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Jamestown monument
Former Mississippi art teacher and “Justice for Emmett Till” advocate Sonny Strauss shares his journey of digging into his own ancestry, where he learned that his ancestors were some of the first wealthy, white, slave-owning individuals in Virginia. “Their participation in policies established prior to independence were designed for me to have an easier time in this country,” Strauss writes. “They contribute to the fact that Carolyn Bryant’s arrest warrant still has not been issued.” Pictured is a monument to the first government established in what would become the United States in the original Jamestown colony—three weeks before the first enslaved African arrived there. Photo by Donna Ladd

My Privileged, White Ancestry Contributes to the Injustice of Emmett Till

Origin stories have a certain something that captures the human psyche. Perhaps it is because we were forced to exist as human beings and live our lives trying to comprehend how we ended up here to begin with.

These types of questions conjure curiosity and suspense about one’s own genealogical past. For this reason, one’s own journey through ancestry records and DNA can reveal the past in an eye-opening experience. I have learned a great deal about the individuals who are the reason I now exist in America, and these people were as real as the person I see in the mirror every day.

Responsible for My Privileged Existence

My earliest colonial Virginian ancestor is Robert Offley, a member of the Virginia Company of London, which was a joint-stock company that King James I chartered in 1606 to establish a colony, eventually Jamestown, in North America. This undertaking allowed the British Crown to reap the benefits of colonization—natural resources, new markets for English goods, leverage against the Spanish—without footing the costs.

Offley was also on the 1609 Virginia Charter, and is listed in several 1619 Assembly meetings. He invested money in the Virginia Company that same year.

King James I of England granted the 1609 Virginia Charter to the investors of the Virginia Company of London, which transferred control from the Crown to private investors, extended Virginia‘s borders from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and installed a new, more powerful governor whom they intended would introduce discipline to Jamestown.

A two page spread in Ancient Charters
On May 23, 1609, King James I of England granted the 1609 Virginia Charter to the investors of the Virginia Company of London, which transferred control from the Crown to private investors, extended Virginia‘s borders from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and installed a new, more powerful governor to introduce “discipline” to Jamestown. Photo courtesy Encyclopedia Virginia

Two other Virginian ancestors of mine are Isham Randolph and Jane Rogers, grandparents of President Thomas Jefferson. Sharing the same ancestors means President Jefferson and I are distant cousins. However, we are closer than you may think. Jefferson’s mother Jane Randolph is my five-time great-aunt, making him a first cousin, six generations removed. Therefore, I have many Hemings cousins.

I also discovered that my Maryland ancestor Thomas Hanson Marshall granted land to George Washington in 1779 to add to Mount Vernon—Washington’s plantation estate and also home to hundreds of enslaved men, women and children who lived under his control.

Maryland Slaveowners Convention
On June 8, 1959, The Slaveholder’s Convention of Maryland was held in Baltimore. After two days, it yielded resolutions unanimously condemning the removal of free Black people as “impolitical and impractical” and that free Blacks should remain controlled. Sonny Strauss’ ancestor Col. John Henry Sothoron said at the convention that the Legislature should enact a law to prevent emancipation and that the condition of “free negroes” should be abandoned. Photo courtesy Newspapers.com

Several of my ancestors are gateways to Magna Carta Sureties, meaning it is likely that I am a descendant of more than one Magna Carta Surety. King John granted the Magna Carta, known in English as the Great Charter (a charter is a guarantee of rights, franchises, or privileges from a sovereign power), on June 15, 1215, under threat of civil war. The document was altered and reissued in 1216, 1217 and 1225.

The Magna Carta provided the foundation for individual rights in Anglo-American jurisprudence and declared the sovereign to be subject to the rule of law while documenting the liberties of “free men.” At the signing of the Magna Charta, 25 barons signed as sureties of the baronial performance, pledging that they would fulfill their obligations to the Crown in accordance with the terms of the Great Charter—hence their titles as the Magna Carta Sureties.

In addition, I have also discovered that my four-time great-uncle James Pleasants Jr. was the governor of Virginia. Another uncle, Col. John Henry Sothoron, was a member of the Maryland Slaveholder’s Convention in 1859 as well as a member of the Maryland Senate. At one point, he was president of the Maryland Senate.

My great-great-aunt, Mary Tabb Bolling, married William Henry Fitzhugh Lee, a son of Robert E. Lee—a Confederate general during the American Civil War—and Mary Ann Randolph Custis. My earliest Maryland ancestor is Dr. Thomas Gerrard of St. Clements Manor, who was elected burgess for St. Mary’s Hundred in 1638. He was up against President George Washington’s ancestor Nathaniel Pope.

Interestingly enough, Gerrard’s daughter Frances, my eight-times great-aunt, married George Washington’s ancestor John Washington. They had no children. My ancestor Captain Adam Thorowgood transported George Washington’s other ancestor Augustine Warner as an indentured servant. Arguably, without Adam Thorowgood there would be no “Father of Our Country,” at least as we know him now.

True Heroes Fight for the Oppressed

These ancestors of mine are responsible for me existing. But they are not heroes to America. Heroes fight for the oppressed. Their participation in policies established prior to independence were designed for me to have an easier time in this country.

My ancestors were some of the first wealthy, white, slave-owning individuals in Virginia. What started as Virginia’s “20 and odd negroes” in 1619 drew unprecedented momentum to expand slavery in America due to my ancestors’ racism. The Tabb and Bolling families were huge slave owners—Col. Thomas Tabb and the “Haw Ranch” plantation as well as Col. Robert Bolling and the Kippax Plantation.

Virginia became the largest plantation colony because of my ancestors. That is why I am privileged. Their policies led to human beings like Emmett Till being kidnapped and lynched for a supposed “wolf whistle” at a white woman.

Bronze statue of Emmett Till against a blue sky
A 9-foot-tall bronze statue of Emmett Till was erected in October 2022 in Greenwood, Miss., approximately 10 miles from where the 14-year-old was abducted and lynched when visiting relatives on summer vacation in 1955. Photo by Sonny Strauss

Each of these individuals contributed heavily to the systemic problems that still are in effect today. They contribute to the fact that Carolyn Bryant Donham’s arrest warrant still has not been issued. Emmett Till’s cousins marched to the Governor’s mansion on March 13, 2022, and demanded justice in the cold weather, but received nothing in return.

How much evidence does it take before admitting that we—and I mean white people—still have not dealt with our “original sin”?

Is Mamie Till’s lament for her son, “Let the people see what they did to my boy,” still not good enough?

The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021 still has not passed. The Jet Magazine photo displaying Till’s disfigured face does not seem to bother American leaders enough to speak out about Till’s family still not receiving justice.

Those of us who descend from ancestors who established these systems must face and change these historic systems.

This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Mississippi Free Press, its staff or board members. To submit an opinion for the MFP Voices section, send up to 1,200 words and sources fact-checking the included information to [email protected] We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints. 

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