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The impacts of slavery are still felt

A large cross headstone sits on the left of this photo of an old cemetery. Large green trees grow near the headstones.
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VPM News Focal Point
More than one hundred fifty years after emancipation, slavery continues to take a toll.

Sometimes referred to as intergenerational, multi-generational, historical, cultural or group trauma, the terms all denote a deep pain experienced by an individual or a group that does not heal and resolve immediately.  A growing body of scientific evidence suggests that the experience of war, starvation, severe deprivation, prolonged neglect, violence, natural disasters or other such harms can have an effect for generations. Calamity sometimes invokes a survival mentality, which doesn’t allow the trauma to be fully processed in real time. Later, when there is less threat, the pain can resurface in some form, providing an opportunity to heal it.

Studies show that behavioral changes in people who have undergone traumatic experiences can prompt new pain responses in offspring and in some cases, there can be biological changes from one generation to the next. In the case of American chattel slavery, the traumatic experiences occurred over hundreds of years, as violence, abuse and fear were used to keep the enslaved subservient. We are just beginning to understand the full impact and experts are beginning to point to what must happen to heal wounds that linger.

Transcript of the video:

FOUNTAIN HUGHES: My name is Fountain Hughes. I was born in Charlottesville, Virginia. My grandfather belonged to Thomas Jefferson. My grandfather was 115 years old when he died and now I am 101-year-old.  

ANGIE MILES: This is one of the few surviving audio recordings of a formerly enslaved American.  

FOUNTAIN HUGHES: If I thought that I'd ever be a slave again, I'd take a gun and end it all right away, because you're nothing but a dog. You're not a thing but a dog.  

ANGIE MILES: The interviewer called him Uncle Fountain. Shallie Marshall called him Pap. He was her great-grandfather and for much of her early life they lived under the same roof.  

SHALLIE MARSHALL: It must have been a tough time for him when he was a kid because he was young when the Civil War ended.  

ANGIE MILES: He'd left Charlottesville in 1881, eventually settling in Baltimore, and speaking about the bitter fruit of slavery, almost never.  

SHALLIE MARSHALL: People had to go and fend for themselves, and he said he had to eat rats in order to survive. He did tell me that.  

ANGIE MILES: For many Americans, the idea of slavery seems ancient something in old books and so far in the distant past that it has no bearing on our lives today.  

PEIGHTON YOUNG: I think what is important to understand is that it was something that didn't happen, you know, so long ago, that it's completely removed from public memory in the sense that we still carry the legacies of it. Physically, I think emotionally, spiritually, culturally, communally, it's still there. It's still a part of who we are.  

ANGIE MILES: Peighton Young is a scholar and a historian who has volunteered at Woodland Cemetery, one of many predominantly Black historic cemeteries in Virginia. Places that fell into severe disrepair because of lack of resources and regard, but are being reclaimed and repaired by volunteers. Much of Young's work is in honor of ancestors. John Jefferson is buried somewhere at Woodland. Young has been searching for the exact location for years.  

PEIGHTON YOUNG: Not everybody is so privileged to have a stone that they can come to. All I wanted was to just go to the store, get some flowers, come to his grave and say, “hey, we remember you,” and I can't do that. And even though I'm, you know, 80-plus years removed that it's a kind of pain that I can't even really describe because it's something you should have.  

BARRINGTON ROSS: My Mother, Silva, and her mother was bought from the Rutledge family in Charleston...  

ANGIE MILES: Given the scarcity of documentation about the individual lives of enslaved Americans, only a few descendants are fortunate enough to have a record of what their forebearers endured. Barrington Ross's understanding of slavery is enhanced by the written narrative of his great-grandfather, Jim Henry, Jr.  

BARRINGTON ROSS: When slavery was over, everyone was happy but it still was a scar in the memory of Jim Henry. Jim Henry did not forget. How can you just walk away from someone owning you? How can an individual pick up another life, immediately following the gruesome toil of slavery on their lives and after a war and just think that everything is just going to be okay?  

ANGIE MILES: Trauma expert, Simone Jacobs, says everything was and is far from okay in the aftermath of slavery.  

SIMONE JACOBS: Slavery was a systematic process of abuse that went on for hundreds of years. We have to understand that in order to keep a group of people subjugated you have to destroy family connections. You have to destroy attachments. And so, what slavery did, how you kept 30 people who were working in your fields from attacking the 10 people up in the big house, was that you made sure that they were constantly living in fear. I think the statistics are like one in three marriages were broken up, one in five children were taken away from their parents, but that's just the statistics. We know that it was much worse than that. And we also know that you only have to do that to one family for it to have a devastating effect on everybody else.  

ANGIE MILES: Jacobs says that by disrupting attachments among family members enslavers caused deep destabilization that can continue for generations. Kerri Moseley-Hobbs and her family's More Than a Fraction foundation is exploring the impact of their family's enslavement at Smithfield Plantation in Blacksburg.  

KERRI MOSELEY-HOBBS: And that's the reason why we keep talking about race because it's still a pivotal part of the society, right? Because we're still in the transition out of slavery. So, race is still a huge part of it. We're still dismantling a lot of the laws that come from that period. We're still dismantling some of the prejudice and it's really not that far in the past. So, if the American story, including slavery, was a 20-chapter book, we're only on chapter two. And we got chapter two and we found out that chapter one was written wrong and now we have to go back and clean it up. I'm so sorry you guys, we're not as far ahead as we think.  

ANGIE MILES: Another reminder of the relative proximity of slavery and all its costs starts here. This is Massie's Mill, Virginia. the Nelson County town where Abram Smith was born and lived until a few years after the Civil War. Smith's youngest son Daniel, passed away in October, but before his death, he wrote about his life in Son of a Slave. He recalls harrowing stories his father would share, including about the capture of two runaway slaves.  

DANIEL SMITH: They found him up a tree, so they hanged him in that tree and my father had sort of tears in his eyes like it could have been his brother, or, I mean--  

ANGIE MILES: Brainwashed is the word Smith used to describe the lingering effect of slavery on Americans. He related a story of his mother chastising his older brother for having bought her a house.  

DANIEL SMITH: She came downstairs and said "Now you know the house is too good for me. "It's better than the houses I clean." Now, that's brainwashed. My mother saying that. A whole nation has been brainwashed.  

ANGIE MILES: Simone Jacobs says, it can be difficult for people who are not Black to understand that each time a racially motivated incident occurs, whether it's a microaggression in an individual's life or a widely publicized attack on someone, it has the potential to re-traumatize. Jacobs says that makes it difficult for Black people to develop an internal sense of safety.  

SIMONE JACOBS: And from a therapeutic perspective, when I'm working with a client who's been sexually abused or physically abused, most of the time the abuse is in the in the past. All my goal as a therapist is to make sure that they get out of the abusive situation. When we're talking about racial trauma there is no getting out. The trauma is ongoing, so it is a different kind of trauma. 

ANGIE MILES: The sense of safety aided by connection and belonging is what begins to occur when people acknowledge the pain of the past and actively look for ways to heal. More universities and historic places are becoming more honest about the slavery that built and sustained their institutions. At Patrick Henry's last plantation, Red Hill in Campbell County, an annual event brings descendants of those who lived, worked, and died there. Barrington Ross's great-great-grandfather, Jim Henry, Sr., was once property of Patrick Henry's family. Ross is among those who've traveled far to learn about their people and to show respect.  

BARRINGTON ROSS: Enslaved people's descendants are still around and then there's still open wounds that need to be healed.  

ANGIE MILES: Peighton Young is Red Hill's historical advisor and sees this as the kind of project that will begin to heal trauma through openness and honesty.  

PEIGHTON YOUNG: I think it's important to talk about our history or the legacy of slavery because we don't want to silence lives that actually meant something, that contributed to the lives that we're living now, that contributed to our communities, our families, our legacies. They deserve to be talked about just as much as Patrick Henry or any other Founding Father does. 

Additional Resources: 
To address healing trauma, generally, some seek private counseling or therapies such as meditation or EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing).  

News In Health article: Dealing With Trauma  

How EMDR treatment is helping a U.S. Navy SEAL cope with PTSD  

Healing Trauma | VPM News Focal Point 

But there are also resources available for addressing generational trauma, specifically, and for learning more about the impact of adverse historical events on people living today. Here are a few places to explore. 

Duke Uni. - Inter-generational Trauma: 6 Ways It Affects Families  

Slavery Inventory Database  

Virtual panel to explore impact of generational trauma on individual and societal health  

UVA Health - Types of Trauma  

NPR - How some therapists are helping patients heal by tackling structural racism 

NIH - Dealing With Trauma  

NIH - Intergenerational trauma is associated with expression alterations in glucocorticoid- and immune-related genes  

APA Psycnet - Trauma, mental health, and intergenerational associations in Kosovar Families 11 years after the war.  

Science Direct - Cultural trauma as a fundamental cause of health disparities  

Hidden Burdens: a Review of Intergenerational, Historical and Complex Trauma, Implications for Indigenous Families

Intergenerational transmission of trauma effects: putative role of epigenetic mechanisms.  

NAMI - What It’s Like to Inherit Trauma? 


Angie Miles, Host/Producer, anchors and hosts VPM News Focal Point and special broadcasts.
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