Slavery ended in the United States in 1865, but its legacy has loomed large over the nation ever since. In 1997, journalist Sana Butler set out to explore what impact slavery had on those who were only one generation removed. Her experiences are the subject of a new book, Sugar of the Crop: My Journey to Find the Children of Slaves.
Butler initially thought the focus would be slavery, and her first few interviews were framed with that in mind. But as she interviewed men and women in their 80s, 90s and older, she learned that they thought of their parents as mothers and fathers, not former slaves.
"They all had the same upbringing from their parents, the idea that 'you need to be big,'" Butler says, quoting Walter Scott, whom she interviewed in Virginia. "[He] said his mom told him, 'you need to be big, you need to get an education, you need to be somebody.'"
That reminded her of her own parents, which was something she had not expected.
What Butler expected to find was anger and hostility, or evidence of dysfunction, a result of "post traumatic slave syndrome," a term that was used a lot in the 1990s, when she began the project. "Post traumatic slave syndrome, in my mind, comes from the idea that slaves were so traumatized by their experience that they weren't able to move past it," Butler says. "[It] has been credited for violence, low-income, single-parent families and crime."
Butler found that the men and women she interviewed had not been raised by people who were traumatized. They were motivated to move forward and raise their children much the same way immigrants to the United States usually raise their sons and daughters.
"There was a genuine commitment to want to better their lives," she says. "They had grandiose hopes and dreams, not necessarily for themselves, but more so for their children."
Butler did find children who succeeded in big ways, like Crispus Attucks Wright, a self-made millionaire who was the second black lawyer to practice in Beverly Hills, California. His father was born a slave on a Louisiana plantation.
Above all, she found people who believed in education and family. Their stories are interwoven with her own. Butler's father was battling cancer while she was conducting the interviews. His death led her to ponder the loss of her own family history. "To this day, I don't think I will ever be able to find all of the information that my dad took to his grave," she says. "If there is one thing I encourage people to do, it is to talk to [older family members] about their history, because once they die, it is gone."
When Butler began doing interviews for her book, Sugar of the Crop, some people told her that history was already gone. "It's a generation everyone thought was dead." She considers herself fortunate that she had no trouble finding people of that generation, using black churches and senior centers in the south as her starting point.
However, because Butler was funding the project herself and had to pay as she went, she says several potential interviewees died before she could afford to travel and meet them. By the time her book went to print, she thought she had exhausted her search.
She was pleasantly surprised to discover there are more who may want to share their stories. "President Obama [named] children of slaves both in his inauguration and his acceptance speech," she says, "and I didn't find either of those [people]."
Hoping to talk with more children of slaves, Sana Butler is setting up a foundation to fund her search and travels. Time, she says, is running out.