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OVERCOMING AMNESIA

South Boston NewsSouth Boston News
Uncle George Sizemore, top, has lived in a farmhouse in the Averett community since he was one month old in 1919. In 2013, with their simultaneous family reunions going on 10 miles apart, the black and white Sizemores got together for a get-acquainted visit. (Contributed photos)
SoVaNow.com / August 22, 2018
Editor’s note: Bill Sizemore is a retired journalist with the Virginian Pilot in Norfolk and a former Clarksville resident. This excerpt is from his new book, Uncle George and Me: Two Southern Families Confront a Shared Legacy of Slavery, coming Sept. 5 from Brandylane Publishers. For more information, see the author’s website, billsizemorebooks.com.


I spent 60 years on this Earth before I had a clue that I was descended from slaveowners.

For someone who spent his entire professional life as a journalist — much of that time as an investigative reporter — it’s a little embarrassing to make that admission. But there it is.

Why did it take me so long to figure it out? I don’t know. I suppose some of the reasons are mundane: I was busy making a living and raising a family. But more than that, I think I was infected by a sort of historical amnesia — self-induced, perhaps — that has long held sway in my native South.

“We live in the United States of Amnesia,” Michael Eric Dyson has written. Barbra Streisand provided the refrain: “What’s too painful to remember/we simply choose to forget.”

Never once during my growing-up years in the 1950s and 1960s did my parents mention any history of slaveholding in my family. While researching a book on the topic, I surveyed my cousins, and in every case the response was the same: The subject never came up in their families, either.

Did our parents not know, or did they know but choose not to talk about it? The consensus of my cousins is that they didn’t know. I retain some skepticism on that point. But if my cousins are right, it means that by the time our parents’ generation came along, barely half a century after slavery was abolished, it had already been erased from the family’s collective memory.

My discovery of my family’s slaveowning past is burned into my mind.

I was in Utah on a reporting assignment for my newspaper, The Virginian-Pilot, in 2009. I had a couple of hours to kill before boarding my flight home and decided to visit the world headquarters of the Mormon church in Salt Lake City, which includes the world’s largest genealogical library.

I strolled in and was greeted by a friendly volunteer, who asked what I’d like to know about my family history. I said I wondered if any of my ancestors owned slaves. I’ve never bought into the old adage that ignorance is bliss. On the contrary, I believe knowledge is power. If my family participated in America’s original sin, I wanted to know about it — for better or worse.

Within minutes, there was the answer on a computer screen in front of me: a slave schedule from the 1860 U.S. Census showing my great-great-great-grandfather Daniel Sizemore as the owner of 16 people. I felt like I’d been punched in the gut.

From that moment forward, I couldn’t get it out of my head. I was full of questions. Who were these people? What were their lives like? Who were their descendants? Where are they now? What scars do they bear from their ancestors’ enslavement?

My curiosity led me on a years-long odyssey.

Uncovering the story has been a little like trying to piece together a jigsaw puzzle with a blindfold on. My ancestors were simple country folk. In contrast to large planters who left voluminous paper trails, the Sizemores left no written records. So I had to rely on public records.

Deeds in the county courthouse show that my ancestor Daniel gradually acquired nearly 500 acres along the Dan River in Mecklenburg County, near Clarksville, in the first half of the 19th century.

He also acquired slaves. According to census records, he owned four by 1840. He was typical of the nearly 400,000 slaveholders across the South. Nearly nine out of 10 had fewer than 20 slaves.

Slavery was well entrenched in Southside Virginia by the 19th century. Mecklenburg was one in a swath of counties south and east of Richmond that became known as the “black belt” because of its burgeoning slave population. By 1830, Mecklenburg’s population was nearly two-thirds African-American. The lists of slave owners include dozens of surnames that are still common in Mecklenburg. Among them: Blanks, Bugg, Boyd, Chandler, Crowder, Daniel, Elam, Gillespie, Griffin, Howerton, Ligon, Newton, Overbey, Puryear, Royster, Talley, Tarry, Toone, Watkins, Williamson, and Yancey.

By far the biggest money crop grown by Virginia’s slaveowning planters was tobacco, which was extremely labor-intensive. In a society dominated by the tobacco economy, my ancestors were no exception. They used slaves to grow a highly addictive product that has killed millions of people all over the world. What a legacy!

Daniel Sizemore’s homestead—a modest clapboard house with a stone foundation, two rooms downstairs, and an upstairs loft— still stands today, surrounded by rolling pastureland along a centuries-old thoroughfare known as the Cow Road, three miles west of Clarksville. Daniel, his wife, and their son Harvel are buried in a family graveyard nearby.

According to the 1860 census, Daniel’s slaves lived in three cabins on the farm. As far as I have been able to determine, there is no trace left of them, and no sign of where their inhabitants are buried.

Because of the paucity of the historical record, I have been able to learn only the most rudimentary facts about the Sizemore slaves. The census records, which provided the first confirmation of my family’s slave-owning past, only took me so far. Through 1860, slaves are listed by age, race, and gender—but not by name. On the 1860 slave schedule for Mecklenburg County, under the line where Daniel Sizemore’s name is entered in a delicate cursive script, are sixteen blank lines where his slaves’ names ought to be. To the right are letters and numbers describing each slave, ranging from a forty-year-old woman to a four-year-old girl. In a column with the heading “color,” they are designated either “B” for black or “M” for mulatto. The latter term comes from the Spanish word for “mule”—the offspring of a horse and donkey— an insinuation that blacks and whites were close to being separate species.

By 1860, nearly 4 million men, women, and children were enslaved across the South. Of all the Southern states, Virginia had the largest slave population, nearly 500,000. More than 12,000 of those lived and toiled in Mecklenburg County. The investment in all that human property was immense. Slaves constituted 75 percent or more of most slave owners’ net worth. And the beauty of it, from the slave owner’s perspective, was that the investment was self-propagating. There were 204 slave births recorded in Mecklenburg in 1859, dwarfing the 49 white births that year.

Slaves were so plentiful that their owners often hired them out to other planters or commercial enterprises. The 1860 census listed 165 slave “hirelings” working in the R.H. Moss & Bros. tobacco factory in Clarksville. The factory, which no doubt was built with slave labor, was a hulking three-and-a-half-story brick structure perched atop a hill a few blocks from the Roanoke River. In the 20th century it became home to a weekly newspaper, the Clarksville Times, which was edited by my father, and later by me. The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978 but, sadly, it was demolished in 1980.

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Since the 1950s, my extended Sizemore family has held a reunion every August in the rural community near Clarksville where my father and his five siblings grew up. Dozens of my relatives across multiple generations show up every year, some traveling from as far away as the West Coast.

Sitting at my computer a few days before our 2010 gathering, I idly typed in a Google search for “Sizemore family reunion” and made a startling discovery. There was a rather elaborate website dedicated to an annual gathering of Sizemores — not my kin, but an African-American family.

Their reunion is held on the same weekend each year as ours. Theirs migrates from year to year all over the Eastern seaboard, but every few years it returns to the place of their roots: Mecklenburg County.

When I was growing up there, every aspect of life was strictly segregated — schools, churches, clubs, public accommodations. I had virtually no contact with African-Americans, and I had only the vaguest awareness that there were any who shared my surname.

My discovery of the simultaneous reunions came shortly after I had begun exploring my family’s slaveowning past. Intrigued, I began seeking out African-American Sizemores, asking who could tell me about their family history. I was quickly steered to George Sizemore.

Uncle George, as everyone in the family calls him, lives in the same weathered farmhouse where he has lived since he was one month old in 1919, about five miles from where my ancestor Daniel Sizemore lived.

When I first met him, Uncle George was a very vigorous 91-year-old — a towering figure at 6 feet 4 and 240 pounds, a toothy smile and immense hands. When we shook hands, mine disappeared inside his.

He was happy to discuss his family history. One of the first things he told me was this: “My daddy was born a slave.”

I had to let that sink in for a moment. How was that even possible in 2010?

His father, Ben Sizemore, was born in 1858. He fathered six children with his first wife and, after she died, five more with his second wife. Uncle George was the next to last of those, born when his father was 61.

Uncle George told me that Ben and his brother Stephen were the sons of a slave named Daniel—the same name as that of my slave-owning ancestor.

After that first of many visits with Uncle George, I went scurrying back to the census records. In the 1870 census, I found documentation of Uncle George’s ancestors, along with an unmistakable link to my own. There, listed in Clarksville Township, are Daniel Sizemore, a 36-year-old black farmworker, and his young sons Ben and Stephen. The listing appears immediately after that of my ancestor Daniel Sizemore, an 81-year-old white farmer, and his four unmarried adult children. That means black Daniel and his sons lived next door to white Daniel, most likely in the same cabin they inhabited as slaves.

How did the black and white Daniel Sizemores come to have the same name? We can only guess. One question that naturally arises is whether there was any blood connection between the two. The answer, according to two pairs of DNA tests, is no. Uncle George and I took a test focusing on the Y chromosome, which occurs only in males and is passed from father to son. The result: he and I have no shared male ancestor. Next, Uncle George’s niece Eugene Watkins and I took an autosomal DNA test, which reveals blood relationships stretching out to distant cousins. No kinship was found there, either.

The autosomal test also reveals ethnic makeup. Mine was found to be 100 percent European. Eugene’s is 85 percent African, 12 percent European, and 3 percent Native American. Traces of European ancestry are common among African-Americans, reflecting the widespread reality of slave owners mating with their female slaves.

Uncle George is no exception. He has white blood on his mother’s side, he told me in one of our early conversations. When he was a boy, he noticed a curious bond between his mother, Ella Jamieson Sizemore, and two white brothers who ran a funeral business. There were no black undertakers in Mecklenburg County in those days. Whenever there was a funeral in the neighborhood, the two white undertakers “would always hug my mama,” Uncle George told me. “I’d say, ‘Mama, why are those white people always hugging you?’ Finally, when I was a teenager, she told me: ‘We’re cousins.’” Ella’s mother, Uncle George’s grandmother, born in 1857, had a white father.

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Since our first meeting, I have become good friends with Uncle George and many of his kinsmen.

In 2013, with the two simultaneous family reunions going on 10 miles apart, I invited the black Sizemores to stop by our gathering for a get-acquainted visit. To my delight, a convoy of about a dozen — led by Uncle George — showed up. About the same number of my relatives had arrived at the church social hall where we always meet, within sight of the cemetery where my grandparents and other forebears are buried. The two families mingled pleasantly for an hour or so. I have the pictures to prove it!

As our visitors drove off late that afternoon, my cousin Dan leaned over to me and said: “That sound you hear is my father rolling over in his grave.”

In 2015, when the black Sizemore reunion returned to Mecklenburg County, I gave the family a progress report on my research and said I hoped that telling our story would contribute in some small way toward healing the country’s racial wounds.

“White Americans have a lot to atone for, and we need to say it plainly,” I told them. “My family stole your family’s liberty, their labor and their human dignity. And I’m sorry.”

We have more work ahead of us, confronting our shared legacy and seeking ways to redress the persistent inequities that slavery spawned.

But we have made a start.



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Great story!

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Amazing story and I love the fact it was on the FRONT page of the newspaper. I can't wait to read the book. I'm sure there are more stories like this all over the South.

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What courage it took for the black and white Sizemores to look each other in the eye while Bill named his ancestor's offenses as slaveowners and then offered an honest apology! This way lies reconciliation. I have pre-ordered the book and can't wait to read it.


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