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The Fan over the Dining Table

Photo © Jjvallee |

My grandmother wrote a genealogy tracing her family, the Corbins of Virginia, and it was fun to flip through the slender book and find interesting connections. Some of it was speculation. One Hanna Corbin married John Augustine Washington, brother of George Washington. She may have been connected to our family of Corbins—that was uncertain. But one connection that Grandma was sure of was William Tappico, King of the Wiccocomico Indians of the Algonquin tribes, whose granddaughter, called Mary Tapp, wed our ancestor, John Corbin in 1799. My dad was so proud of that, our Native American blood. But, among the records of births and marriages and deaths, one entry stopped me cold. It was the last will and testament of William Corbin of Culpeper County, who died on December 3, 1796:

“I give and bequeath unto my son Benjamin Corbin one Negro wench Sarah and her child Lydia and all their future increase.” Reading those words, I forgot to breathe. This first bequest was followed by gifts of other Negroes, wenches and children, to his other sons and daughters. I knew it was naïve to be shocked. The Corbins were landowners in Virginia two centuries ago. They would have had slaves. Yet seeing this in print, this was something I could not wrap my mind around—the giving of people as inheritance, owning them and bequeathing them to sons and daughters. Sarah and her child Lydia, Esther, Nanie, Delphea, and all their future increase.

It was years after first reading this when I found myself in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, after Hurricane Katrina. I had heard there were plantations along the Mississippi Riv...