AT THE SAME TIME THAT ALMON WAS TRYING TO OFFER THE BEREAVED SOLACE… ANOTHER OF BEN’S ANCESTORS WAS LIVING 800 MILES DUE SOUTH. WE LEARNED THAT HIS LIFE HAD ALSO BEEN FUNDAMENTALLY AFFECTED BY THE CIVIL WAR—BUT FOR VERY DIFFERENT REASONS.
THIS MAN WAS BEN’S THIRD GREAT GRANDFATHER, BENJAMIN COLE, AND HE WAS LIVING IN SAVANNAH, GEORGIA AT THE TIME.
COLE WAS ONE OF SAVANNAH’S MOST PROMINENT CITIZENS—A WEATLHY LAND OWNER AND THE SHERIFF OF THE ENTIRE COUNTY.
AFFLECK: That’s amazing. I got a…we have a house in Savannah.
GATES: Did it ever occur to you that you had deep roots there?
AFFLECK: No, it didn’t. It didn’t at all. I had no idea I had any southern roots at all, so this is remarkable.
COLE OWNED A LARGE FARM IN GEORGIA AT A TIME WHEN SLAVE LABOR HAD MADE THE STATE THE CENTER OF THE SOUTH’S COTTON KINGDOM.
WE WANTED TO SEE IF WE COULD LEARN HOW BEN’S ANCESTOR FELT ABOUT THIS PECULIAR INSTITUTION.
AND FOR THAT, WE STARTED WITH THE 1850 CENSUS.
GATES: This is the slave schedule of the 1850 Census. In 1850, they would list the owner of slaves in a separate Census.
AFFLECK: There’s Benjamin Cole, owned 25 slaves.
GATES: Your third great-grandfather owned 25 slaves. He was a slave owner.
THESE HOLDINGS PUT BENJAMIN COLE AMONG THE SOUTHERN ELITE.
ONLY ABOUT 10% OF ALL SLAVE HOLDERS OWNED 20 SLAVES OR MORE.
AFFLECK: God. It gives me kind of a sagging feeling to see, uh, a biological relationship to that. But, you know, there it is, part of our history.
GATES: But consider the irony, uh, in your family line. Your mom went back fighting for the rights of black people in Mississippi, 100 years later. That’s amazing.
AFFLECK: That’s pretty cool.
GATES: That’s pretty cool.
AFFLECK: Yeah, it is. One of the things that’s interesting about it is like we tend to separate ourselves from these things by going like, you know, oh, well, it’s just dry history, and it’s all over now, and this shows us that there’s still a living aspect to history, like a personal connection.
By the same token, I think it’s important to recognize that, um, in looking at these histories, how much work has been done by people in this country, of all kinds, to make it a better place.
GATES: People like your mother.
AFFLECK: Indeed, people like my mother and many others who have made a much better America than the one that they were handed.