I was all set to write about Marion County interim prosecutor Ryan Mears’ new policy on prosecuting marijuana arrests for one ounce or less.
Then I read the story of William Williamson, a Black man and freed slave, and Thomas Rosser, a white man. Both lived in Virginia, and were, in fact, neighbors. Although Williamson bought his freedom, his wife and eight children were still slaves, so he stayed nearby. The problem was freed slaves were legally allowed to remain in Virginia for one year and then they had to go — move to another state or back into slavery. I won’t give all the details because you can read this interesting story in our Religion section, but eventually Williamson stopped fighting the law, and the two men hatched a plan where Rosser would buy Williamson. Yes, Williamson voluntarily returned to slavery, at least on paper. Williamson also sold all of his land to Rosser. However, nothing changed. Williamson continued to live life as he previously had. After Williamson died and the Civil War ended, Rosser returned Williamson’s property to his family.
As I read this story a million thoughts raced through my mind. One of my first thoughts was how dedicated Williamson was to his family. He was free. They weren’t, but he didn’t leave them. We’ve often heard stories of husbands and wives who were separated as the freed husband left his family to work to earn enough money to buy their freedom. Here was the story of a man who didn’t go away. He stayed in Virginia, risking his freedom, to be near his wife and children. I found this story especially refreshing because so many African American fathers throughout history and today get a bad rap for being deadbeat dads.
We don’t hear about the dads who, despite life’s circumstances, are involved in their children’s lives. According to a 2013 study from the Centers for Disease and Prevention, the percent of Black fathers participating in their children’s daily lives is higher than that of white men and Hispanic or Latino men. For transparency, a smaller number of Black men participated in the study than both white and Hispanic or Latino men, but it still paints a different picture than the one that’s constantly shown about Black fathers. I’ve never stopped to count, but I believe I know more fathers who remained in their children’s lives than not — whether they married the mother or not. I will never know William Williamson, but he seems like he was a man of great character. A man like many of the men I know.
While I’ve grown to despise stories of a Great White Hope, I realize the enslaved needed help from benevolent white people to escape bondage. Slavery was a systemic problem, and there’s no way enslaved Africans could dismantle the system without the help of the white people. I think that remains true today. Rosser was a perfect example of someone using his privilege (before we even knew the term) as a white man to help a Black man. I don’t know if Rosser actually enslaved people or not, or if his relationship with Williamson made him think Williamson was “special.” All I know is he used his abilities as a white man to make sure another human being had the same freedom he did — and he made sure Williamson’s family had economic power!
If we had more Rossers, America would be very different. There’s still time.