This is the story of three cousins. Well, they’re pretty sure they’re all cousins because they think they are linked genetically to the same man. But they’re not 100 percent sure because some of the records are lost.
They do know, however, that they’re linked by circumstance and family to that man, a South Carolina plantation owner who moved his family and 14 slaves to Florida before the Civil War. Later he moved back to the Palmetto State, signed the state’s Ordinance of Secession, fought and served in the state Senate.
Charlie Smith of Charleston and Brenda Kinsler of Washington, D.C., met almost 20 years ago while doing genealogical research online. They discovered they were chasing down the family tree of John Herman Kinsler (1823-1902). He, like Smith, was white. Brenda Kinsler and her first cousin, writer Cynthia White of St. Petersburg, Fla., are black.
Smith says Brenda Kinsler gave him the gift of family that he never knew existed and that required some thought on how to use it. After years of research and a bond that blossomed and strengthened over time, the research buttressed a book, From Whence We Came, published last month.
“An unknown part of my family whose first association with the part of the family familiar to me, was rooted in kidnapping, human trafficking and the enslavement of our African ancestors by our German-Swiss ancestors,” Smith wrote in the foreword. “Enslavement is in fact how our family came into being. No amount of romanticizing can ever change the evil at the root of who we are today as the Kinsler family.
“Even if the first relationships from which our family grew had been consensual (and I have found no evidence that they were) the power imbalance between our white German-Swiss ancestors and our enslaved African ancestors was never about anything more than building the wealth of the German-Swiss ancestors at the expense of the lives of our African ancestors. When that system of enslavement transitioned to other forms of slavery after emancipation, our African ancestors were largely abandoned by our German-Swiss ancestors.”
Brenda Kinsler says if she and Smith aren’t related by blood, they’re related by history like many Southern families today.
“We don’t know about the relationships back then,” she said. “All I know is the slaves and enslavers had very close relationships.”
At some point through the years, Brenda wanted to find the Kinsler slave cemetery. She and Smith visited the old family plantation near Blythewood in Richland County. The owner of the property led them to a graveyard.
“There are no words that can describe how I was feeling at that time,” Brenda remembered as she looked at about 20 unmarked graves, that, unusually, had headstones.
White, who joined the story to write the history of the family research, recalled visiting the cemetery: “It’s hard to describe the feeling. It was just one of those sacred moments. There was this connection.”
The new book memorializes the connection. It shares how complicated notions of family can be in the South. And the book serves as a guide for one way that black and white Southerners, still haunted by race, can start looking forward, not backwards.
White said she hoped the book would give an incentive to black Americans to learn about their past. “What I hope it will do is give them the sense of where they came from and they can look at where they are now.”
She also hopes white readers understand “that slavery does not define African Americans. It is not who we were but rather what was done to us. We are a vital part of this nation’s history. I think that we as a family and as people would want whites to acknowledge our humanity. …
“What happened to us was real and the vestiges of it still remain. Acknowledgment of the wrong inflicted is the first step. A heart change is a next step. Real change occurs when men and women are moved in their hearts to want for others what they want for themselves and to accept that all deserve to live freely, equitably and justly in our society.”