As the great, great grandson of Texas slaveholders, journalist Chris Tomlinson wanted to find out what crimes his ancestors had committed to maintain power and privilege.
So he went to Tomlinson Hill, the plantation his ancestors built in the 1850s, to not only explore the slave-owning part of his family tree, but also to find the descendants of the slaves who kept the Tomlinson name after they were freed.
Tomlinson had spent 11 years for the Associated Press reporting on wars and conflicts, mostly in Africa, including the end of apartheid and the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide. All the conflicts he covered included an element of bigotry.
“It almost became kind of my specialty to understand why people hated each other and what the struggle was really about,” Tomlinson tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross. “That’s when it began to occur to me that, while we talk about race a lot in America, we don’t talk about the history of race and why we feel the way we do and what actually happened 50 years ago. I thought writing about my family would be a personal journey to look into that.”
In his new book, Tomlinson Hill, Tomlinson examines America’s history of race and bigotry through the paternal lines of two families – one white and one black.
During his research, Tomlinson discovered that former NFL running back LaDainian Tomlinson, who wrote the introduction to the book, is a descendant of a Tomlinson Hill slave.
LaDainian’s brother, Lavar Tomlinson, says he didn’t know anything about his personal ancestral history before this book.
“I have four daughters, and I would like every last one of them to know and understand where we come from,” Lavar says. “I think it’s very important … for any person to know where they come from. That’s what makes you who you are.”
Tomlinson says his first job as a journalist, covering the end of apartheid in South Africa and the election of Nelson Mandela, helped inform him as he worked on his book.
That era “was reminiscent, to me, of the debates that my ancestors — that my grandfather had —during the 1950s and 1960s, about what the civil rights movement was hoping to accomplish in the United States,” Tomlinson says. “I had listened to people talk about all of the things to do with race that I knew that my ancestors had believed. Watching that, almost like a time traveler, made me think about my family and my history.”
On finding descendants of his family’s slaves
The first time I went to Tomlinson Hill, [I] started basically knocking on doors in what is largely a rural, poor black community. Just by introducing myself as a Tomlinson, I think it opened the door immediately. They knew that my name was the one on the hill and they knew what that meant. In fact, they knew it far more than I did. I was surprised to find that they were more comfortable with it than I was, frankly.
I had never lived on Tomlinson Hill. To me, slavery was in the distant past. I didn’t have a sense of belonging to that place. However, the descendants of the slaves I met on the hill … they lived with that fact every day. When they drove by Tomlinson Hill, it was a reminder of that history. They had known white Tomlinsons in the past. So while it was not unusual for them to know the descendants of the people who held them in slavery, it was not at all something I had experienced.
On his family’s conflicting attitudes about its slaveholding past
My grandfather took almost a perverse pride in being the grandson of slaveholders. It was something for him to brag about. In Texas, countless people will tell you that they’re fourth generation, fifth generation, sixth generation Texans. There’s this amazing sense of pride in your family being an early settler. During the civil rights era, my grandfather — who as a young man I suspect was a member of the Klan — liked to provoke people by saying, “My family owned slaves — and they loved it so much, they took our last name.” He was very proud of that.
My father, on the other hand, was not. In fact, he considered it something shameful. And it was strange growing up as a child, hearing my grandfather take this one view and my father telling me, “You know, that’s not really something you should be so proud of.”
On how he was taught about slavery in school in Texas
We learned slavery was bad. Roots came on television while I was learning about slavery, but the teachers always used the passive voice to talk about it. Slavery was evil but no one was responsible. There was no agency. There was no confrontation of the fact that maybe our ancestors had held slaves.
It was: “Mistakes were made. Slavery was a thing and it’s not anymore and that’s good and slavery is bad. Let’s move on and go sing [the Confederate anthem] Dixie and be proud of our heritage.”
On how he was inspired by post-apartheid South Africa
It was inspiring to me to be in South Africa after the election [of Nelson Mandela] and to see that reckoning. Bishop Desmond Tutu established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and at the time, his argument was that before there can be reconciliation, you have to have a sharing of the truth and it has to be a common truth. One community can’t have one idea of what happened and the other community … a different idea. If you want them to reconcile, they have to agree about what happened. And that requires — for lack of a better word — confession and contrition. …
I don’t think that’s something that’s happened in the United States. And it certainly didn’t happen in my life. And so writing this book was my opportunity to go through that process — if, for no one else, [than] for the African-American Tomlinsons and my side of the family, that we have that truth and reconciliation.