Occasionally in life, we are met with an experience that changes us. Sometimes that experience is simple, quiet, and profound. Other times it shakes us, heart and soul, and leaves an unforgettable imprint in our minds that changes the way we view life.
For me, it happened just over a week after we adopted our son.
Robert had been with us since he was only a few months old. Now two and a half, the waiting was finally behind us, and he was legally ours. Less than twenty-four hours after the court proceedings, we set out on what we called “Robert’s Adoption Tour”—a two-week road trip down south with our three sons in tow. Traveling with two toddlers and an infant was slow going, but we made several stops to see friends and family and within a few days, ended up in Charleston, South Carolina.
We were instantly enamored with the culture, charm, and history in Charleston. The people were unfailingly friendly, from the wealthy residents to the homeless man standing on a street corner. They enveloped us with their warmth. We spent the week basking in the sunshine, exploring the city market, and letting the boys get as dirty as they pleased on the sandy beach.
On our last afternoon in Charleston, we visited the McLeod Plantation — a 37-acre former cotton plantation that recently opened as a public historic site.
My husband, Jordan, and I love history, but we didn’t want to simply tour a grand old house. We wanted to learn about the former enslaved people who lived and worked there. We wanted to pay them respect on behalf of our son–a beautiful, brown-skinned little boy. We chose McLeod because of its commitment to tell the stories of the former residents of the land—black and white, free and enslaved.
Our boys were still sleepy-eyed from their afternoon naps when we pulled them out of their car seats and began to walk around the plantation grounds. Almost immediately, a chill settled into my bones and a sickened feeling entered the pit of my stomach. I clung tightly to Robert’s little hand and opened myself up to the emotions I knew I needed to feel.
The grounds were breathtaking. A large two-story plantation house sat far back on the spacious green lawn, tall white columns giving it a look of pride, wealth, and importance. Rows of tall oak trees draped in ethereal Spanish moss led up to the steps of the house. Visions of Gone With The Wind swept my mind, with elegant ladies wearing elaborate hoop skirts, and dashing gentlemen riding horses around the plantation.
But like a puff of smoke, those visions were gone, and I could see only one thing—my son, in all his innocence and wonder, happily trotting by my side and taking in all there was to see. Suddenly I was transported back to 1851, and there were dozens more children like Robert, but they weren’t carefree and happy. They were enslaved, working hard from the time they could walk, born as another man’s property without basic human rights or freedoms.
As we walked through the grand house, I didn’t envision the elegant ladies anymore. I looked at the old original fireplaces and thought of the little black girl who would have been there before dawn, scrubbing them and starting the fires before the occupants of the house arose. I thought of the house slaves who would have kept that beautiful mansion spotless, a daunting task. I felt sickened by the opulence, knowing it was in stark contrast to the poverty in which the enslaved people lived.
I was relieved to step out of the house, yet the sick feeling in my stomach deepened as we made our way to the slave lodgings, a long row of white-washed structures that stood surprisingly close to the main house. They were tiny, one-room cabins, smaller than my living room, with rough floors, bare walls, and simple stone fireplaces. We walked slowly past the small dwellings, looking through the doors and windows. I held the hands of my black son on one side, and my white son on the other.
By this time, the plantation was closing, so we started walking back to our car. Robert was hopping along beside me, still holding my hand. He stopped to ask me a question, and as I looked down into his large brown eyes, I was overcome with emotion. I picked him up, pulled him into a tight embrace, and began to sob.
I cried in sorrow for all the evils that had been done in this country to people whose only mark against them was the color of their skin. I cried in thankfulness for the courage of the men and women who fought for their freedom.
I kissed Robert’s face over and over, amazed that we were standing on the very land where once white people had owned and oppressed black people, yet here we were 150 years later, a family made up of both races.
When we adopted Robert, he became our son. But not only did all of our ancestors become his through adoption, his ancestors became ours.
I suddenly felt an incredible oneness with the people who lived and worked as slaves in our country. They are my people now, too. My heart swelled with gratefulness to them, and I wept an apology for all the wrongs our nation had committed against them.
In that moment, the contrast between what was and what now is became clear. Before 1860, Robert would have been a slave; now he is a treasured son. Thank you to the men and women who made that possible. Thank you to Syphx, Beck, Tony, Ben, Molly, Abram, William, York, and Rosie, who had the courage to run away from McLeod Plantation to seek freedom in 1862, and to the thousands of other enslaved people across the South who did the same. Thank you to those who ran the Underground Railroad and risked their lives to help others reach freedom. Thank you to the abolitionists, the civil rights leaders, the soldiers and politicians and the simple, everyday good people who did what was right.
Because of you, Robert can be ours.
But most especially, I say thank you to the millions of enslaved people who lived and worked and died in this country with no reward. You are my people now. One of your descendants is my son. I promise to take good care of him, to raise him to value and respect all people regardless of race or color. I promise to teach my children your history, THEIR history, so that they never forget.
You are not forgotten, dear ones. Your courage, your lives, your pain—they mean something. They have power and influence. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you. And for my son, I thank you.
More posts you might like:
The Labor of Becoming a Parent – Birth and Adoption
How We Got Started in Foster Care
Why We are Choosing Day One