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Kristi Thomas Boyce: Reparations, and the family history we don’t talk about

(Photo courtesy of Kristi Thomas Boyce) The Santaquin City Cemetery, where Mary Lee, ancestor of Kristi Thomas Boyce, is buried. Her close friend, an escaped slave named Chloe, could not be buried nearby because she was black.

On Feb. 23, 2020, a black man went jogging in Georgia and never came back.

Unarmed and innocent, he was shot by two white men at point-blank range. For months, Ahmaud Arbery’s killers were free men — no charges, no arrests. That changed last week when a video of the murder was released.

In the United States, the debate on reparations often ends in blur. The facts, however, are unambiguous.

The Constitution declared black people three-fifths of one person. Their bodies mattered as representation, but their voices did not. They were denied the vote back then, and even today, voter suppression laws and gerrymandering abets systemic disenfranchisement. Racist housing policies kept them from property, and drug wars kept them in prison.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did not deem black people worthy of salvation until 1978.

Our nation was built — consciously, violently — on black suffering. It is our deepest collective shame.

We see it in the polls: Only 15% of white people support paid reparations. The case for reparations has been made repeatedly, yet we dither. We pontificate the price in an endless loop of do-nothing feel-goodery.

What is the price of indifference? I do not know, but Ahmaud Arbery paid it.

For black Americans, our nation’s legacy of racism is not a chapter in a textbook. It is their legacy, and that of their mothers, fathers, grandparents. It is not theory. It is family history.

Many people in my Mormon faith possess a transformative tool for reparations: well-kept family histories. For white members, these can be deep wells of empathy. But we must look past pioneer heroics to drink stories never told at the pulpit.

I’ll start.

I owe my life to my fifth great-grandmother’s slave. Mammy Chloe, as she was called, nursed her son Sammy and my ancestor Mary Lee at the same time. Before Sammy was born, Master Lee sold Chloe’s husband up the Cumberland River (“ma lovin’ man Sam,” Chloe called him). Master Lee’s wife — a kind woman who pitied Chloe — tried to buy Sam back. As he swam back from the river raft to his wife and newborn son, Sam drowned.

Seventeen years later, Mary lay in bed sobbing. She wanted to marry a Mormon, and her father did not approve. Chloe knew the pain of love lost. Rocking Mary in her arms, she told the story of losing Sam: “We don’t want nothin’ like that to happen to you, honey.” With Mary’s mother, they made a plan.

Young Sammy saddled two horses. In the dead of night, Chloe and Mary met her paramour at moonrise, and fled Kentucky on horseback. They found a preacher in a small Missouri town the next day. Chloe was their wedding’s only witness.

She never saw Sammy again.

When Mary’s husband died of tuberculosis, Chloe helped her cross the plains with two young children.

“She softened all my hardships wherever she could,” wrote Mary. “I taught her to read, and she often remarked ‘I’d be willin’ honey to be skinned alive if I could just go in that temple.’”

In the next paragraph, Mary writes: “I am a descendant of Henry Lee, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and second cousin of Robert E. Lee, of which I am proud.”

We the people, in order to form a more perfect union, have reparative power. Let us give not just of time and talents, but of money and justice. Ask not what your country can do for descendants of slaves. We are all descendants.

Their legacy is our own. This is our family history.

Kristi Thomas Boyce

Kristi Thomas Boyce is a Utah native, Brigham Young University alumna and writer. She lives in New York City. Read more at Gemini Mind, or find her on social: @yokizzi.

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