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New book gives voice to last surviving children of slaves

Talia Whyte | 2/18/2009, 5:02 a.m.
Butler, a special correspondent for Newsweek International, said she wrote “Sugar of the Crop” because she was “tired of the race division” in the U.S. Sana Butler

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Butler, a special correspondent for Newsweek International, said she wrote “Sugar of the Crop” because she was “tired of the race division” in the U.S.

Many books and films over the last 150 years have explored the social impact that slavery has had on race relations in America. In “Sugar of the Crop: My Journey to Find the Children of Slaves,” author Sana Butler makes an important contribution to the topic by looking at how the lives of the last surviving children born to slaves evolved after the abolition of slavery.

The recently released book chronicles Butler’s 10-year journey to conduct interviews with these survivors and record their stories. Most were in their 90s at the time of their interviews. All have since passed away.

“I started my research during the time [when] some in the African American community wanted President Clinton to apologize for slavery and [the issue of] reparations came up,” said Butler, a special correspondent for Newsweek International. “I was just tired of the race division and wanted to do a book that would not only connect all Americans regardless of race, but also show that slavery is not that far removed from us today.”

Butler spent the formative years of the project calling state Department of Aging centers around the South, as well as black churches and nursing homes, trying to find the children of former slaves. All told, she conducted hundreds of interviews, even as many of the children were dying.

Not since the Federal Writers’ Project of the Work Progress Administration gathered more than 2,000 first-person slave narratives during the 1930s had such a project been undertaken. Butler’s book is believed to be the first — and, given that the interview subjects are all now deceased, likely only — book about the children of slaves based on primary interviews.

Through the interviews, Butler tells the inspiring true story of a generation that overcame massive obstacles in order to live better lives than their ancestors.

Crispus Attucks Wright, aged 87 at the time of his interview, offers one example. A Beverly Hills, Calif., lawyer and self-made millionaire, Wright’s father was born on a Louisiana plantation, and believed that America would be fair to “the studious and determined” of all races.

“I loved Crispus Wright because he treated me like one of his own grandchildren,” Butler said. “For me, it wasn’t just about the interviews. It was being around these people and being enveloped in their personal stories.”

One commonality that Butler found among all her interviewees was that they were taught by their parents the value of self-determination, or what Butler would call an “immigrant mentality.” When the Civil War ended in 1865, many former slaves took advantage of their new freedom by voting and running for political office — attributes that they passed on to their descendants.

“The people I interviewed also understood the importance of an education and being able to own land,” Butler said. “There was this idea that there was potential for black people.”

The interviews also dispelled for Butler the popular notion that some of the major problems that African Americans face today, such as socioeconomic disadvantages and the breakdown of the black family, are the result of slavery’s legacy.