Family Secrets


Every family has secrets buried in the past, but ours was a doozy

Harper family fun on Lake Michigan.

Three days after my father's memorial service, I went to his home office and pulled a pewter box off a high shelf. This is where he'd told me I'd find the key that would open the file cabinet that contained "everything you and your siblings need to know after I go."

The files were neatly organized into categories: Taxes, insurance, financial account numbers, legal directives, a history of house repairs, an inventory of art, furniture and silverware, etc. There were no surprises until I got to the back of the bottom drawer, behind photographs from his Illinois childhood and his personal letters. That's where I found a file labeled "Harper Family History."

My knowledge of Harper lineage was sketchy. I knew that both sides of my family came to America from England and Scotland in the 17th and 18th centuries, and that most branches of the family settled in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. And, yes, one of them (William White) actually sailed on the Mayflower.

My father celebrated his Scottish roots by wearing our family tartan, drinking scotch and trotting out bagpipers for very special occasions, but never really spoke of the Harper forebears in depth. I remember thinking this was odd, but never asked for details about our deeper roots.

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There were only three documents in the "Harper Family History" file. One was a family tree showing all the ancestors on his side of the family, dating back to the 1600s. There were Scovilles in Salisbury, Hunttings who landed in Southhampton, and the Cookes, a whaling family out of New Bedford. The branches of the tree showed that most of their direct descendants never left the Northeast.

And then there was the Harper branch, a single straight line that led to my father and us, his six children. The startling part of our branch wasn't that the first Harper who came over was named Bannister, but was that he settled in Georgia. Georgia? I'd never known that any part of our family came from the South.

I knew that my great grandfather, William Hudson Harper, had moved to Chicago to become a journalist, but assumed he'd come from the Northeast like everyone else. The tree showed that he was born and raised in Georgia, then settled in Chicago where he married and had two children, one of whom was my grandfather. They both spent the rest of their lives in Illinois. So, my great grandfather and all of the Harpers before him were Georgians! Who knew?

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The second document in the file was the Will and Testament of Bannister's son, William, a prominent landowner in Lincoln County, Georgia, in the early 1800s and my great, great, great, great grandfather. And when I read it, I realized instantly why my father never discussed our southern roots. The Will contains these words:

"I, William Harper, lend to my beloved wife, for and during the term of her natural life or widow-hood ... the following negroes for the like term, to wit, little Jacob, Scipio and his wife, Big Jenny, little Jenny and her son Nicolas, Lydia, Sandy, Charles and Amy, also all the plantation tools, blacksmith tools, cotton gin and the running gear and threshing machine ..."

Every family has secrets, and one of ours was that we'd been slaveowners. It was all right there, on paper, in the "Harper Family History" file.

Feeling fevered and soiled by this revelation, I did more research on the family, hoping that knowledge would cleanse me of the shame I felt. But my research only uncovered more odious family history. As the mayor of Columbus, Georgia, William Harper signed slave bills of sale. And William's son, John Randolph Harper, fought for the Confederacy in the 10th Georgia Cavalry and died of battle wounds. It turned out that the Harpers hadn't just been slavers, they bled to preserve the institution of slavery.

I'm guessing that if William Harper been an abolitionist mayor of New Haven, Connecticut, and John Randolph died fighting for the Union, I would've known a lot more about my family history. But my father clearly felt the same deep shame that I felt when I read the documentation linking us to slavery, hence his silence. He wasn't exactly a liberal, or exactly a Democrat, and definitely not an activist, but he was a fair man who had a strong sense of right and wrong. He abhorred racism and ignorance, and took us aside as young children to tell us why we should never, ever use the "N" word.

If the second document in the file showed where our family had been, the third document showed where we ended up. It was a program from the Illinois Rally For Civil Rights, Soldier Field, June 21,1964, a gathering to rally support for "Civil Rights and human dignity for all Americans." On the cover of the program was a photograph of the keynote speaker, Rev. Martin Luther King. I remembered that my sister Diana was very active in the civil rights movement in the '60s, volunteering with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in downtown Chicago, and marching for civil rights during the violent height of the movement. Our family was very sympathetic to the plight of black America, and we were proud of her work.

But why had my father saved this program for 50 years and placed it in a family history file, right next to a document that proved his slave-owning past? Maybe he wanted to think that the work of his daughter offset the stain on our ancestry, or he wanted to have on hand proof that our family ideology had changed over 150 years, or maybe he just wanted to tell the ghost of William Harper, "This is who the Harper family is now."

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