Records offer murky view into Affleck’s ancestor and slavery

17 May 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Ben Affleck’s slave-owning family tree: records sketch a conflicted past.

A family death in 1858 left Ben Affleck’s great-great-great grandfather with legal custody of his mother-in-law’s most valuable property – her slaves. This photo taken May 1, 2015, shows the burial site of Benjamin Cole, the great-great-great grandfather of actor Ben Affleck, in Laurel Grove Cemetery in Savannah, Ga. Here’s how The Associated Press, using census records and other documents, connected Affleck and Cole — men born more than 150 years apart. —1857: Benjamin L.

Public records show Cole and his wife owned at least one slave and Cole held at least two dozen slaves temporarily as a legal trustee for other family members. Evidence that Cole owned slaves drove Affleck to ask PBS and Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates to remove his relative from a TV program exploring Affleck’s family tree.(AP Photo/Russ Bynum)The Associated PressThis May 7, 2015 photo shows an archival document made available by the Chatham County Probate Court, Ga., showing the appraised dollar value of slaves owner by Ann S. After Affleck’s actions became public in April, the Argo actor and director identified the relative as Benjamin Cole on Twitter. “I didn’t want any television show about my family to include a guy who owned slaves,” Affleck said in a Facebook post on 21 April. “I was embarrassed.

The very thought left a bad taste in my mouth.” Nineteenth century documents offer a window into the life of the Hollywood star’s ancestor and put Benjamin Cole right at the center of the South’s reckoning with slavery. Nearly 144 years before he was dismissed by his great-great-great grandson as an embarrassment, Cole was praised as a “universally respected” citizen by the Savannah Morning News after he died on 16 November 1871. His nearly a decade as the top law enforcement official in one of the South’s most important cities started before the Civil War, when slavery was a way of life, continued throughout the war, when its citizens were fighting to maintain slavery, and ended years after the Confederates surrendered, when tensions between newly freed slaves and whites desperate to maintain control coursed through the city. “Slavery touched everything. Savannah surrendered to the Union in December 1864 and the Confederate army itself surrendered the following April, forcing the South to yield to the abolition of slavery.

Sheriff Cole was left to keep the peace between fearful, resentful whites and freed blacks demanding access to the ballot and other citizenship rights. The Savannah Daily News and Herald reported Cole personally placed white caps over the men’s faces before releasing the trapdoor beneath their feet. A year later, during Cole’s final months as sheriff, the newspaper reported a courthouse clash between Cole’s men and military authorities as crowds of freed blacks tried to vote in an election. “Sheriff Cole’s Bailiff, who was there by virtue of orders from Headquarters, was thrust out at the point of a bayonet in the hands of an irate corporal,” the newspaper said.

Estate records show Cole’s heirs received another $1,000 from the Georgia Legislature as compensation for unpaid services during Cole’s time as sheriff. Cole still served as a deputy sheriff at the time of his 1871 death, which newspapers attributed to “consumption of the bowels.” Though his birth date isn’t precisely known, Cole lived about 57 years.

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