1 side owned slaves. The other side started Black History Month. How a family heals
Updated February 28, 2023 at 12:26 PM ET
"Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history." — Carter G. Woodson
There are many things from childhood that Brett Woodson Bailey doesn't remember. Maybe it has to do with his cancer diagnosis at age 4, living in the hospital for almost two years, undergoing intense courses of radiation and chemotherapy. He thinks that plays a part in why so much of his childhood is "hazy."
Forgetting after all, is a side effect of trauma.
But one moment he remembers clearly is his mother, Adele, sitting him down when he was in middle school, telling him that he was the descendant of a famous, important man.
You are the great great grandnephew of Carter G. Woodson, she told him. Woodson is the man behind Negro history week, which ultimately became Black History Month. She said Brett should be proud of this fact, he should even brag about it.
Brett is not the braggy type. Now 20, he's a soft-spoken and thoughtful sophomore at the University of California, Santa Cruz, majoring in environmental science, with dreams of becoming a wildlife biologist.
As Brett got older he began to better understand what it means to be related to the man who insisted that we tell, and learn, the true story of Black people in America.
In 1926, Woodson created Negro history week, anchoring it between the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. In the 1970s the week officially expanded to a month.
Woodson helped pioneer the field of African American history, especially when it comes to education, and he fiercely believed that Black history should not be a separate, segregated thing, that our histories are intertwined.
Brett recognizes his ancestor's historical importance, but he doesn't know if he feels any personal connection to a man who lived so long ago. "I'm not exactly like carrying down his legacy too much," he says.
But then he stops and turns the idea over mid-sentence. "I guess I kind of am by still being here," he says. "Because you know he was a fighter, fighting for civil rights."
Brett knows that surviving is no simple feat, especially when you are Black in America. "I am my ancestors wildest dreams," the aphorism goes. Then there is Brett's own experience with cancer — when he was diagnosed he was given a 30% chance of making it. But his people survived and he survived, and that means something. He carries history in his skin and in his bones.
"If a race has no history, if it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated." — Carter G. Woodson
In 1984 a postage stamp issued to commemorate the life of Woodson changed a white family's story
Growing up in the '40s and '50s in segregated Kentucky, it was part of Craig Woodson's family legend that they could trace their lineage all the way back to the beginnings of American history. There was even a book where the legend was enshrined, a family genealogy. Craig didn't read the book, but he knew the story.
John and Sarah Woodson crossed the ocean in 1619 from Bristol, England, to settle in the first colony of Jamestown. To start a new life in a new world.
One day when John was away and Sarah was at home with their two boys, "there was an Indian attack," Craig recounts. "An attack by the Native Americans, and Sarah fended them off with a cast iron pan," recalls Amy Woodson-Boulton. She's Craig's niece, and grew up with the story too.
To protect them, Sarah hid her two children, one underneath the potato bin, and the other in the bathtub. They survived, and from these two sons came the two lines of Woodsons — two genealogical bloodlines to populate the colonized new world. When you met another Woodson you would ask them — tub or potato bin?
It's the kind of apocryphal lore many families pass down. But this was a white American origin story. And it's problematic in the way white American origin stories tend to be, erasing anything but the heroic white point of view, conveniently forgetting the colonization and violence that began the American experiment, ignoring that the new world was not new.
But also, because it turns out there weren't just "potato-bin Woodsons" and "tub Woodsons."
There was another line of Woodsons, one that would lead to Carter G. Woodson, and then, decades later, to Brett Woodson Bailey.
That part of the story stayed silent until 1984, when Craig was 41 years old. That year, on Feb. 1, a postage stamp was issued to commemorate the life and work of Carter G. Woodson.
It wasn't the first time Craig had heard the name, but it was the first time something clicked for him — that this famous Black man shared his last name.
"What's the deal with the Black Woodsons?" he asked his father. "Who are they?"
His dad pointed to the old genealogy book on the family's shelf. "It's all in there."
It was in the first six pages. In 1619, the same year the white Woodsons settled in Jamestown, a ship carrying around 20 kidnapped Angolans arrived at Point Comfort, in what is now Virginia. The Woodsons bought six of the first Black people who were forcibly trafficked here. They were some of the first American slave owners.
"Why did you never tell us this?" Craig demanded of his father.
"You never asked," he replied.
If forgetting can be a side effect of trauma, what is the side effect of burying the truth? What happens when you bury history in plain sight?
"The bondage of the Negro brought captive from Africa is one of the greatest dramas in history, and the writer who merely sees in that ordeal something to approve or condemn fails to understand the evolution of the human race." — Carter G. Woodson
Breaking the family myth and confronting a history of enslaving
Craig has a whole series of past lives. In the late 1960s, he was a part of the short-lived, but influential, avant-garde music group The United States of America, known for its radical politics and psychedelic rock. He played drums for Linda Ronstadt, among others. He got a Ph.D. from UCLA in ethnomusicology, where he studied African drumming and drum making.
He says one factor that drew him to African drumming was that it didn't come naturally to him, he had to work for it. (A parallel that stands out: Brett — who is a star track athlete — says the same thing about himself and running. He wasn't naturally talented at it, he says, but now, running feels like freedom, like flying. And he's very good at it.)
In 1984, when Craig saw the postage stamp, he had just returned from Ghana, where he was playing music and doing fieldwork. Many of his friends and colleagues were Black. He had no idea what to say to them, just an incredible, bottomless shame he couldn't shake.
For months he did what he was angry at his family, and his father, for doing. He stayed silent, swallowing the truth. His family wasn't just enslavers, they had been "huge slave owners, the first slave owners," he says.
"I didn't want to face that," he continues. "And that's what ultimately brought me to say, I've gotta face it."
Finally, one afternoon he confided in a close friend, a woman named Bette Cox, also an ethnomusicologist, who wrote about and researched the music of Black Los Angeles.
She didn't bat an eye, Craig says.
"In her beautiful way, she said, 'Wow, that's interesting. My best friend is Aileen Woodson and her husband's Edgar. He's related to Carter G. — you want to meet them?' "
Within 15 minutes of sharing the story, he found himself standing face to face with Edgar Woodson, the grandnephew of Carter G. Woodson. (And Brett's grandfather, although Brett had not been born yet.)
This meeting, this story, became a new kind of origin for Craig. It's no longer the tub Woodsons and the potato-bin Woodsons, it's now a postage stamp and this moment of a white Woodson and a Black Woodson shaking hands, sitting down and talking.
Sometimes when Craig tells this story, and he tells it a lot, he gets overrun with emotion. "It's powerful," he says.
"It's one of the most powerful things that ever happened in my life. When you realize something is so easy once you confront it."
Craig's niece, Amy, says Craig fundamentally changed the way the white Woodsons talked about their past. "He really did help reframe that heroic tale of pioneer survivalist spirit — intrepid people going out to the new world." He broke the myth, she says. It was a myth that needed breaking.
But for the Black Woodsons NPR interviewed, the fact that there were white Woodsons who had been enslavers was just that, a fact. They had no myth to break.
"That's how we have evolved here, as being a part of America," says Patty LaBauve, Edgar's niece. "So we're a lot more aware of the white lineage, than many of the white Woodsons would be aware of us."
When you meet a white person who shares your last name, you know their ancestors probably enslaved your ancestors, LaBauve says. When you are Black, it's just a given that you have white relatives. This is why it didn't seem strange to her, and to so many other Black Woodsons, to welcome Craig as part of the family.
The aim of this generation should be to collect the records of the Negro and treat them scientifically in order that the race may not become a negligible factor in the thought of the world. — Carter G. Woodson
Craig apologized, saying he takes responsibility for the sins of his forefathers
"There is no better family than the Woodson family to tell the story of what has happened in this country," says Barbara Dunn, the vice president of membership for ASALH, the Association for the Study of American Life and History, the modern incarnation of the organization Carter G. Woodson founded in 1915.
Dunn came to know Craig after he reached out to her, wanting to join ASALH. "When he told me who he was," Dunn says, "I felt like God is really connecting the dots here, you know?"
It's not just that the Black and white Woodsons tell the story of America's past, from the first enslavers to the ship that brought the first Africans to America to the man responsible for Black History Month. It's that they also give us a possible path forward, Dunn says, a vision of what it might mean to recognize our histories are all tangled up in each other. That Black people are a part of every American origin story. The exact kind of history for which Carter G. Woodson fought.
Both Edgar and Aileen, whom Craig first sat down with in their living room in the mid-1980s, have long since died. But their daughter, Adele Woodson Bailey, Brett's mom, says it's important to know that the bond that grew between their families did not happen overnight.
At first she was skeptical. "How important do you think your family is to us?" she wondered of this white man, coming in trying to claim some deep connection. "You can't just show up and say we are cousins," she remembers thinking.
But then a funny thing happened. "As time went on we met more often. Started going to funerals and weddings and got to know one another."
"He made an effort," she says, and her family made an effort in return. Now she thinks of Craig as not just family, but as close family. Real family. Like blood.
"That's cousin Craig," says Patty LaBauve (also Adele's cousin, for those trying to keep the family tree straight). "We claim him as our cousin," she says.
"I just call him my cousin," Brett says. "Maybe in the back of my head, I thought it was kind of weird that he was white." Brett didn't really have any other white cousins. But since he was born after Craig had already become part of the family, Craig was just there.
When Brett was a baby, he was there. When Brett was sick with cancer, he was there. Craig taught Brett how to drive, took him to the DMV to get his license.
Adele has struggled with illness, and Craig was always one of the people Brett could call.
When Brett was in middle school, around the same time Adele sat him down and told him he was related to Carter G. Woodson, she showed him a video. In it, his cousin Craig was standing in front of his family and apologizing. "I don't feel like apologizing is the right word," Brett says. "But just trying to make amends in a way."
Craig does call it an apology; an apology made at a reconciliation ceremony he organized with Edgar in 1998. He wanted to do something formal. He wanted to take responsibility for the sins of his forefathers.
But first he had to get his family on board.
Let truth destroy the dividing prejudices of nationality and teach universal love without distinction of race, merit or rank. — Carter G. Woodson
There was a little resistance, sometimes more than a little resistance, from some of the white Woodsons.
"Why do you need to do this?" some asked. "What's the big deal, why can't you just let it go?" Those were the questions that came from members of Craig's politically liberal white family. They didn't see the point in dredging up the past.
Joan Woodson, Craig's sister-in-law, says some relatives were worried that they were going to be attacked. "Are we going there and then everybody's going to be yelling and screaming at us as white people?" she remembers some asking.
Craig reassured them that it wasn't going to be like that. He doesn't think everyone believed him, but in the end "they all showed up anyway," he says.
The reconciliation ceremony took place on a Sunday after services at Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles. It was Edgar and Aileen's church and the pastor at the time was Rev. James Lawson, a civil rights icon and confidant of Martin Luther King Jr., although Lawson wasn't present that day.
Craig and Edgar had also invited Sam Appiah, known as Nana Osei Tutu for his role as leader of the Asante people in the United States. Craig knew Appiah through his connection with the Asante Cultural Society in Los Angeles, and he agreed to come and speak about his ancestors' participation in the slave trade.
"I represented an original enslaver," Craig says. "Edgar represented the original enslaved, and the African side of it was represented by Sam Appiah, and his Asante lineage."
There was African drumming, and colleagues from UCLA. Other white Woodsons spoke. Craig's sister brought a clock made with light and dark wood, joined together, as a gift. "It's about time," she said.
Edgar, a quiet man whom everyone listened to when he did speak, also got up.
"Those things that have happened in the past, we must recognize them and not put them aside," he said. "We must recognize that they have influenced us, and if there is going to be a change in our behavior we must recognize why we are changing or why we should change."
Then it was Craig's turn.
"I apologize on behalf of my ancestors for the holocaust that was caused to your family and your ancestors. And I ask for your forgiveness."
Craig stepped down off of the dais and walked down the aisle towards Edgar, who stood to greet him. Then the white descendant of one of the first enslavers in America and the Black descendant of the man who helped establish the study of Black history — embraced.
Craig felt a relief, a lifting of weight.
When it was Adele's time to speak she admitted she had been skeptical. "I thought it was going to be a really superficial kind of meeting," she told the room. But the apologies actually moved her, made her feel validated. "It lifted a little of my cynicism," she confessed.
"I'm not going to pretend it wasn't awkward," says Amy Woodson-Boulton. As Joan's daughter and Craig's niece, Amy was a generation younger, and it felt a little bit formal, a little bit of a forced. "I think those of us — Black and white — who were in our 20s, kind of got together and were like, this is weird," she says. "This is kind of awkward and strange."
One of the things that stood out to Amy was that the Black Woodsons were hosting them. Aileen and other ladies from their church put out a huge spread of food for everyone. It was plentiful and delicious, and they were lovely, generous hosts. But "here we were not giving back," Amy says. "They were giving to us. So I think that was almost another layer of strangeness."
Even in all that strangeness, they made inroads of connection. Adele and Amy hit it off, and they stayed in touch as they both became mothers, and both of their children had health issues.
They kept track of each other's lives via Facebook, but as Amy used the app less, their connection dwindled a bit. It happens.
"We're still sometimes in touch," Adele says. "But Craig and I definitely are." The two had just had a disagreement, she told me. A family squabble.
"We're family for real," she says, laughing.
"If you can control a man's thinking, you don't have to worry about his actions. If you can determine what a man thinks you do not have to worry about what he will do." — Carter G. Woodson
Being a Black American makes genealogy harder, more complex, thornier
Some Woodsons are connected by name. "When slavery ended, they did take on the enslaver's name," says ASALH's Barbara Dunn of the Woodson family.
Dunn's family had done something different, following an old African tradition, taking their father's first name as their surname. There was one line that kept their enslaver's name, Devereux. "We have since found they really were Devereux," she says, "because one of the enslavers produced a child."
Maybe, she says, that's why the Black Woodsons kept the name. "Maybe they really were Woodsons," Dunn says.
Craig is very open when it comes to talking about race, about whiteness, about the horrors of slavery. But this part is still difficult for him, and for others, to be really open about. How any genetic connection he has to Black Woodsons is probably through sexual violence, through rape.
"We just didn't really talk about it," Craig says. It wasn't that they didn't understand it was a possibility. It is just a hard thing.
Michelle Evans-Oliver was on a Zoom call with Craig when she found out they were related, a DNA test detecting just enough overlap to suggest genetic ties. Evans, the head of the Richmond, Va., branch of ASALH, and a serious amateur genealogist in her own right, says while it's family lore that the Woodsons in her family tree are related to Carter G. Woodson, she hasn't been able to prove it with a paper trail, yet.
But she is related to Craig, by thin strands of DNA.
Evans-Oliver says being a Black American makes genealogy harder, more complex, thornier. Her family has no book dating all the way back to 1619.
"If I was white, I would be able to trace it all the way back," she says. To learn about your family by searching through the wills of enslavers and the graveyards of the enslaved, you realize you are never that far from a history of violence, she says. "You have to really find out who enslaved your family in order to find out who your father was at that point, if you know who your grandfather was, if he was white."
Evans-Oliver thinks she and Craig look a bit alike, something in the eyes, maybe the nose. There's a picture of them, from when they first met, before they knew they were related, wearing the same glasses. "He's a Woodson, I'm a Woodson," she says. "How did we both get to be Woodsons?"
"If you think about it hard," she says, "it makes you stop and say, 'Wow.' " Not to signify wonder. Maybe more a recognition of the trauma that lives in the bonds between them.
Evans-Oliver wasn't there at the formal reconciliation ceremony. "I was a baby back then," she says, laughing. But on the same Zoom where they found out they had matching DNA, Craig made another apology, one specifically to her.
She appreciates that he was willing to own up to the past, to name it and claim it. That's rare, she says. She's found many white people want to dodge and duck history. "The only way we can get over what went on is if we face it head on," she says. It's the same thing Craig says.
But Evans-Oliver also knows one man's apology is not enough. "It's easier for him to get over it," she says. "More so than for us. We still live with it."
"So yeah, he could come to terms with it. 'Oh, let me do a reconciliation ceremony. We're going to make this thing happen and we're going to apologize, and then we're going to move forward,' but it's more to it than that."
"Why haven't we been able to do this more publicly in the United States?" she asks. Not just apologize, but talk publicly about what real repair would look like. "What about the other Craig Woodsons of the world?"
In the decades since Craig's formal apology, racism hasn't gone away, structural inequity hasn't been fixed. White supremacy is thriving. Small moments of reconciliation between individuals might be nice, they might even be necessary to heal, but they don't change the larger systems, Evans-Oliver says.
"I'm only three generations out of slavery," she says. "At most 150 years. It's not that far away."
"Real education means to inspire people to live more abundantly, to learn to begin with life as they find it and make it better." — Carter G. Woodson
"There are still repercussions today from what happened in the past"
What does it mean to heal the past?
NPR asks Brett Woodson this question as he sits on the University of California, Santa Cruz college campus.
"To heal the past?" he asks. "How do you even start?"
Brett has gone through more than most 20-year-olds. Part of that is surviving cancer. There is the friend he made when he was undergoing treatment as a child. "She was probably my closest friend," he says.
She had a brain tumor, more lethal than his kind of cancer.
"I lost her," Brett says.
Living in the hospital for over a year while going through chemo and radiation messed up his social skills, he thinks. He believes it's one of the reasons he's so shy, slower to make friends.
On the one hand, Brett sees Craig as a really good guy who has always been there for him. For Brett, his older white cousin is living proof our ancestors don't define us. On the other hand, as a young Black man, he understands the way legacies of racism live on, the way it can limit and yes, even define, people's possibilities.
"There are still repercussions today from what happened in the past," he says. What he doesn't say: If you are Black.
Brett is aware that people sometimes cross the street when they see him. "It could just be because I stand out," he says. "It's rare to see a Black person on campus."
Just less than 5% of the students at UCSC are Black, which to be fair, Brett points out, is an improvement from previous years. That too, he knows, is a legacy of racism.
When the "reckoning" around race happened in 2020, Brett says he felt a lot of his white peers were going through the motions, posturing and posting.
But all that talk of racial justice didn't really last, he says. "I'm not hearing any of them talk about it now," he says. "I'm not hearing them talk about the scarcity of Black people on college campuses."
Brett says he doesn't really feel connected to the legacy of his great great great granduncle, Carter G. Woodson. But he talks about the importance of education for Black people, all the time. When he talks about racial justice, it is often through the lens of more equitable access to education.
Just like his ancestor.
"Let us banish fear. We have been in this mental state for three centuries. I am a radical. I am ready to act, if I can find brave men to help me." — Carter G. Woodson
Craig knows his apology wasn't enough.
"It's not something that you can say I'm sorry for, because it's too enormous," he says. "It's too profound."
He now believes apologizing was something he did more to heal himself, than for the Black Woodsons.
You can't apologize for the violence of slavery, not really, Craig says.
But you can show up.
If you're lucky, Craig says, you might find that the people your ancestors have wronged are willing to listen, to let you say "I'm sorry." To unburden your soul a little. If you're really lucky, they will welcome you into their family.
But that takes something beyond apology. It takes being honest about our intertwined histories.
It takes the work of a lifetime.
NPR asked Craig if he ever talked with the Black Woodsons about monetary reparations. His family benefitted from their ancestors violently forced labor, after all.
Craig said it never really came up. But recently he put Brett in his will. He says it was something that should've happened a long time ago.
NPR asked Brett if Craig's showing up for him, and for Adele, was a kind of reparations.
"I guess in a way it depends on your perspective," Brett says. "It could be a kind of reparations, whether it's intentional or unintentional."
"You could view it as him making up for his ancestors," he says. "Or you could just view it as him being a good cousin. It depends on the way you frame it."
For Brett, seeing their relationship solely through the lens of repairing the past ignores the real connection they've established in the present. The one that holds Brett and Craig and Adele, and all the other Woodsons, together. The one that keeps them showing up.
If trauma can make us forget, can remembering help us heal? Maybe it can. Maybe it can't.
Still we owe it to history to remember, Craig says.
We owe it to each other.
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