Marilee M. Thome: Our Family and Reparations


In the last six months, I have discovered some startling facts about my family's history, and I also first learned of the reparations movement for and by African Americans, and CURE. The purpose of this article is to share some personal history, and some observations and feelings about both.

I am a fifty-five year old Caucasian woman, raised in Portland, Oregon, in a typical "middle class" family atmosphere, with all the unconscious assumptions of privilege that go with it. My parents were loving and supportive of their children, politically conservative, and traditional in their values and outlook. They believed in Christian charity toward the "less fortunate," but accepted the status quo of social, financial and legal inequality for non-whites. For some reason (perhaps "middle-child rebelliousness!") I seemed to notice and be troubled by the unfairness in the world that I saw around me, even as a fairly young child. When a black friend in grade school told me that her father had gone to college and trained to be a teacher, but could only get a job as a janitor, it made no sense. My parents simply responded that "it's just the way things are." Our family was part of the "white flight" to the suburbs when I was in high school, as fears of decreased property values grew when "they" began to move in to our modest neighborhood.

I grew up, my beliefs and convictions increasingly at odds with that of my parents, though we remained close. In the late sixties, while stationed in Omaha, Nebraska, my first husband and I were involved in the local civil rights movement and heard of the many black and mixed-race children growing up in foster care because of the racism of society reflected in the policies of adoption agencies. We decided to adopt our family, and went through the only agency at the time which was committed to finding permanent homes for black children. My parents were very loving and accepting of their new grandchildren, although privately expressing "concern" about whether we "knew what we were getting into..."

Some months ago, a few years after my father's death, while going through some old papers in boxes, we made a startling discovery: that our great-great grandfather, Arthur Thome, was a slave-owner and the first Kentuckian to free his ( approximately fifteen) slaves, between 1832 and 1838, and that his oldest son, our great uncle, James Armstrong Thome, was a very prominent and influential abolitionist, author of Emancipation In the West Indies, a book which profoundly influenced the American abolition movement toward immediate rather than gradual freeing of slaves, and advisor to Abraham Lincoln on the writing of the Emancipation Proclamation. We found copies of the manumission papers freeing Arthur's slaves (the originals are held in the Oberlin College Special Collections Library.) We learned that Arthur lost his business and he and his family were driven at gunpoint from their elegant home in Augusta, Kentucky by angry pro-slavery mobs, and had to flee to another state to start over when he was almost 70 years old. This information was new and startling; we had never heard any reference to this part of our heritage during my father's lifetime. It remains a mystery why my father never mentioned it.

I have felt so many reactions--shame, and guilt at knowing that my own ancestor was a slaveholder, had owned human beings as "property" and benefited from their labor, no matter how kindly he is said to have treated them. Pride that he was willing to risk, and lose, his wealth, position, home and friends, because he came to see that emancipating them was the right thing to do. And, pride that his son was a courageous and committed abolitionist who spoke out and wrote against the evils of slavery at every opportunity, and was responsible for persuading his own father to free his slaves. Sadness and concern as I look at the names of the people he set "free," and I wonder what became of them, how they survived, whether they were able to leave the area, given the intense hostility toward freed people that existed among the dominant slave -owner class in those times. Their deprivation, their sacrifices and labor, contributed greatly to my great-great grandfather's prosperity and way of life: his flour mill business, the ferry he established to cross the Ohio River, and the elegant mansion where he and his family lived until they had to leave.

Not long after these discoveries about our own family history, I began to hear of the reparations movement, and then found CURE via the internet. I then felt that there was a place where I, as a white person, could participate, in some small way, in creating a remedy for an evil which has been a toxic and pervasive force in the entire world and especially perpetuated in this country, for centuries. It has felt very personal, since discovering that my ancestors were both slave-owners and abolitionists. Since then, as I learn more about the history, philosophy, research and scholarship behind the reparations movement, it makes even more sense, and I feel all the more impatient with the resistance expressed toward it by some.

While training, and then working, as a professional social worker, I was taught a concept that, I believe, is helpful in thinking about the reparations movement. This seems especially true when people express that "it will never happen, so why even try," or "they need to just get over it and put it behind them and move on," or , as I heard a conservative black politician state on NPR, "welfare has been more than enough reparation, and has only contributed to a lack of initiative in the black population..." As a social worker, I learned that we must take action, must do what is right, what is just, even if we are doubtful that our action will create the outcome that we would hope for, because of other factors or influences. A common example is witnessing the abuse of a child and proceeding to report it, even when we doubt that action to protect the child will actually be carried out as a result. Not reporting the abuse because we believe "nothing will change" is a form of abandonment. When you take a stand, you reinforce for yourself and for the world that you know what is right.

We cannot control the outcome, or the reaction, at times, but we can do what is right, we can take action, we can speak out, we can work for change. Those who tell me that the "reparations issue is too big" or "it would never work" or "slavery was a long time ago" do not comprehend (or don't want to) how alive and how pervasive the effects of colonization, slavery and racism continue to be today. As the great-great granddaughter of a slave-owner, and it still pains me to say that, I believe that reparations for slavery are a just response to injustice, and are the right course of action. It is that simple.