RUSSELLVILLE, Ky. — That morning, I took my measure of the place. I toured the former Bibb plantation house turned museum and explored the nearby work cabins. I paid attention to the ways the ground shifted beneath my feet. By early afternoon, I’d settled in the community room to talk with the museum director who got the idea to bring together the descendants of the slave owners and the enslaved when some of the white families arrived for a tour. I heard their voices in distant parts of the house and sensed the anger rise in my throat. It was dark, sudden, impolite. I was not ready to meet these people. They had done nothing to me, yet I felt as if they had.
Do not come in here, I warned silently.
Their voices got closer and I grew more anxious, though you wouldn’t have known by looking at me. We wear the mask. But it felt like mine was about to slip.
I had joked with the only Bibb cousins I’d ever known that we were being lured into a trap. But now, the trap was real. It was all plantation houses and the ghosts of black people and white voices coming closer. I had stepped into a house of mirrors. I wanted to escape.
A couple of could-be-relatives reached out to shake my hand, and I extended mine to them as well.
Why had they come? I wondered.
Lord, why had I?
The Bibb House was built around 1815 in this small Western Kentucky town about an hour north of Nashville, Tennessee. It was originally home to Maj. Richard Bibb, an officer in the Revolutionary War, his second wife and the scores of people they enslaved. In 1832, Bibb sent 31 of them to Liberia. When he died in 1839, his will freed 65 others, who were also given money and land. His white descendants included a U.S. senator and the originator of Bibb lettuce.
Granville Clark, a lawyer and president of Historic Russellville Inc., and genealogist and museum director Michael Morrow began restoring Bibb House nearly a decade ago. Along with four other historic buildings located in Russellville’s Black Bottom, an area settled by freed black people before the Civil War, it became part of the SEEK Museum (Struggles for Emancipation and Equality in Kentucky).
Clark once fought to the Kentucky Supreme Court for the Bibb House, which had changed hands several times, to be a public charitable trust and hoped it could serve as “a realistic memorial to the Old South.” But deciding what that means is a whole different fight. And not simply with white people.
I did not know if I had it in me.
The invitation to come to Russellville had kicked around Facebook for months before I saw it. It was the first reunion of the descendants of Richard Bibb and the descendants of the people he enslaved and emancipated.
My first thoughts came out in a string of curse words. Miss me on those plantation happenings, I told my cousins, but part of me couldn’t let it go. My father’s mother was Susie Bibb, and this was the first time I’d heard a word about her people. The first time I’d ever heard tell of any such thing as white Bibbs. A couple of white descendants were working on a documentary and would be filming at the reunion. I felt the ground shifting beneath me as I considered my options.
I have constructed a life with the resources and standing that allow me to encounter white people on my own terms — to decide for myself when and where I enter. But the Bibb reunion would be a departure from that. It represented something aching and unresolved that put me and mine on the shoulders falling down like teardrops side of a power dynamic. Something painful and frightening.
Clark emailed me a photo of Catherine Bibb — or Granny Kate, as she was known — taken around 1900, when she would have been in her early 60s, and said we might be related. Of all the money and land left to the enslaved people who Bibb freed when he died at 86, Catherine, who was 3 at the time, was given the most: 250 acres. That preferential treatment supports the family oral history that she was Richard Bibb’s daughter.
Granny Kate was fair-skinned, with straight dark hair. She founded a school and a church on the land given to the formerly enslaved on the outskirts of Russellville, in what became known as Bibbtown, where she acted as the unofficial mayor. Granny Kate looked like my grandmother, Momma Susie.
She stared out from the photo and I felt implicated in her gaze. Dead black people are always judging. Having put their own burdens down, they’re always asking the rest of us what we’re going to do.
I can read stories of the white Bibbs in American history books. But my black grandmother isn’t in those books. Susie Bibb was an American original, and she demands to be accounted for and remembered.
Susie was one of nine siblings raised in the coal mining and railroad town of Centralia, Illinois. She was the smartest of them all in math, she used to say, but the family had no money for college. So she wept bitter tears and got married at 18.
My grandfather was a hotel chef who eventually opened a restaurant and tavern in the black part of town. My grandmother, who specialized in making pastries from scratch, worked there when she was younger. But I rarely remember her leaving the house as I got older, and rarely smiling. My grandparents’ front door was never locked, and a steady stream of people would walk in, morning to night, and stand before Momma Susie to ask for money to pay bills, to buy diapers, to tide them over until payday. If she liked the terms — high interest rates or food stamps, as I recall — she’d leave the room to reach under her mattress for money. If she didn’t like the terms, she’d tell them she didn’t have it.
She never used any kind of muscle. She simply never lent again to anyone who didn’t repay her.
Momma Susie doted on the dogs, which she cooked breakfast for and might bite her grandkids if we got too close. So she’d yell at us, reasonably, to get our damned asses out of their way. She’d warn us, too, about men, husbands especially, or sometimes white people. But mostly she’d preach — often in loud, compound expletives — about the importance of college, about getting your education so you didn’t have to depend on anyone, and about having your own money. She was a bitter black woman, and she spoke bitter black words into three generations of college graduates and postgraduates.
Momma Susie’s black family is not to be mistaken for that of the white sons of Richard Bibb: pro-slavery U.S. Sen. George M. Bibb turned Treasury Secretary Bibb, or John Bigger Bibb, who developed Bibb lettuce.
Lord, don’t you get mad about it — there was a U.S. Coast Guard cutter Bibb, but Susie Bibb loan-sharked in her pajamas from an armchair in her living room for most of my childhood.
These facts are always in historical conversation. Seven generations from Maj. Richard Bibb, these facts remain grafted onto us. They were the fire last time. They are the fire this time. They explain almost everything.
Richard Bibb fought with the Virginia militia in the Revolutionary War, after which he inherited land and enslaved people. He moved to Lexington, Kentucky, where he was a land speculator and acquired around 200,000 acres from Kentucky to Arkansas. He later moved to Logan County, where the former Episcopalian became a Methodist lay minister with anti-slavery leanings. He grew tobacco, had a whisky still, raced horses and became one of the richest men in Western Kentucky. When his first wife died, he and his second wife moved from the country into Russellville. He was heavily involved in the American Colonization Society, which sought to send black people “back” to Africa, where the people he’d enslaved had never been. (On the 1832 trip to Liberia, a number of children died of cholera before they got there.)
His will, which freed everyone he’d enslaved, also gave them tools, livestock, $5,000 and roughly 3,000 acres, which the executor, his son John Bigger Bibb, deeded to them 40 years later. John’s brother George wrote a legally famous letter advising him how to continue to control the money and the land.
An 1897 Louisville Courier-Journal article about Richard Bibb said:
“Since his youth he had cared for them, and before that they or their parents had belonged to his father. He believed slavery was wrong and was taking the initial step toward putting into execution a long cherished plan. He was about to send one-third of his slaves to Liberia; the others he intended to liberate at his death. He had read a chapter in the Bible and had given out a hymn, and when his prayer was finished, many a black face was bathed in tears, and the slaves gathered about and shook Old Master’s hand for the last time and heard the accent of his kindly voice.”
This idea of Bibb as an emancipator is a source of local and white Bibb family legend. It is noted on the plaque in front of Bibb House and was an animating fact of the reunion. To me, it was simply a reminder that a complex 250-year system of human trafficking and violent plunder could only be sustained by intersecting applications of pressure and release. It just meant that Richard Bibb was arguably better than some. The gauzy lore feels like the columns and porch added to the Bibb House decades after the Civil War to lend the whole enterprise an air of magnolia.
“In an old conventional view, Kentucky was supposed to be more benign in its slavery,” said Jack Glazier, author of Been Coming Through Some Hard Times: Race, History, and Memory in Western Kentucky and a retired Oberlin College anthropology professor. He calls it a self-justifying myth. “It was without question a brutal and depraved system. That’s very much the case in Western Kentucky,” where tobacco farming required large numbers of people.
After the Civil War, there was an out-migration to Illinois, said Glazier. “There’s a real story there.”
It’s the part of the story where I come in.
My cousin Marvin Vaughn, a financial analyst for an energy company in Houston, drove to the reunion with his mother, Sharon Bibb Vaughn. His grandfather, Morris, and Momma Susie were brother and sister.
As we sat in the car watching people go in and out of the Bibb House, Marvin told me a story that Morris had told him about Charlie Bibb, our great-grandfather, about whom the only thing I’d ever heard was that he was mean and yellow. “I guess he got tired of his kids talking about that they were hungry,” Marvin said. He went to the grocery store in the white part of Centralia, said his children were hungry and asked the owner if he could get some food and pay him back later. When the grocer said no, Charlie B. bagged the food anyway, and when the grocer tried to stop him, “Great-grandpa Charlie knocked him to the floor and told him, ‘Look here, I need to feed my kids. When I get the money I will repay you, and this is what I owe you.’ ”
I hadn’t known my grandmother had gone hungry. It explained some of the preoccupation with money that ran through our family. Explained other stuff as well.
Something else Uncle Morris told Marvin: His grandfather was the son of a slave owner in Kentucky. It was another story I’d never heard.
Marvin came to the reunion because something bothered him. If the white Bibbs were so wealthy, “Why did we get such s— portions?” If we had gotten a fair share, how might that have changed our lives? These are Bibb family questions, but they stretched out across America like the arms of Jesus. Marvin came to the reunion because he wanted to land on some truth and help put a face to it. “We could be a part of the family that they don’t even talk about,” he said.
And neither did we.
Two months ago, the white ancestors who hovered over my features never crossed my mind. I couldn’t name one.
But that was about to change.
Suddenly, I wanted to hear the stories. I wanted to see the documents and learn what had happened to these people and what that said about me.
The morning before the reunion, I pulled up to Michael Morrow’s research office in the Black Bottom, three blocks from the Bibb House.
“I’m Lonnae O’Neal, my people are from Centralia, Illinois,” I said to Morrow by way of introduction. “My grandmother was Susie Bibb. Her father was Charlie Bibb.”
“Her father was Charles Smith Bibb,” Morrow said, correcting me. “And his mother was Pocahontas Wright.”
Morrow held the door open for me, but I needed a minute. I had never heard my great-grandfather’s full government name. Had never heard of my great-great-grandmother at all.
Morrow, 57, was raised on stories of Bibbtown. He had a speech impediment, so he hung around old people, who were less cruel and would let you listen as long as you sat still. He dropped out of college to care for his sick mother. He worked at a neighborhood food hall, did a little bootlegging and some such, but he remained fascinated by family histories and started keeping notes. People got word and started giving him their artifacts, and telling him their stories.
In a few keystrokes, he pulls up documents where my great-great-grandfather is listed as mulatto on the 1850 census in Russellville. In 1860, he’s listed as black. By 1870, John and Pocahontas lived in Centralia, where John and Pokey, as they called her, were listed as white, and they had a 6-year-old son who’d been born in Russellville, and a 2-year old daughter and an infant son who’d both been born in Illinois, as were the seven children who followed.
“Now let’s do one more thing. Let’s go to 1900,” Morrow said and showed me a census record for Charles Smith Bibb, 13, the first name where I know where I am. Then he shows me a later census with the names of my grandmother and her siblings as children. “The amazing thing is, we got the slave documents. We can prove this all the way back to slavery,” Morrow said. To a woman named Old Keziah. But the documents also leave some unanswered questions, including the identity of John Bibb’s father. Morrow has been putting the pieces together for decades, and he thinks there’s a good chance my great-great-grandfather John was the son of one of the white Bibbs.
It was too much life to hear about in one day. And we hadn’t even gotten to the reunion, which would start the following day. I closed my eyes and pictured Granny Kate, who I asked for strength.
“I think one of the reasons why African American people tend to stay away from this is because of the trauma,” Nicka Sewell-Smith, a genealogist and consultant for Ancestry.com, told me later. (Sewell-Smith also shared that her great-great-aunt Sarah was married to a different John Bibb.) People are getting killed because of race now, “and I’m going to introduce additional trauma, historical trauma, into my life?” she asked.
It’s a history that can’t be sanitized. “So we just move away from it because it’s painful and we don’t know what to expect, and we have to check our emotions,” she said. “You don’t want to lash out at someone who’s not involved just because you don’t know how to properly process, and a lot of our experience has been to just deal with it and push it down.”
Sewell-Smith reads part of Richard Bibb’s will, which frees those he’s enslaved on Jan. 1, 1840, nearly a year after he died. Some of those emancipated seemed to sell their land, but it’s hard to say since slavery was still law and some of those who’d been emancipated were re-enslaved. John Bigger Bibb moved to Frankfort, where he continued enslaving people as he perfected his lettuce. He had agents look after the land and the formerly enslaved, doling out piecemeal the $5,000 that Richard Bibb left them and not officially handing over the property until 1881.
“There was a monetary value placed on us, and because money was involved, people were going to document things,” she said. “There’s a tangibleness of slavery that you get when you can see the names of your people associated with these enslavers.” She was plainspoken, but I had a hard time following her. I think it was because I was unable to think of my ancestors as fungible. I kept attaching them to the names of my children, then viscerally resisting the thought. I eventually succumbed to the sadness of it all.
Clark, 64, who attended segregated schools until sixth grade, calls the SEEK Museum a chance to teach a history of both slavery and emancipation that he hadn’t learned growing up.
We’re “lucky to have a site that does deal with both edges of that story,” Clark says. “It wasn’t emancipation that was as pure and as perfect as you want it to be, but it lets us talk about these things.” He thinks America may finally be ready to have these conversations. But I have my doubts. I am reminded of recent stories of white anger over talk of slavery, also known as American history, during plantation tours. (This, by the way, is partially why black people prefer to sit with each other at lunch.)
From 1883 to 1908, 14 people were lynched in Logan County, the second most in Kentucky. In 2008, Morrow put up an exhibit about the 1908 lynching of four men in Russellville that led to a change in postal laws to prevent people from sending postcards of hanging, swinging, charred bodies through the mail. The men killed hadn’t been involved in the argument over wages that had left a white overseer dead; they simply passed a resolution at their local hall to help the accused raise money for a lawyer.
Morrow got a call when somebody finally cut down the “lynching tree” 20 years ago.
The night before the reunion, as part of Western Kentucky’s annual 8th of August emancipation celebration, a statue of Alice Allison Dunnigan, the first black female journalist credentialed to cover the White House, was unveiled in Russellville’s Black Bottom neighborhood, which is on the National Register of Historic Places but had a tough time getting the city to pay for streetlights and sewers. Several of Russellville’s elected officials were there. None of them is black. Of the nearly 7,000 residents of Russellville, nearly 20% are black, and more than half of those residents live below the poverty line.
The Black Bottom sits on a flood plain and has a history of getting deluged. A half-mile away, the Confederate Monument, erected in 1910, which is also on the National Register, sits atop a pedestal.
Sometimes, white people tell themselves fictions, but they need us to play along. When we disbelieve them or don’t co-sign, they turn punitive or murderous. And that’s why we didn’t believe them in the first place.
“I don’t want everybody to come together and have a Kumbaya moment,” Morrow said of the reunion. “Our people have had so many Kumbaya moments. I want everybody to come together and be real about what has happened. If they are real, maybe people can go back and start changing things.”
They are asking for our truth, I told Morrow, but I don’t think they really want to hear it.
“I don’t think it makes any difference whether they want to hear it or not,” he replied.
Rachel Knight and her brother, Jonathan, are descendants of Richard Bibb’s daughter, Lucy Slaughter, and grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Their grandmother chronicled their family history in the 1960s with a lengthy entry on the major. After the 2017 white supremacy rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that left a young woman dead, Rachel, a doctoral student at Teachers College, Columbia University, wanted to learn more about their family history. Jonathan, a filmmaker, was looking to make his first documentary. A woman they’d known growing up happened to be a professor of African American studies at the University of Kentucky and connected them with a black doctoral student and journalist to help produce it.
“Our country hasn’t dealt with issues of our country being founded on slavery,” Rachel Knight said. And neither had their family. “Our family had a history of enslaving people,” but growing up in the North, “we don’t talk about that history that much.” When she found her grandmother’s entry about Richard Bibb, “I was like, well, why isn’t that a story that we talked about?” When she learned the Bibb House was still standing, she and her brother brainstormed about adding something meaningful.
Morrow and others questioned the siblings about the proposed documentary before agreeing to cooperate. “I trusted them to do what’s right,” Morrow said. I had no such trust. As a journalist, I’m always on the lookout for the ways whiteness, power and self-interest align.
I told Jonathan Knight I’d only learned there were white Bibbs a few weeks before and he seemed surprised. “I don’t mean this to sound harsh,” I told him, “but you all aren’t centered in our lives.”
He and his sister worried a film could seem exploitative, so they were trying to listen to criticism and challenge their own privilege. “Of course it’s hard,” he said. “But I really want to be up for doing it.”
“In my experience, white people don’t have the muscle for this conversation,” I said. Jonathan assured me that they did. I decided to take him at his word.
I noted that they’d asked my cousin, attorney and author Traci Ellis, to facilitate a discussion about race, and that white people were good for asking black people to do work — physical, emotional, spiritual — for free. “Black people are always you all’s raw material,” I said. The “you all” wasn’t specifically Jonathan and Rachel. It was a collective, a cohort of whiteness, organized in a system of racialized privilege. The royal you all.
Rachel owned her house in Brooklyn, New York, and I pointed out that my daughter lived in a Brooklyn townhouse split into three apartments where she splits her rent with two roommates. I felt angry, though she had done nothing to me. So few white people show up for these conversations that the ones who do come in for a lot of the work of the race. I wondered aloud if we were going to talk reparations.
After hours of talking, Rachel, who hadn’t been feeling well all day, looked peaked, and I felt for her. “It’s a lot, I know,” I said. “It’s a lot for us too.”
Speaking our racial truth can feel physically, socially or financially unsafe. There’s a wide berth we often give white people so as not to make them uncomfortable or angry. But in the shadow of the Bibb House, I couldn’t do it. The black ghosts of Russellville weren’t having it.
I don’t know if she got it. But I finally understood why I’d come to the reunion: to give the white Bibbs, as stand-ins for the people who baked inequality into America, their bags to carry. And all their crosses to bear. The ones that have been forced on black people that rightfully belong to the whole nation.
The morning of the Bibb reunion, I wore a green dress to remind me of the green chair my grandmother sat in as she received borrowers. I lingered in the hotel parking lot praying to Momma Susie that I might represent her at this gathering.
Chairs and tables covered the front lawn and dozens of people, black and white, from 28 states, were milling about, with more steadily arriving. The center hall of the Palladian-style Bibb House museum features two pairs of iron shackles under glass that were found in the dirt on the grounds. In an adjacent room, a copy of an enlarged notice hangs on the wall: “One or two likely Negro boys, about 10 years old” for sale.
I forced myself to approach a middle-aged white woman in one of the upstairs rooms.
Michelle Anderson, a schoolteacher from Redlands, California, was a descendant of Lucy Booker Bibb and Thomas Slaughter. She was there with her son and daughter-in-law, both professors at Knox College in Illinois.
Her cousin took a DNA test, which is how she found out about the reunion, the documentary and Richard Bibb. The stories are powerful, “but you know it’s historically what it is, and we just embrace it to understand and, you know, make at least sense of it today.”
It all sounded perfectly reasonable, but I wanted to get away. The shackles. The 10-year-old boys for sale. The picture of Granny Kate staring at me. Minute by minute, this place felt oppressive, frightening and surreal.
I excused myself to talk to Latisha Hardy, from Louisville, Kentucky. She was there with her husband, Maurice, and their son. Until a few months ago, she hadn’t known there were white Bibbs either.
Maurice had white people in his Georgia family tree and understood the push-pull of wanting, but not wanting to be there. “It gives you feelings you don’t want to feel,” he said. “Because you know their money is built off your work.”
I sought out my cousins Ellis, from Oak Park, Illinois, and her sister, Amber Johnston, from outside Atlanta. Their late father and my late father were brothers. “This is opening up some stuff I didn’t even know I felt,” said Ellis. “I’m trying to hold that in.” To not come unglued thinking about “the wealth and the atrocities that happened in this house.”
White people kept coming up to her, “and they’re being appropriate, and wanting to talk and wanting to engage, but I feel like I need a minute,” said Ellis. “I might need forever.”
Ellis said she thought of Charlie Bibb, who had been an abusive man, and how abuse ran through the Bibb family, “and I never interrogated that further.” But now, she was thinking of “post-traumatic slave syndrome” and generational trauma. Her son, Jalen, 25, had visited the lynching exhibit the night before, and this morning he decided to stay at the hotel instead of attending the reunion.
Her sister, Johnston, said they left Atlanta three hours late because she obsessed about retwisting her nearly waist-length hair. It’s similar to how black people dressed up for demonstrations and marches. It’s part of the armor we don.
When the formal program began, Morrow talked about discovering Maj. Bibb’s will and how he’d made finding the Bibb descendants his life’s work. “The Bibb family and these Bibb slaves have went all over America and done all kinds of things,” he said. The Bibb story is “a story about race. It’s a story about family. It’s a story about slavery. It’s a story about wealth. It’s a story about abuse. It’s a story about neglect.”
Ellis stepped to the lectern on the Bibb House lawn and told the hushed crowd, “When I pulled up, voices started in my head. Normally, I don’t hear voices.” She sat alone in the house’s 110-degree attic, the sleeping and work quarters for the enslaved, and she held a quilt. Spending time in the building and on the grounds, she said, “one of the strong feelings I had was rage.” She urged us to honor our feelings and have a “courageous conversation” about race.
My cousin asked the descendants of the enslaved what they would want to say to the descendants of the slave owners. And much later, when the moment was far behind us, I thought of plenty of words.
They went like this:
We are not like you.
We are not going to do to you what you did to us.
We are not going to burn your teenagers alive or put your grandmothers to work scrubbing our floors. We won’t break every bond of fellowship or citizenship to gain advantage, and then lie to ourselves and others about how precisely we’ve hoarded privilege in every institution of American society. We won’t call the police every time we feel uncomfortable or are made to share space. You are so afraid of us, of our anger and emotion, only because you know what you would do. It’s everything you’ve already done. This is why you’re always marveling at our power to forgive, because you, yourselves, do not.
That’s what I would have said later.
But in that moment I had just two bitter words. I said them out loud. And I meant every bit of them.
My cousin Sharon whipped her head around and tried to shush me, but I just faced forward steadily. I didn’t apologize. I said what I said.
I believe it was the ghost of Susie Bibb, answering my prayers.
Ellis had us break into groups and gave us a series of questions about race. My table included Michelle Anderson’s son, Jon, a scholar of African languages and linguistics at Knox College, and his wife, Nathalie Haurberg, an astronomy and physics professor at the college.
Toward the end of the program, I asked our table if white people talked to each other about race and what they said. Anderson stood up to tell the full group his answer: “No, I don’t think those conversations really happen. I think they happen in small circles, but in general, they are missing and I think a lot of people wish it would all go away. Each of us, as the white cousins here, as I will refer to them, are only where we are in life because of our black cousins, and we need to face those privileges that we have lived with for 200 years as the result of this house and the house across the street.”
Ellis ended the program by facing the house to tell the ghosts of those enslaved by Richard Bibb that we had returned. That we were their wildest dreams.
I was spent, more invested than I’d wanted to be in desiring something meaningful to come from this gathering. I hugged those who’d sat at my table. A few white people came up to talk to me about their family, to share their opinions on race relations, what they’d done in the civil rights movement, and about the president. I could hear them better this time.
Rachel looked stronger, I thought. She was glad they had helped convene the reunion.
The next day, eight carloads of black Bibbs, the extended Knight family and a couple of others toured Bibbtown. I sat with Amber’s children on the steps of Arnold’s Chapel Church, founded by Granny Kate. The last resident of Bibbtown, Marilyn Gill, had died a few years earlier in a fire so hot it melted coins. Her nephew died of a heart attack a few weeks after that.
“Some of you all might still own property here,” Morrow told us. “More brains are better than one, and I’m hoping you all can start to sort this out.” He hoped we would help find out about every acre Maj. Bibb gave the black Bibbs and who was heir to what in 2019. That we would join the struggle for truth, and the land beneath our feet. We are each other’s harvest.
I followed Jonathan back to Russellville until it was time to turn down a different road. I pulled up alongside him. Hard to know what to say through open car windows to a man whose ancestors had enslaved yours. So we just said goodbye. I was glad to have met him. It was a start, I thought.
Or maybe it was no such thing at all.
At some point, my cousins will likely do a more sophisticated DNA test to figure out more precisely if and how we might be related to Maj. Richard Bibb, and perhaps we’ll figure out if we have a claim to some of that Bibbtown land.
But it felt like such an old fight. And at that moment I was ready to get back home to my carefully curated black life, where the ground was steady beneath my feet and the old ghosts were much more quiet.