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Descendant of Slave Owners, Descendant of Enslaved Talk Race

a split screen of a man and woman facing forward
Bucky Neal (left) and Brenda Brown-Grooms (right)

VPM is one of six stations across the United States partnering with StoryCorps for “One Small Step,” a nationwide initiative that brings together people with opposing political beliefs to have open, respectful conversations.

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As one of the first women and African Americans to attend the University of Virginia, Reverend Brenda Brown-Grooms remembers a professor saying she’ll never get an A in class. “I have no idea what it is to be a white man in America. I've never been one,” said Brown-Grooms. “I know how to be a black woman in America, that's what I've been for 65 years.” Bucky Neal, a 65-year-old white male, is a descendent of slave owners. “My ancestors owned people, and it's something I'm coming to terms with,” said Neal. The two sat down and spoke about their family histories and race in America.

After learning his ancestors were slave owners, Neal wanted to know more about the “stories little white boys like [him] were not taught.” For instance, the story of Gabriel’s Rebellion. “I used to think of him as the murderer, and now I realize he was just fighting for his freedom,” said Neal.

Brown-Grooms, who helped Charlottesville get through its 2017 summer of hate, is glad Neal is learning these stories and recalls her great-grandfather’s experiences in America. “He was called N-word Edward cause there were two Edwards on the farm: the white Edward and the black Edward,” said Brown-Grooms.

While her family has dealt with racism and many “unspeakable things,” she believes it’s a shared history that has a lasting impact on everyone. “For everything that my family went through, your ancestors were affected by the fact that they did it,” she said to Neal. “We are a community; there is nothing that happens to me that doesn't affect you.”

Neal has felt that impact, feeling guilt and shame, when talking to people about racism and American history. “She looked me square in the eyes and said Bucky you didn't own those slaves and you didn't turn those dogs on me. You as a person don't have anything to apologize for,” said Neal about a conversation he had with a Black woman from Birmingham, Alabama.

That conversation helped Neal step away from guilt about the past and move toward taking an active role in what he can do about inequality happening today. “I’m not guilty, but I’m responsible,” said Neal. “I got a responsibility to do something about it.”

Brown-Grooms has never been interested in guilt, saying “...guilty white people tend to be the most dangerous.” To her, the guilt and shame associated with America’s past prevent people from talking about racial issues. “We don't have hard conversations, the hard conversation of race, which is the essential conversation in my view,” said Brown-Grooms. “We can’t put it off anymore.”

In order to deal with the racism that’s a part of this country, she believes people need to learn how to talk about race and see each other as human beings. "This tsunami, it's not going to be survivable if we don't start talking with each other and seeing each other as human beings," said Brown-Grooms.

Neal agrees it’s about connecting on a personal level and talking about racial issues in a “nonvillainizing” way. He hopes to do that by sharing the stories that “need to be told to white people" about enslaved people. “If they’re not in history they’ve been dismembered from history so you re-member them, you bring them back into history,” said Neal.

Both Neal and Brown-Grooms know nothing can change the past, but they can work to make the future better for everyone. “The issue is what do you and I do with the perceived inequalities we’ve inherited,” said Brown-Grooms. Neal told Brown-Grooms he hopes to meet a descendant of someone enslaved by his ancestors and set up a program where he teaches urban youth in Richmond how to build a boat.


StoryCorps’ One Small Step is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.