Silent Witnesses

Collective Complicity to Racism, Then and Now

Gail Short

She was just 17. 

Priscilla “Silla” Watson, my great-great grandmother on my mother’s side of the family, was a teenager when on July 6, 1858, in Columbia County, Ark., her white master sold her to another white man for around $400.

The contract described her as “a certain Negro girl Named Silla, about 17 years old of dark complexion and sound in body and mind and a slave for life to have hold use and Enjoy said Negro free from the claims or rights of all other persons.” 

Anytime I read this document, I always picture her standing nearby, shivering, as the two white men carry out their transaction. 

Was Silla scared? Terrified? Depressed? Angry?


Had she been forced to leave her mother, father and siblings behind or had they already been sold away to other plantations down the road, or in the next town, or county or state? Who were her people?

One of my cousins discovered the now 164-year-old contract while researching Silla and other ancestors. Silla is the earliest ancestor she was able to identify. 

So, we may never know who Silla’s parents were.

The Silent Ones

The year before the transaction, the Supreme Court ruled in the Dred Scott decision in 1857 that enslaved people like Silla, and even free Blacks, had no citizenship rights in the United States. 

All together Black men, women and child slaves toiled in this country for more than 240 years. 

White slave holders, meanwhile, built farms and wealth on the backs of enslaved people. The system gave these white men plenty of time to pursue their interests like higher education, or medicine or law, or politics. And on the way, they amassed even more power and more wealth for themselves and their descendants. 

I’ve learned so much about slavery while researching sources and materials for Bending the Arc projects. I’ve poured over disturbing images of enslaved men and women chained and bound, and whipped, and standing on auction blocks and laboring in farm fields.

Recently, I found several old photos online of enslaved Black children. One photo in particular stood out to me as I read a report detailing the enormous scars of slavery. There I saw a photograph of an enslaved Black boy, probably 8 or 9 years old, sitting on a step, his pants ripped at the knees, his little toes sticking out of his worn-out shoes. I don’t know if his slave master had purchased him away from his mother or father or beaten or screamed at him, but he was looking down, holding his head in his hand with an expression of such despair and anguish. 

The photo made me think about all of my ancestors who lived their entire lives under the weight of slavery, who likely felt that same sadness, knowing they would never experience freedom in their lifetimes. 

I know there were good white people around who secretly hated seeing how enslaved individuals in their towns were treated, but most feared speaking up against the injustice. 

Silla eventually married Ned, my great-great grandfather. Their first child, my great-grandmother, was born in 1867, five years after President Lincoln signed the bill to end slavery in the United States and two years after the Civil War ended. They went on to have 13 children. 

In their newfound freedom, Ned and Silla were finally able to control their own lives, grow their family and work their land. But I wonder how much peace they actually enjoyed, given their memories of their years living under the total control of their masters. 

Besides the bad memories, former slaves also dealt with the inability to reconnect with lost children, parents, husbands, and wives whom slave traders had sold off to unknown locations when the domestic slave trade was still legal. 

My mother told me about an ancestor in Arkansas who desperately searched for her first husband, who had been sold to another plantation by slave traders. After Emancipation, she walked from town to town searching for him. She never found him. All she ever learned was that traders sold him to a man in Mississippi. 

Consequently, whenever I see someone on the street or on television with features similar to mine, I think, “Are we related? Do we share DNA?”

I’ll never know. 

Witnesses to Horrors

After slavery ended, Blacks gained their freedom and even some political power. But their gains vanished within just a few years. 

Whites’ hostile responses to Blacks’ advancements came in the form of threats, lynchings, beatings, and voter suppression. Scores of young Black men got caught up as prisoners in the convict labor system, and the peonage system re-enslaved many Black families in the South struggling to pay off debts. 

In the meantime, some good white people looked on, in secret horror, shaking with silent disdain at the injustice. 

Through the next several decades, a Black person could be hung by the neck or shot or beaten to death for bumping into a white woman on a crowded street, or disrespecting a white person, or reprimanding white children. 

The fear of ostracism, injury, or death, however, kept many good white people from speaking against these atrocities against their Black neighbors. 

My mother’s grandfather, Hamp, found himself in a terrifying predicament in the 1930s when his town’s mayor demanded that he sell him his farmland and move out. Great-grandfather declined the offer. In response, the mayor threatened him. 

My great-grandfather resisted, despite having no recourse at his disposal. Who could he go to to complain? A white official at City Hall? The white sheriff? The white lawyer in town?

But Hamp was a praying man—a devout Christian who loved the Lord, and night after night, in the face of all of that hate and the possibility of injury or death, he sat on his porch and prayed. And he prayed. And he prayed. 

And the threats of violence kept coming.  

Then, one day, the mayor suffered a heart attack and died. The harassment ended and great-grandfather and his family remained on that land. 

I’m not saying that God struck that man down. Certainly He did not. I believe, however, that racial hatred is a necrotizing sore on the soul that eats away at a perpetrator’s humanity and maybe, just maybe, wears down his or her physical body, too.

Love, on the other hand, is a healing balm. 

Good White People

I hesitated to write this essay. 

Well, I wanted to at first, but my desire morphed into dread because I didn’t want to pen a treatise on why racism is bad. 

I didn’t want to rehash the few times growing up when someone called me the “n” word or told a n-word joke in front of me or the time when a white, volunteer mom I carpooled with on a school field trip refused to talk to or even look at me the entire day because – I later learned – she hated Black people. 

I didn’t want to ruminate and pontificate on all of the times a few whites hurled microaggressions at me like stinging darts because I was Black.

In my opinion, my personal experiences with racism, though unpleasant, cannot compare to the horrors and indignities my ancestors suffered. They don’t even compare with my parents’ experiences growing up in the Jim Crow South. 

And yet, my parents and grandparents on occasions experienced the kindness of whites. It was a white gas station owner in the South who defied Jim Crow laws and told my grandparents that they and their children could use his station’s restroom whenever they traveled through the town. And it was a white man in the hollers of Kentucky in the 1950s who kindly helped my grandmother pull her car out of a ditch. 

I recognize that because good men and women, both Black and white, protested for Black civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s, I attended racially integrated schools throughout my education. 

I’ve always stayed at the hotels of my and my family’s choice, gone to movie theatres with white patrons, and gotten to vote, unimpeded, in every election. 

Because of the brave activists who risked their lives in the fight for racial justice in this country, I’ve never suffered the humiliation of having to use a “colored” ladies’ room or drink from a “colored” water fountain or follow a “colored” sign to the back door of a restaurant to order hamburgers instead of eating inside with the other diners. 

But, I worry that dark days may be ahead.

Speaking Out

Several mass shootings against Jews and people of color have occurred in recent years. The latest happened in May when an 18-year-old white man walked into a grocery store in a predominately Black neighborhood in Buffalo, N.Y. and shot 10 African Americans to death because he wanted to kill Black people.

I feel so much has been written about incidents like this and the scourge of racism in this country. And yet, these tragedies keep happening.

A couple of years ago, while attending a marketing event, I got into a conversation with an older white gentleman who worked in sales. The exchange was light and friendly. He told me about his background and that he had once served in the Navy. He talked about what life on a ship was like.

Then he recalled that one of the crew members was Asian and that whenever the ship listed, the crew, in jest, would say the Asian sailor was the cause. 

I remember feeling stunned that he felt comfortable enough to tell me, a Black woman, about the joke. 

But then, one of this man’s co-workers who overheard the conversation jumped in and shut him down. The co-worker, who was white, chastised the man, telling him, “That’s not OK!” That’s not OK!” The man, embarrassed, walked away. 

I had never heard a white person speak up so forcefully against racism on my behalf like that, in public. I will always be grateful for that man’s courage and willingness to take action rather than just standing by and watching in silence as people of color are mocked. 

As a Black woman, I can write essays about racism all day long. I can march against it, scream about it, and call it out whenever I see it. But the truth is, whites must be willing to speak out against bigotry, too. 

They must find it in their hearts to, in real time, shut down hate-filled speech, racist jokes and comments, and inequities whenever they see other whites engaging in those behaviors. After all, silence gives bigots a license to nurture and spread their hatred and then intimidate good whites into keeping quiet. 

It may cost friendships or worse, but whites, together with Blacks and other minorities, must be willing to raise their voices against racism to make our nation more just and equitable for all. 

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Gail Short
Gail Short