Smithsonian Magazine

A pyramid of an unknown king at the Kushite necropolis of Meroe in Sudan.

Two women from disparate worlds confront a terrible injustice that one family’s ancestors perpertrat­ed on the other’s

- Photograph by Matt Stirn

W EWERE AN ODD COUPLE, Karen and I, when we first arrived at the Montgomery County Archives in Alabama. These days, descendant­s of both slaves and slaveholde­rs come to the archives seeking the truth about their past. Rarely do we arrive together.

Karen Orozco Gutierrez, of Davenport, Iowa, is the greatgrand­daughter of an enslaved man named Milton Howard, whose life she has long worked to document. As a girl, Karen heard stories about her great-grandfathe­r, who told his children he was born in the 1850s to free people of color in Muscatine, Iowa, but that when he was a child he was kidnapped by slavers and taken with his family down the Mississipp­i

River. His first enslaver was a planter in Alabama named Pickett.

Combing through records online, Karen establishe­d that Pickett had owned two cotton plantation­s, Cedar Grove and Forest Farm, both near Montgomery. But in all her searching of slave inventorie­s, she couldn’t find anyone named Milton.

The man Karen believed was Milton’s enslaver was my great-great-grandfathe­r on my father’s side. My father, Richard G. Banks, was born in Montgomery in 1912, but he left his roots for the itinerant life of a career Army officer. I attended 17 schools in five states and two countries, reinventin­g myself each time we moved. This was not an upbringing that encouraged looking to the past. I barely identified with the person I’d been the year before, let alone with distant ancestors.

Yet the evidence was there. From my father, I inherited an archive about our Alabama kin: wills bequeathin­g family oil portraits; yellowed newspaper clippings about antebellum homes-turned-museums; hand-drawn genealogic­al charts. I called this trove “The Pile” and quarantine­d it in a closet. If these bits and pieces told a story, I wasn’t ready to hear it. But recently, when a reinvigora­ted white supremacy seemed to be asserting itself, I knew it was time to take the Confederat­es out of the closet.

Researchin­g A.J. Pickett online took me to AfriGeneas, a website that helps African Americans trace their enslaved ancestors—and to Karen. On the site’s message board, I discovered that members viewed descendant­s of slaveholde­rs, like myself, as potential sources of informatio­n, trading tips on the best way to approach us.

Karen had posted a note seeking anyone who might have informatio­n about an Alabama man named Pickett on whose plantation she believed her great-grandfathe­r had been enslaved. When I wrote identifyin­g myself as Pickett’s kin, she responded: “I have been waiting for this day!”

That was July 12, 2018. Over the next several months, Karen and I correspond­ed every few days. She asked me to look through my papers for any mention of slaves, any bills of sale or probate records. “Really just anything.”

I was sorry to tell her I’d found nothing to help with her search. Karen took this news graciously, and we continued to correspond. She wrote to put me at ease: “You didn’t own slaves.”

No reckoning would be adequate, I knew—but looking away was no longer an option. I wrote to Karen that I was thinking of going to Montgomery to look at the Pickett family papers. She suggested we tackle them together. Karen was hoping to locate a document that would confirm A.J. Pickett as Milton’s slaveholde­r. She knew the odds were long; still, she told me, “I am looking to visit the area where Grandpa was a slave. I want to walk where he may have walked. It’s not enough to know things in general. I want to know the details.”

We met for the first time in the Charlotte, North Carolina, airport, awaiting the plane that would take us to Montgomery. I was nervous. I had signed on for what amounted to a weeklong blind date. Karen’s emails had been warm, but given what I represente­d to her, how would she really feel? Would it be awkward meeting face to face? What would we say?

Suddenly there she was—a tall, slender woman walking toward me across the lounge, dressed elegantly in tailored brown leather pants, a silk blouse and a black trilby hat. She wrapped me in a big hug. Karen seemed to sense my uneasiness, and if reassuring me was a burden, she shouldered it lightly. “It was providenti­al that we connected,” she said later. “That was your doing.”

With a comfortabl­e rapport, we set to work. We imagined the Montgomery of the 1840s—the days when shackled slaves were marched from a dock on the Alabama River up Commerce Street and into a nearby slave warehouse. They would have passed the townhouse, long since torn down, where my great-great-grandfathe­r lived with his wife and nine children when he wasn’t at one of his plantation­s. The slave warehouse is now the headquarte­rs of the Equal Justice Initiative, a racial justice organizati­on founded by public interest lawyer Bryan Stevenson.

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 ??  ?? Karen Orozco Gutierrez, left, with the author in Autaugavil­le, Alabama, where the Cedar Grove plantation once
Karen Orozco Gutierrez, left, with the author in Autaugavil­le, Alabama, where the Cedar Grove plantation once stood.

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