Descendants touched by slavery come to the table

Interracial healing group returns to its roots at EMU

Jun 16, 2014 by and

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HARRISONBURG, Va. — Despite the time separating current Americans from the era of legal slavery, the wounds of racial injustice remain fresh for the descendants of slaves, especially in the face of ignorance or denial.

Participants take part in one-on-one conversations at the annual Coming to the Table gathering at Eastern Mennonite University. — Tom DeWolf/EMU

Participants take part in one-on-one conversations at the annual Coming to the Table gathering at Eastern Mennonite University. — Tom DeWolf/EMU

Those issues were at the forefront of a gathering of Coming to the Table, a national organization focused on addressing the trauma that remains 150 years after the end of slavery.

Eighty people attended the annual meeting May 23-25 at Eastern Mennonite University, a site chosen in recognition of the organization’s birth at EMU in 2006. EMU professor and restorative justice expert Howard Zehr gave a keynote talk.

Initially, Coming to the Table focused mainly on the stories of people linked by their ancestors’ relationship as enslaved people and slaveholders. But the group’s focus has expanded.

Coming to the Table follows a four-step process:

  • Uncovering and acknowledging history;
  • Making deep connections across racial lines;
  • Working toward healing together; and
  • Taking action to make systemic and institutional change to end racial inequality and injustice.

Two participants read emotionally charged poems that they exchanged after learning they were descended from the same plantation in Missouri.

A participant of European origins shared her suspicions that the systematic abuse in her family was a legacy of the psychological impact of owning slaves.

People of both races talked about their encounters with privilege and discrimination. They discussed economic and social discrimination in areas like the criminal justice system and wrestled with how to tackle these problems.

Two members of Coming to the Table — Sharon Morgan, who is black, and Tom DeWolf, who is white — met at one of its early gatherings and co-authored Gather at the Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade. The book describes their painful yet ultimately hopeful journey over a three-year period, covering thousands of miles through 27 states and beyond the U.S. borders.

“We embarked on this journey because we believe Americans must overcome the racial barriers that divide us, the barriers that drive us to strike out at one another out of ignorance and fear,” they explained in their book. “To do nothing is unacceptable to us. The legacy of slavery remains a horrendous and unhealed wound, a disease that must be diagnosed, treated and cured.”

Interviewed at the conference, Morgan, a genealogist, said Coming to the Table has “gone beyond [genetic] linkages because it is difficult for many descendants of enslaved people to find reliable genealogies.”

The idea for Coming to the Table’s 2006 launch came from Will Hairston, EMU’s supervisor of grounds, and Susan Hutchison, both white descendants of enslaving families.

Phoebe Kilby, a white woman who raises funds for EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, followed in Hairston’s footsteps and became an early member of Coming to the Table after discovering connections with the descendants of slaves on a farm owned by her ancestors. She got in touch with Betty Kilby Baldwin, an African-American woman who wrote Wit, Will and Walls. They now call each other cousins.

Initially a program of EMU, Coming to the Table has moved toward more autonomy while maintaining an EMU affiliation. It has attracted growing interest, with a mailing list of 985 people and a Facebook group with more than 1,100 members.

The name is inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic March on Washington speech, in which he prayed that the descendants of slaves and slave owners “will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”

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