I was born and raised right up the road in Alexandria- and I know this may sound like I’m pandering to the audience- but I promise this is true. I probably shouldn’t be admitting this.
A few years ago, I worked as an assistant for Alexandria Mayor Jacques Roy. Many of y’all probably know Jacques Chances are: Many of y’all are probably related to him. All the time, folks from out of town would ask me, “Where’s the best restaurant in Alexandria?” I should disclose that, even though I wore many hats in my job with the Mayor, my official title was “publicist.” But whenever I got asked that question, I couldn’t help myself. “The best restaurant in Alexandria,” I’d say, “is called the Red River Grill, and it’s about 35 minutes south in Marksville.”
Although I am Sue Eakin’s great nephew and, therefore, Frank’s second cousin, I am actually here as a representative of the Tanner family. My sixth great-grandfather was Robert Tanner.
Robert died more than a decade before Solomon Northup arrived here in Central Louisiana, but his children- my family- became an important part of Solomon’s life in more ways than one.
Indeed, it is impossible to tell the story of slavery in Central Louisiana or the history of the Bayou Bouef without mentioning Robert Tanner and his wife, my sixth great grandmother, Providence Robert.
We are here to remember and reflect on our shared history and to acknowledge the ways in which our lives are connected. For many of us, those connections were first forged by force and unspeakable brutality more than a 150 years ago.
Now, I am not here to deliver a lecture, but I think it’s important, on this day, with all of us gathered here together, to talk a little bit about my family and the history of the Bayou Boeuf. And I imagine that if my Aunt Sue were here today, she’d probably agree— not just because she was the passionate caretaker and custodian of so much of this history, but also because she understood history’s power over the present.
In 1811, a man named William Fendon Cheney from a small town in South Carolina settled right down the road, on the banks of the bayou. Two years later, Cheney had recruited more than 100 others from South Carolina to settle here with him, and as my Aunt Sue discovered, they all had one thing in common.
Quoting from Sue’s book on the history of Rapides Parish:
“They (the migrants) were all either descendants or family members through marriage of Rev. Pierre Robert, a French Hugenot, who had settled in South Carolina on the Santee River in the late 1600s. Peter Robert was the head of the clan with his son-in-law , Robert Tanner, who moved to the area on the Boeuf where Cheney had already settled. The Hugenot descendants had stopped off east of the Mississippi for nearly a decade–time enough for Robert Tanner to survey and lay out Woodville , Mississippi, found Beaulah Baptist Church, and leave some of the clan to move west.”
Robert Tanner, his wife Providence, their four small children, and his slaves had actually left South Carolina more than eight years before their arrival in Louisiana, wandering around the American South, on wagons and boats they had built themselves— or, put more precisely, on wagons and boats that were most assuredly built by Tanner’s slaves.
But Robert Tanner didn’t make his fortune in the slave trade or in farming cotton or sugarcane. That’s how his children made their fortunes. Actually, I’m not even sure Robert ever was a particularly wealthy man, but I know this: Although it may have not been understood at the time of his death at the age of 70 in 1839, Robert Tanner was actually one of the most consequential figures in the shameful history of slavery in Louisiana.
Because Robert Tanner was, first and foremost, a surveyor. And, as a surveyor, he didn’t just draw maps, he designed the contours and the boundaries of practically every single plantation along the Bayou Bouef. That made him immensely powerful, and perhaps not surprisingly, he used his power to provide for his children and family members.
“Plantations were laid out on both sides of the Boeuf,” Sue Eakin writes, “many belonging to Tanners, members of the large family of Robert and Providence Tanner, as well as other migrating kinsmen by the same name.”
Some of the plantations, like Walnut Grove and Witchwood, still stand today.
As a descendant of Tanner, it’s challenging to know what, exactly, I should make of this inheritance. And don’t get me wrong: I am not talking about money or land or anything of economic value, because whatever fortune his family may have once possessed had been exhausted generations ago, well before even my great-great grandparents walked on this corner of the planet.
I’m talking about the inheritance of privilege. I think about the African-Americans who came, against their will, with my family down here in Louisiana, about their families and their descendants.
Robert Tanner was buried under an elaborate headstone, and although the original marker has long since crumbled, his and his families’ graves are still maintained- at least occasionally- by some of my relatives. And I know that this is an exercise of humility and compassion and decency. But I also recognize that although Robert Tanner’s story is known and although his family, 175 years after his death, still remembers and honors his resting place, so many other stories never been told, and so many other graves have been lost back to the earth, never to be discovered or remembered or honored.
The next time you hear a white person like me argue that a certain slavemaster or plantation owner around here was a good and decent and Christian man or that his slaves lived in clean and decent quarters— all things that well-intentioned folks told the national and international media after the release of the movie last year, just remember: There’s another, maybe two more, maybe a dozen more, maybe even a 100 more versions of the story, versions that we may never know because most slaves were illiterate and kept purposely uneducated. No one who owned a plantation along Bayou Bouef was a saint or royalty. They were all deeply flawed human beings who refused to acknowledge what most of our country had already resolved: The basic idea that human beings are people, not property.
“History,” William Churchill once said, “is written by the victors.”
Today, I am proud to be here with the descendants of Solomon’s family. I am immensely proud of the work of my Aunt Sue and of my cousin Frank. This is a first step. The more stories that are told and unlocked and discovered through projects like these, the more able we are redefine “the victors.”
Remember, Solomon’s story is not just exceptional because it is riveting and horrific and miraculous all at the same time; Solomon’s story is exceptional because it is known.
Thank you so much.