Critical Race Theory and My Confederate, Slave Owning Family
My family served as Confederate leaders and fought against US troops. I want to understand why their treasonous acts didn’t preclude them from serving as a Member of Congress and a Supreme Court Justice after the Civil War. I want to understand why Army bases and a Liberty ship were named for them. I want to understand why there is still a plaque glorifying them at the University of Georgia. I’m asking these questions because I want to encourage other descendants of Confederate, slave owning families to make the same inquiries, be change-makers.
On December 6, 1860 my great great great grandfather Howell Cobb wrote a letter to Georgians concerning secession from the United States. As the then Secretary of Treasury and former House of Representatives Speaker and governor of the state of Georgia, my grand-father recommended that his fellow Georgians secede. The state followed his recommendation and a few months later the Civil War started.
In 1857, the Department of Treasury ordered the construction of a new Revenue Cutter and named it after Howell Cobb. He was Secretary of Treasury at that time so the name of the new ship wasn’t unusual. What is perplexing is the US government’s decision to name a World War II Liberty Ship for him given the fact that President Johnson pardoned Cobb for committing treason in 1868.
Until January 19, 2020, House Speaker Cobb’s portrait hung in the US Capitol. Speaker Pelosi removed it, an action I supported. There is still a plaque on the University of Georgia’s campus recalling famous students — Robert Toombs (a Confederate who refused to seek a pardon and therefore couldn’t return to the US after the Civil War), Alexander H. Stephens, Howell Cobb, and Crawford Long.
The plaque also refers to the War for Southern Independence aka the Civil War. Over five hundred African American students attend UGA, they walk by the plaque every day. Why is it still there and who thought it was a good idea to put a portrait up in the US Capitol of a presidentially pardoned Confederate?
Howell Cobb, was the nephew of Howell Cobb, also a Congressman who served in the US Army during the war of 1812. His cousin, Thomas Willis Cobb was a Congressmember from Georgia and Cobb County Georgia is named after him, and I’m beginning to wonder why more folks aren’t looking at the names of counties.
Cobb was married to Mary Ann Lamar (cousin of Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar, second President of Texas, and Supreme Court Justice Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar). His brother Thomas R.R. Cobb wrote the Confederate Constitution and another cousin was Confederate Brigadier General Henry Benning and I’m trying to understand why an Army base was named for him in 1918.
My family held positions of power because they were wealthy and their wealth came from slavery. My grandfather Cobb owned eleven slaves in 1850. Mary Ann Lamar’s father Zarachiah Lamar owned 147 slaves in 1820. My great great great great grandfather Joseph Rucker (Ruckersville, Georgia) was the first millionaire in the state. According to the 1850’s federal census slave schedule he owned over eighty slaves. He owned a similar amount in 1860, some as young as one.
In 1879, the state of Georgia created a pension program for white Georgians who fought for the Confederate States of America. My great great grandfather Hugh Augustus Cason fought for the CSA so his wife applied for a pension in 1910. None of my family’s former slaves were eligible for the money even though they desperately needed it.
Why didn’t the state of Georgia provide pensions to former slaves? The former slaves needed state help as early as 1866. Cason noted in a letter to his brother-in-law in January that year that former slaves were without homes and means of subsistence. The disparity continued and forty years later, the former slaves watched as their former owners filed for pensions.
My great great grandfather Tinsley White Rucker served as a Confederate soldier and then later in life served as a US Congressmember from the state of Georgia in 1917. Two years later he applied for a Confederate soldier’s pension from Georgia.
My jaw dropped when I read the application. Rucker swore an oath to the US Constitution when he became a US Representative so why did he apply for a Confederate pension? Rucker died in 1926 so the answer to that question died with him.
TW Rucker’s cousin William Waller Rucker also served in Congress from the state of Missouri (1899–1923). Born in 1855 in Virginia, he was too young to fight in the Civil War but his family supported slavery so how did his family’s views impact his decision making when he served as Ranking Member, House Election of President and Vice President Committee?
My great great grandfather and cousin William Waller Rucker weren’t in Congress when the Army named a base in Alabama for cousin Colonel Edmund Winchester Rucker in 1942. But I still have to ask what was the rationale for naming the base after him? He was a Confederate. Wouldn’t it have been better to name the base after Colonel Rucker’s grandfather General Winchester, an Army officer who fought in the American Revolution and the War of 1812?
I’d like to ask my cousin Lucius Lamar about why he thought it was appropriate to serve on the US Supreme Court after he’d authored the Mississippi Ordinance of Secession and served as General Lee’s lawyer. He also served as a US Representative from Mississippi prior to the Civil War and in doing so, he too had sworn an oath to protect and defend the US Constitution. But if I ask those questions, I have to ask President Kennedy why he included Lamar in his book Profiles in Courage.
Cousin and Supreme Court Justice Joseph Rucker Lamar was too young to fight in the Civil War but his Southern upbringing certainly influenced his decision making processes on the bench. Lamar’s childhood next-door neighbor was Woodrow Wilson and he segregated the military when he became President.
I encourage other descendants of Confederate, slave owning families to start examining how their family members contributed to the biased laws and policies that were created before and after the Civil War. This examination won’t be easy but the hard questions have to be asked, and we have to be the ones to do it.
K. Denise Rucker Krepp, Coast Guard veteran and Obama administration political appointee