The crimes of the past can never be undone. The descendants of transgressors are incapable of apologizing for their ancestors' sins. But one thing that can happen in post-slavery America is reconciliation. And as one man recently discovered, that is a beautiful thing.
Last week, Nkrumah Steward, a black man who was born and raised in Michigan, sat down to dinner in South Carolina with his cousin, a white man named Robert James.
Theirs is a complicated past: James is the descendant of slaveowners; Steward is the descendant of slaves. But in an effort to simplify a family history tainted with scandal and abuse, the two families opted to forgive, forget and break bread.
“The reason I was there tonight was because 181 years ago, in 1835, Joel Robert Adams and my 4th great grandmother, one of his slaves, Sarah Jones Adams had a daughter, Louisa,” Steward wrote in a Facebook post commemorating the meeting. “Louisa had Octavia. Octavia had James. James had my grandfather JD. JD had my mother Linda.”
“And now 181 years later, after almost two centuries, my mother and father, my two sons, my wife and myself sat down in that very house and broke bread with the descendant of those who owned members of my family. We are cousins by blood,” he continued. “And tonight we took the first steps together towards also becoming friends.”
Steward, 44, told ABC News that the meeting was not “about the past” or trying “to fix things that we can’t ever change.” Instead, he said “this was about, ‘My name is Nkrumah Steward,’ and ‘My name is Robert Adams, pleasure to meet you, cousin. Let’s get to know each other.’ ”
Steward's interest in his unique family history began when he was a small child. It started with a simple question: “Why is my great grandfather white?”
“I got into genealogy because of these trips I’d take as a kid,” Steward told ABC. “My family is all black. If you can look at us, we’re all black. But then we’d get out of our car and we’d walk up to the house in South Carolina and this white man would come out of this house and he’d say, ‘Hey, how y’all doin’?’ and give me a big hug. It was my great grandfather, James Henry, on Bluff Road."
Robert Adams, who inherited the plantation near Hopkins, South Carolina, told ABC that the families “thoroughly enjoyed” their time together. During the visit, Adams even gave the Steward family a tour of the plantation grounds, which included old overseer’s quarters and slaves quarters that housed their ancestors.
“Robert is a descendant of people who owned my family. He didn’t own anybody,” Steward told ABC. “I am a descendant of slaves of that his family owned. I have never been a slave. This is about history. This is about family. There is nothing he can do or I can do that can change the fact that I have relatives who may have died on that plantation. This was about seeing a physical place that my relatives walked, regardless of the condition.”
“Everybody understands that this history occurred and I think times are a changin’,” Adams said. “People are much more interested in getting to know each other now than they were generations ago. And I think that’s a healthy thing. It’s always good to get to know new family that you didn’t know previously, and this is such an interesting story that it was a pretty remarkable meeting.”
Adams and his wife, Shana, still own the plantation, which is now called Wavering Place Plantation. It has remained in the family since 1766 and is now open for educational tours. It also serves as a bed and breakfast and wedding venue.
Despite some negative feedback both families received for their meeting, Steward said the reaction has been mostly positive. For Steward, the visit was not about rekindling the past so much as building the future.