


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