I grew up knowing I was related to Robert E. Lee. He was my first cousin, five times removed. My father spoke of how proud his father had been to be the grandson of a Lee. Another relative wrote a book about our ancestor with very little mention of the family’s enslaved. At the same time, we all knew that slavery was an abomination, but we never talked about our part in it. How did we reconcile these opposites from one generation to the next? How much emotional energy did it take to suppress the knowledge of terrible wrongdoing? Does this explain our family history of depression and anxiety?
My fourth great grandfather and Robert E. Lee’s uncle, Richard Bland Lee, served in the U.S. Congress as Northern Virginia’s first Congressman beginning at age 24. Two years later when his father died, Richard inherited 29 people and 1500 acres at Sully Plantation, near what is now Dulles Airport. The enslaved were listed by name and market value. There was John of Henry (or Henry’s son), valued at 80 pounds, Sam the Blacksmith, also 80 pounds, Nancy of Prue (or Prue’s daughter), 20 pounds. There was Old Dewey, said to be “of no value,” and 25 more men, women, and children. Over the next 24 years, Richard bought and sold many, many more people. For example, in 1806, he sold a man named Natt, aged 19, for $349. Later that year, he bought Rachel, her child, and “their increase” for $220.