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Columnist’s virtual lecture to explore enslavers

A few years ago I took Henry Louis Gates and his TV program “Finding Your Roots” to task for his role in obscuring that actor Ben Affleck had ancestors who were enslavers.

If the show had operated under traditional journalistic ethics, Gates would have been canned, but of course this was TV and ethics are fungible at best and nonexistent routinely.

I opined at the time that discussion of slavery when I went to school “tsk, tsked” the South and gave a free pass to the North.

Since then the whole discussion of enslavement–and I do agree with the semantic changes to emphasize the humanity of the enslaved persons as well as the immorality of “owning” other human beings–has started to become more vigorous.

And when the discussion moves not only to the role of people in the North but also on to my forebears the Pennsylvania Germans, well, that puts it squarely in my wheelhouse.

Such was the impetus for me volunteering to present a virtual lecture titled “Pennsylvania German Enslavers: Initiating a Re-Examination” for the Historical Society of Pennsylvania next month.

In doing so, I’m not looking to cast shade or shame on my ancestors. They did what did and in the same vein as if I had a homicidal multi-great-grandfather (I don’t … at least of who I know!), I’m a big believer in letting history speak ungagged.

A primary goal of the presentation will be to run the gamut of records in which enslaved persons might be mentioned, including some that have been recently rediscovered by researchers.

And as the title implies, I’m viewing the lecture as a group of starting points for discussion rather than one that comes to conclusions.

Over the years, I’ve found at least one direct-line ancestor who held enslaved persons (Nicolaus Kintzer of Tulpehocken Township, Berks County) and a couple of collateral relatives who also were enslavers (the most prominent of who was Joseph Hiester, my “first cousin, six times removed,” who was a congressman and later governor of Pennsylvania). There are likely more and that’s part of the research I hope to undertake as part of the re-examination.

And while as I wrote earlier I don’t challenge the “what” of Pennsylvania Germans as enslavers, the “why” is another one of those starting points that does intrigue me.

Is the answer to the why as simple as racism or merely “following the money?” Or is it helpful to explore what appears to be the enigma that some Pennsylvania Germans, who were for the most part serfs in Europe, decided some humans in America were worthy of an even lesser status?

To register for the Historical Society of Pennsylvania program “Pennsylvania German Enslavers: Initiating a Re-Examination,” go to the URL, https://www.eventbrite.com/o/historical-society-of-pennsylvania-235303676. The $10 registration fee is waived for Friends of HSP as well as members of the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania.

Beidler is a freelance writer and lecturer on genealogy. Contact him by e-mail to jamesmbeidler@gmail.com. Like him on Facebook (James M. Beidler).

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