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Photo: Ed Meek/ Ole Miss News.
Civil Rights icon James Meredith and his immediate family have welcomed into their lives the white relatives descended from their slave-owner ancestor.

My friend Suzanne Lowe, who is white, was doing genealogical research back in the early 2000s when someone gave her a publication written by the man who broke the color barrier at the University of Mississippi. In a flash, she realized she and civil rights icon James Meredith shared the same white ancestor.

Eager to reach out but full of trepidation about what Meredith might say to her, she searched the web for his phone number and called him, explaining who she was. There was a long pause, she says, and as she waited with increasing anxiety, her heart pounded. Then she heard Meredith say, “I’ve been waiting for this call for 50 years.”

Last Sunday, I had the privilege of listening in on a Coming to the Table episode describing how my friend’s white family got to know Meredith’s black family. I can hardly describe how uplifting it was. One of Meredith’s close relatives presented the history of Mississippi slaveholder J.A.P. Campbell and his role in writing the laws of white supremacy. So it was a serious occasion. But we also savored the joy of Campbell’s black descendants at finally being seen and the joy of the white family members who were thrilled to connect.

It is true, as my friend reported when asked in the chat questions, that her outreach to other white Campbell descendants did not meet with universal acceptance. A few were nasty and unbelieving — as if the country hadn’t been through all that with the descendants of Thomas Jefferson and slave Sally Hemings. But others were fascinated and delighted. As Meredith’s son John said, his side of the family always knew they had white relatives. In fact, he said, many black families know they have white relatives. Seeing the white side of the family enjoy their new consciousness had been a big part of the pleasure he experienced.

I learned new things about the disastrous effects of laws preserving white supremacy, at the same time as I got the feeling that the two families were focused on how happy they were to be united. I got no sense that Meredith’s side wanted their new cousins to bear the brunt of national reparations. (I myself believe federal reparations are due — like those that President Ronald Reagan authorized for Americans of Japanese descent after their WW II internment in US concentration camps.)

Everyone was just enjoying having a large, interesting family and new kinds of connectedness.

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