Virtual columnist talk to explore slavers | News, Sports, Jobs

A few years ago I took Henry Louis Gates and his television program “Finding Your Roots” to task for his role in obscuring that actor Ben Affleck had ancestors who were slavers.

If the show had operated under traditional journalistic ethics, Gates would have been canned, but of course this was television and the ethics are fungible at best and routinely non-existent.

I was of the opinion at the time that slavery was discussed when I went to school “tsk, tsked” the South and gave a pass to the North.

Since then, the whole discussion of slavery – and I agree with the semantic changes to emphasize the humanity of enslaved people as well as the immorality of “own” other human beings – began to grow more vigorous.

And when the discussion moves not only to the role of people in the North, but also to my ancestors the Pennsylvania Germans, well, that puts it squarely in my wheelhouse.

This was the impetus for me to volunteer to present a virtual conference titled “Pennsylvania’s German Slaves: Launching a Reexamination” for the Historical Society of Pennsylvania next month.

In doing so, I do not seek to cast shade or shame my ancestors. They did what they did and in the same vein as if I had a murderous multi-great-grandfather (I don’t know…at least who I know of!), I’m a big proponent of letting the story speak straight.

One of the main aims of the presentation will be to run through the full range of documents in which enslaved people might be mentioned, including some that have recently been rediscovered by scholars.

And as the title suggests, I see the conference as a group of starting points for discussion rather than a group that comes to conclusions.

Over the years I have found at least one direct line ancestor who held slaves (Nicolaus Kintzer of Tulpehocken Township, Berks County) and a few collateral relatives who were also slaveholders (the most prominent of these was Joseph Hiester, my “first cousin, six times distant,” who was a congressman and later governor of Pennsylvania). There are probably more and this is part of the research I hope to undertake as part of the review.

And although, as I wrote earlier, I do not dispute the “What” Pennsylvania Germans as slavers, the “Why” is another such starting point that intrigues me.

The answer to why is it as simple as racism or simply “Follow the money?” Or is it worth exploring what seems to be the conundrum that some Pennsylvania Germans, who were mostly serfs in Europe, decided that some humans in America deserved even lesser status?

To register for the Pennsylvania Historical Society program “Pennsylvania’s German Slaves: Launching a Reexamination”, go to the URL, The $10 registration fee is waived for friends of HSP as well as members of the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania.

Beidler is a freelance writer and speaker on genealogy. Contact him by email at [email protected] Like him on Facebook (James M. Beidler).

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Angela C. Hale