Antoinette Lee has always been drawn to Lake Calhoun.
“For me, it is a place of reminiscences about the past, slavery and my historical roots,” she says.
A Minneapolis nurse, writer, grandmother and family tree researcher, Lee is watching the simmering debate over renaming Lake Calhoun — whose namesake was an ardent slavery supporter. For her, it’s personal.
After listening to her family’s oral history, submitting saliva to ancestry.com’s DNA test and scouring slave records, Lee is convinced her ancestors on her father’s side include John C. Calhoun (the seventh U.S. vice president and person for whom the lake is named) and a Cherokee slave mistress named Martha Liza Lee.
Unlike many genealogy-obsessed researchers, Lee was hesitant to investigate her roots — despite a “love affair with family history.” As a girl, she listened to her mother and aunt talk about their great-great grandmother, a slave named Mariah.
“I knew they spoke earnestly, but my family’s history, at times, seemed to be a fantastic story,” Lee says. “I had to admit ... that I was a little ashamed of a being a descendant of slaves, and I was scared.”
Before she died in 2005, Lee’s mother, Marguerite, asked her daughter to delve into their family story. Lee’s response was all too typical: “I will Mother, not now, I’ll do it later.”
After her mother’s death, Lee “wiped my tears, buried my regrets and decided to research my family tree.”
That led to a 2012 book, “Human Property Hanging in the Family Tree Yields a Harvest,” which explores Mariah’s struggles through slavery and Reconstruction.
Lee had fulfilled her promise to her mother. Now it was time to unravel a different slave’s story buried in her family history. Her father’s lineage meant another foray into “a time when color, class and gender were synonymous with servitude, slavery and inequality.”
She gulped and dug in, setting standards for her research: “three or more documents that prove the oral family history.” Among those documents was a will belonging to a slave owner named Martha Calhoun Speed in Abbeville, S.C. The matter-of-fact wording from 1840 is chilling 176 years later:
“I give, devise and bequeath to my sister Mary Jane Calhoun my negro woman Lizzy to her, and her heirs forever …” In the next line, she gave “my negro woman Lucy” to her brother “and his heirs forever.”
Lee says Speed was the vice president’s first cousin. A Thomas Lee signed the will as a witness. The slave Lizzy, Lee says, was her third great-grandmother, Martha Liza “Lizzy” Lee, who was born around 1817 and sold to Thomas Lee in 1831 as a 14-year-old. Antoinette Lee is not sure how her third great-grandmother — and Calhoun’s mistress — wound up as the possession of his cousin, Martha Speed.
But Lee has connected five separate slave bill-of-sale documents with the passed-down stories.
Her research became a blend of old-fashioned storytelling and modern science. The popular ancestry.com site offers a $99 DNA test that analyzes your saliva at more than “700,000 genetic markers.”
Lee took the test to unravel a mystery about her great-great grandfather, Jacob Lee, who was born in the 1840s in Calhoun Falls, S.C. Pointing to the oral history, Lee says Jacob’s two older siblings — Nancy and Richard Lee — were the offspring John C. Calhoun and his Cherokee slave, Martha Liza Lee.
But Martha later married a slave named Abram Lee and they produced many children born in the 1850s after Calhoun died. Jacob was born when Calhoun was in his 60s. Was Jacob’s father Calhoun or Abram? Lee wondered as she sent in her saliva.
“I looked for DNA matches under the named Calhoun,” she says. “And, eureka, I had so many matches to ancestors of John C. Calhoun.” Her daughter sent in saliva and received similar DNA matches.
It should be noted that there is little, if any, written account of Calhoun siring children with his slaves. But the question of slave owners treating female property “as concubines like any despots of ancient or modern times” is discussed in John Niven’s Calhoun biography, “The Price of Union” (Louisiana State University Press, 1988).
For example, according to the biography, Calhoun’s cousin and political supporter Francis Pickens “had several black mistresses and children by all of them.” Another close Calhoun associate, James Hammond, “was notorious for his sexual conduct with his female slaves.”
Calhoun, a South Carolina congressman, senator and the seventh vice president, insisted in 1837 that slavery was “a positive good,” an institution that “has grown up with our society and institutions, and is so interwoven with them that to destroy it would be to destroy us as a people.
“… Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually,” Calhoun said.
All of which brings us back to Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis. A group of Dakota descendants has started a petition drive through the lengthy and laborious process of formally changing the lake’s name to Bde Maka Ska (White Earth Lake).
“I will wait and see how that goes,” Antoinette Lee says. She has a petition of her own — http://tinyurl.com/Lee-plaque — that calls for a plaque going up on the lake’s shore dedicated to Calhoun’s slave descendants.
“When we honor Calhoun’s legacy by naming things after him,” she says, “we honor a legacy of injustice and inequality when a person was not human but cattle.”
Remembering the descendants Calhoun sired with his slave Martha, Lee insists, would help tell a more complete story. Until then, “I celebrate in the fact that I can embrace freedom.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org