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* * Margie Lee’s Lynch family

My new friend Professor Margie Lee recently attended a gathering at the Avoca Museum in Altavista, Virginia, of descendents, both slaves and slave owners, of the Col. Charles Lynch Jr. family. Her family was mostly slaves.

“Weird,” she said to me about it, over and over. When I pressed her to articulate her feelings, she said, “If you want to understand, we’ll need to go there.” So we did, she driving her classic Thunderbird convertible, wind whipping her curly black-to-grey hair.

We met curator Michael Hudson in his office in the upstairs of an outbuilding alongside the courtyard of the Fauntleroy mansion built in 1901 at the home site of Revolutionary Patriot Colonel Charles Lynch. He told us, “This was the second ‘Gathering at Avoca.’ The first in 2013. The original Lynch family came from Galway, Ireland in 1725. Charles’ father, Charles Sr., was a runaway who stowed on ship of indentured Irishmen that brought him to the New World.”

The term, “lynching,” the often indiscriminate hanging of black men, originated from this family. But Hudson was careful to explain that that was a bastardization of Col. Charles Lynch’s actual actions. Instead, Lynch, as a patriot, defied colonial governor Thomas Jefferson’s order to gather but not punish loyalists to the crown, strapped many of them to a tree and struck them with 39 lashes. “He never hanged anybody, much less any Negroes,” Hudson said.

Charles Sr. died and left land to his four sons, William, John, and Christopher who settled along the James in Lynchburg, and Charles Jr. who moved 20 miles south to current Altavista around 1755.

Long story short, Charles Jr. established a plantation and become wealthy and politically active. He joined the patriot movement to have his colony split from England. He amassed many slaves to work his land. Negroes had no identity other than a given name, were not allowed to marry, and were bought and sold like any property. Negro women were repeatedly raped and impregnated by their white owners. Thus, thousands of mulattos, mixed race people, were spawned throughout the South, with pigmentation in a variety of shades.

So part of Margie’s family was illustrious Virginia patriots. Another part was their chattel. While Col. Lynch was helping to create our new nation, his slaves were working the tobacco fields, tending the garden, cooking the food, and caring for the horses.

Margie is head of a department at the Vet School at Virginia Tech. She said, “I have done lots of genealogy research, but I have not been able to determine any definitive presence of the black side of my family until a hundred years later, around 1870. Blacks were essentially invisible.

“I’m assuming that slaves took the surname of their masters. Everybody in my family seems to have taken the name of the people who owned the land where they were enslaved. My family traces back to one of Col. Lynch’s grandsons.”

Lynch, a Quaker, manumitted many of his slaves, meaning he freed them before a government-forced emancipation. All of his slaves were freed by 1796 at his death. However, the state of Virginia passed laws prohibiting freedmen, and the former Lynch slaves were re-enslaved by his son soon thereafter.

Margie indicated that many of her family members, as well as many other local blacks, owned land, due to the generosity of their former owners. The Lynch family sold land to their freed slaves after the Civil War. Most other freed slaves throughout the South weren’t so lucky.

About the gathering, she said, “There were black people, there were white people, and every shade in between. I was conflicted. Others there were conflicted, too. A group of people, related by blood, returned to a place where, ‘My people owned your people and I hope they were nice to you.’ It makes people uncomfortable.

“The history we’ve been talking about was my family history, but not by my family’s choice. Lots of blacks in America today have white blood. I was shocked to learn that my family’s whites were prominent. Attending this event, for the first time I grasped the full range of what that meant.

“I am from the first generation of African Americans in my line to achieve the American dream. I grew up in a house on a dirt road in rural Virginia and became successful. I have two doctorates, a PhD and a DVM. The 1970s was like the second wave of release from the plantations; it was part two in America, the land of opportunity.

“Your people have history. I have almost no knowledge of my family history. We had no documentation. I’ve been holding this at arms length all my life. The whites were living this Leave it to Beaver life and all of a sudden, they were treating us like part of the family. ‘Come on over!’

“I am angry at how my people were held back by government policies. I could make an argument for reparations, and I would never have considered that before. It is absolutely calculable what economic gains my family has been deprived of.

“The first slaves were brought over in 1619. Not until my generation were blacks afforded the American dream. I grew up in that little sliver, that golden period of possibilities that almost defies logic, where we could be successful.”

On our way home, she asked rhetorically, “Why were my cousins and I doing so well, advancing in the American dream when the generations before us were incapable? All of us who went to college not only did well; we did really well. Affirmative Action opened some doors, but we had to do the performance part ourselves.

“They didn’t hire me at Virginia Tech because I’m black.”

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