Paula Deen’s Ancestors Owned Slaves

The early part of my personal journey in genealogy confirmed the obvious. While I had not previously known any of the towns or circumstances of my ancestors’ lives, everything I learned was exactly what you would expect for a person of my background. The surprises came later.

In Friday’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, Paula Deen traveled around the State of Georgia proving that she had deep Georgia roots. She learned along the way that her great-great-great-grandfather, John Batts, owned slaves — 35 according to the 1860 census. Somehow she was shocked to learn the news. “My family was never involved in slavery in any way,” she had previously believed. “It’s the hard reality of the Old South,” consoled the historian assisting her.

But Batts was not just any slave owner. He was one of the largest plantation owners, whose personal fortune, mostly consisting of slaves, amounted to a million dollars before the war. He was a congressman, state senator, and judge, who supported the pro-slavery candidate in the 1860 election. In short, he was a person who profited as much as a man could from this peculiar institution and did as much as a man could to preserve the status quo. He paid a terrible price: he never recovered from his son’s death in battle, and after losing his fortune in the 1873 depression, he shot himself in the head. Of everything that she learned and intuited, somehow what Paula most found in him was a “tremendous love of family.”

Perhaps Batts’ suicide explains why the family’s past got lost, but the episode left other unanswered questions. I most wanted to learn how Batts had risen to his position in the first place. I suspect Paula would have as well; her major take-away from everything she uncovered, as she explained to her sons, was “We are deeply, deeply vested in this beautiful state.”

I can connect to her Georgia pride 100%, since it’s how I felt to confirm that my ancestry connected me deeply to exactly what I most wanted to be connected to. But I wonder how she really felt about Batts’ full legacy. Today there are African-Americans who believe they are due reparations because of people like her ancestor. How should her family’s past affect her? Does it impose a moral obligation on her? Should the revelation change her or her outlook?

The episode ended with Paula exploring the overgrown landscape where the long-gone plantation had stood. People profited and suffered on the land by extremes, the country was torn asunder as a result, but not even the foundations of a house or the presence of a wild cotton plant remained to bear witness to what once had been. But the past was not obliterated entirely. Paula may have had had to search deep in archives all over the state, but the land at the center of her research — mere miles from her own birthplace — proclaims its past boldly: “Batts Road,” reads the street sign. It knows.

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