Honor the ancestors

Layla Saad, in her book ME & WHITE SUPREMACY, says that she made the decision to devote herself to racial justice education and writing in order to honor her ancestors. She advises us all to choose lives that honor our ancestors. In 2003, Toni Morrison told an interviewer that her life had always involved reading books, teaching books, and starting at age 39, writing stories outside “the white gaze.” She wrote her own books, she told an interviewer, because “I didn’t want to let down my grandmother.” (Profiles: Ghosts in the House, by Hilton Als in The New Yorker 10/20/2003).

As an only child growing up far away from other family, I wanted to know more family lore and history than my parents knew (or were willing to tell). I think my true quest was for a spirit guide. I started on our rare visits to my grandmother, Ethel Finney Lybarger (1894-1969). Her house was filled with photographs of many old (deceased) people in dusty frames. She told me some of their stories, a little of her own. Her daughter, Nancy Lybarger Rhoades, knew more stories, and never threw any papers or photos away.

My family were all white immigrants, from the Rhine Valley. From Deal, England they took the Snow Betsey in 1739. Ludwick Lybarger (1735-1812) was 6 years old and spoke only German when they landed in the US. The family eventually made their way to Ohio not long after the aboriginal residents had moved west so the immigrants could move in and have the land for farming. Ludwick had two wives, 15 children, and died when he was over 90, still with good eyesight and all his own teeth!

Simple men, but true. Buying what was recently American Indian land in the new state of Ohio, farming wheat and corn.

My great-grandfather Edwin Lewis Lybarger (1840-1924) enlisted in 1862 in the 43rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry to fight for the Union in the Civil War. My grandfather Harry Swayne Lybarger (1898-1958) put a round, cold musket ball in my open palm when I was 6, beginning my long fascination with the Civil War. I was awed and proud to be related to someone willing to risk his own life to end slavery. Being descended from him, to my mind, gave me a family legacy to be proud of.

But that wasn’t why he was fighting. From his diaries, letters, and my own research, I discovered that he was fighting to preserve the Union out of loyalty to George Washington, a highly revered figure in the 1860’s. In 1863, he wrote a letter to his Ohio hometown newspaper to assure everyone that Ohio soldiers would not quit fighting until the South was defeated and the Union preserved; if it took abolishing slavery in order to defeat the South, then so be it, the slaves could be freed, he didn’t care one way or the other. In his war diary, he wrote admiringly of several of the plantation estates he rode through on Sherman’s March to the Sea in 1865 before war’s end. After the war, in a letter, he told a friend that he thought what the freed slaves needed was religion and education–seemingly oblivious to the fact that slaves did not get a choice of leisurely activities or any type of education. Alas, my ancestor wasn’t an abolitionist.

The missionaries were even more disappointing. Nancy McClenahan Finney and Thomas J. Finney left the US in the late 1890’s and spent the rest of their lives as Presbyterian missionaries in Egypt. They were revered by all their Ohio friends and family for enduring hardships in a foreign land to served their Christian faith. But my take was different; in fact, they when to a Muslim country to tell them they had the wrong religion.

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