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In our September issue, Ann Banks recounts her research in Montgomery, Alabama, to discover the truth about her family's slaveholding past. Banks undertook her Montgomery trip with Karen Orozco Gutierrez, the direct descendant of Milton Howard. By the end of his life, Howard had become celebrated in his adopted home town of Davenport, Iowa, for his community spirit and service in the Union Army. But in his early life, Howard was enslaved by A.J. Pickett, Banks’ great-great-grandfather. After meeting on the genealogy site AfriGeneas, Banks and Gutierrez traveled to Montgomery, and through their search in the Montgomery County Archives managed to unravel a mystery about Milton's early life.
 
Smithsonian recently caught up with Banks and Gutierrez to discuss their partnership, and how other Americans can work to uncover hidden parts of their family history.

Ted Scheinman, senior editor: Karen, what first spurred you to start looking into Milton’s early life, and what year did you begin your research?

During my adolescence, my Dad would talk to me about my great-grandfather Milton Howard, and I would then go to the library and research Milton. I studied my great-grandfather sporadically until about 2013, when I began deeper research into my family history almost every day.

Ann, you write eloquently in the piece about how you avoided “the family Confederates” for years. What was your approach when you finally went through all those family documents?

My method, if you can call it that, was to start with an item or document I inherited and follow it until it led to a story. A starting point was a fluted silver serving spoon that had come down to me, one of a pair. It was engraved “L.P. Walker to Eliza.” I had no idea who these people were—until one day I researched L.P. Walker and discovered that he was the first Secretary of War of the Confederacy, the one who ordered the bombardment of Fort Sumter. Among his many subsequent misjudgments, he famously prophesied that the Civil War would be over so quickly that it would shed no more blood than could be soaked up with his handkerchief.

Karen, was there ever a time when you had felt tempted to give up the search for early records of Milton’s life?

Yes, there were times I've felt tempted to give up. Looking for the early records of a child born as a free person of color in Iowa, then kidnapped and enslaved as a child in Alabama (and possibly Arkansas), then escaping back to Iowa and enlisting in the Union Army—all as a child—has sometimes been overwhelming.

Ann, you mention that you still have two engraved serving spoons from the Pickett family silver. Can you tell us what you plan to do with them?

I will keep one, and one will go to Karen. On the Pickett plantation, her enslaved great-grandfather Milton was a house servant rather than a field hand—and we think it’s possible he may have polished these spoons. 
 
Karen, what are your plans for honoring Milton’s memory with the knowledge you gained in Montgomery? 
 
Continuing to look for old documents that mention Milton Howard and researching to extract the truth from family tradition—that has been my way of honoring my great-grandfather. I am also involved in a project to replace the grave markers for nine of Milton Howard's children and grandchildren, which will be completed in September.
 
Ann, how do you plan to continue your research into “the family Confederates”?
 
I have started a website, Confederates in My Closet, to explore the subject further. The "Lost Cause" narrative has flourished for a century and a half, one family story at a time. On the website, I want to challenge the meaning of the stories in my own family—and in myself. Evidence suggests my father was quite ambivalent about his Confederate heritage, as one relic I inherited perfectly embodies. It is a shiny gold-plated replica of the Confederate seal—but if you turn it over, you discover that someone has used it as an ashtray. How did this happen? What did it mean? I considered these questions in an essay on my website.
 
Ann, what would you say to other Americans whose ancestors enslaved people? How can descendants of people who enslaved others begin to learn about and reckon with their family’s role in “America’s original sin”?
 
The most important thing I did was to join Coming to the Table, an organization co-founded by descendants of enslaved people and descendants of slaveholders to research and share family histories across racial lines. Telling the truth about the past, according to the organization, is the first step toward a more just and equal future. I would also recommend participating in organizations focused on African-American genealogy, like AfriGeneas and Our Black Ancestry, which encourage descendants of slaveholders to join in, since we often have valuable information for descendants of the enslaved who are searching for their ancestors.
 
WHAT WE'RE COOKING

 

A recommendation from digital editorial assistant Lila Thulin:
 

I’ve been missing D.C., so I borrowed my favorite take-the-parents-when-they’re-in-town restaurant’s eponymous cookbook, Rasika: The Flavors of India, from the library. The treasure trove of recipes includes more traditional Indian fare, like the rich biryani with saffron-soaked rice, as well as some inventive ones, like a spicy vegetarian spin on “Indian lasagna,” and so far, all of them have proven delicious. This weekend, I’m hoping to get the whole family involved in making mint parathas and Kashmiri cinnamon salmon.
 
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