History, despite its wrenching pain,– Maya Angelou
Cannot be unlived, but if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.
The search for ancestry can uncover many hidden branches. DNA testing done by my dad and his brothers showed that, unbeknownst to us, my grandfather was half Chinese. Not only did a hidden branch emerge, so did new stories about how this could have happened. Some of these stories echoed 20th-century attitudes about race, gender, and class that was circulating at that time.
This piqued my interest and led me to dig deeper into the personal-political context of our roots. What is striking is how these histories connect with current political discourse — in this case, accusations that Chinese people are vectors for COVID echo fear-mongering about the 20th century ‘Yellow Peril’. What I ‘discovered’ is that we didn’t know about my biological great-great-grandfather Yik Sik Tom because colonial race-baiting and slut shaming erased this relationship. It also erased my great-grandmother Hunt’s voice. My search was for her story.
My search for her stories has expanded to parallel branches of my family tree. While my father’s ancestors were working-class immigrants from England and China who settled in what is now known as Canada, my mother’s ancestors — descendants of the Randall family — were middle-class English immigrants who became wealthy landowners in what is now known as the United States of America. I began to search for these stories — leaves from our family tree that had blown away. What follows is a personal-political genealogy about the legacies of colonialism on my mother’s side of the family and white supremacy culture.
White Supremacy Culture and Whitewashing
Much of what I know about this side of the family comes from a book published in 1943 by my ancestor, Professor Frank Alfred Randall. His is a history of British settlers and details a long line of Randall men who occupied Indigenous land, held title to that land, raised soldiers who fought for their freedom to own that land, and who contributed to disseminating their version of history. Unsurprisingly, it whitewashes history by erasing the violence of my ancestors’ theft and occupation of that land.
Like much of the larger historical record, this is Randall’s story. Notice the grey boxes in my family tree. Those are the women. This is all I know of them. For some, we don’t even know when they were born. For others, we have no idea when they died. Frank Randall’s account lacks many rich stories about women. It leaves me asking: What role did these women play beyond grandmother, mother, wife, daughter, sister?
The stories I do know are about my great-grandmother Laura Eldred Towerton (pictured above playing the piano). What I know about her came from her travel journal, which my uncle Eric painstakingly typed up and turned into a family treasure. She had sailed with a girlfriend from the U.S. to England, met and then married a British soldier named Jack Towerton. My mother told me stories about visiting Laura who was bedridden with Parkinson’s disease. What we didn’t know was that Laura was a university scholar, a trained pianist, a music teacher, and a writer.
She clearly had the class and race privilege that would have allowed her temporary freedom from Victorian gender roles to go to university, make public speeches, and set off across the Atlantic on a trip with her friend. She was independent, pushing back against expected gender roles, at least until she got married. If it weren’t for my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother passing down these stories, they would have definitely been lost.
I inherited my great-grandmother’s desk. The one she sat at writing speeches delivered at literary society events. The same desk that I am writing at now. I wonder what she thought about, what she wrote about, what she hoped for in the future. For her daughter, her granddaughter, and me. When her body failed, what was going on in her mind? What future dreams did she leave behind?
While I don’t have answers to these questions, what I did find was a public record of the political activism of Laura’s mother (standing beside the piano). My great-great-grandmother Elizabeth ‘Lib’ Randall Eldred was a member of the lineage-based women’s organization the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). As a feminist, I wanted to know what kind of women’s organization this was. What kind of revolution was she fighting for? How did her political involvement in this organization get passed down? What might she think of the feminist, decolonizing work of her great-great-grand-daughter?
In 1635, William Randall Sr. sailed from London, England to Scituate, Massachusetts on the ship ‘Expectation’ and became a landowner (took Indigenous land). The question this immediately raised for me was: who worked that land? Did my ancestors have slaves? Holy Fuck!?! I dug a little deeper. According to Vernon L. Briggs, ‘there was scarcely a family [in Massachusetts] without two or more slaves’ (89).
The first enslaved Africans landed in Massachusetts in 1638 — three years after William Randall Sr. settled — and slavery became legal in 1641. In addition to questions about who worked the land, records show that William Sr. waged multiple legal battles with other settlers over the right to own Indigenous land. There is nothing in Frank Randall’s book that acknowledges the violence that was required for William Sr. to call this land his.
Following his death, that land was passed down — from William Sr. to John to William Jr. to Samuel and then to William’s great-great-grandson Joshua Randall Sr. William Sr.’s descendants accumulated and defended the territory he staked as ‘his’. Joshua Sr. became a soldier in the American Revolutionary War fighting for white settlers’ independence from the British empire and defending the land occupied by his forefathers. This was a revolution where new colonizers fought old colonizers (Britain) over their right to steal Indigenous lands.
Joshua Randall not only inherited and passed downland, but he also passed the revolutionary sword to his great-granddaughter Elizabeth ‘Lib’ Randall Eldred (my great-great-grandmother and William Randall Sr.’s great-great-great-great-great-granddaughter). Resulting from his military service, Joshua’s direct female descendants are considered ‘daughters of the American Revolution’ and thereby eligible to join the conservative women’s organization the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR).
What kind of revolutionary are you?
The DAR was founded in 1890 to honor revolutionary soldiers and promote patriotic history and education in the service of ‘God, home, country’. The DAR exemplified the active, nationalistic role of ‘American’ women in militarization and ongoing colonial nation-building. In the lead-up to the U.S. declaring war on Germany on April 6, 1917, the DAR played a key role in mobilizing support for the war.
According to Simon Wendt, ‘the period from 1914 to 1918 was a watershed period for the DAR and other antiradical women’s organizations because it marked the emergence of an antiradical movement that received much of its support from white middle-class women and made antifeminism a central pillar of its ideological thrust’ (946).
While first-wave feminists were largely anti-war, the DAR celebrated wars past and present and instructed conservative women to heed the patriotic call to duty.
On August 16, 1917, Lib responded to that call and became the first generation of Randall daughters to participate in this lineage-based organization. What is striking is that she was 71 years old when she joined. Like most DAR members, she was white, Protestant, conservative, and middle-class and was clearly swept up in the patriotic mobilization for World War I.
This would have been the first bulletin Lib received as a DAR member detailing how she should contribute: ‘Will not each Daughter of the American Revolution make it part of her war work to become a “sister” to an American soldier’s or sailor’s family by making it a part of her service to her country to bring happy little surprises, unexpected pleasures into the lives of these sorely-tried women and children, thus giving them something bright, something cheering, something happy to write about to “him”?
She was called to take up arms in her forefathers’ fight to maintain (white) America by fortifying the domestic sphere while men were fighting overseas.
Post-WW1, the DAR became increasingly anti-radical. During the interwar period, the DAR was a vanguard in fear-mongering about ‘un-Americans’, including African Americans, feminists, peace activists, and unassimilated immigrants (Wendt 943). In the name of ‘God, home, country’, the DAR were vocal advocates of a whole lot of banning: books, performers, unpatriotic teachers, intermarriages, Chinese immigrants and the list goes on (Chujo; McRae).
They forbade discussions of the suffrage movement, went on to ban black musicians from performing in their concert hall, promoted segregation in education, sought to assimilate, and (re)educate immigrants and poor Southerners on the ‘American’ way of life, and participated in government red-baiting. They considered themselves the ‘real daughters’, which really meant the white daughters supporting a white supremacy culture.
Ok, let’s take (old) stock. My family tree is rooted in Indigenous soil, sown by slaves, property lines staked and defended to protect that tree. It grows from the rays of privilege that eclipse the colonial darkness that prevails. My great-grandmother’s involvement in the DAR provided nativist fertilizer that maintained the growth of militarization, nationalism, and white supremacy culture.
Of note is that Lib was approved for membership in an organization that would have excluded me on a number of grounds. There was a divisive debate within the DAR about membership eligibility, echoing the politics of eugenics that was circulating in public discourse and state policy. For some, membership was based strictly on Revolutionary lineage. If you could prove this, you could join. Others were concerned about potentially ‘impure blood’ of descendants.
These members advocated for an additional requirement of ‘unblemished character’ (Chujo 161; Strange 115). Up until 1977, that meant even if a black or Indigenous woman could trace her ancestry back to a revolutionary soldier, she would have been denied membership because she was not considered a pure American (echoing the Ku Klux Klan’s ‘100% American’ slogan) (Strange 114; Medlicott 29). My Chinese ancestry would have disqualified me. In fact, the DAR explicitly advocated banning Chinese immigration (Medlicott 106). I examine this not because I would ever (ever) want to join, but rather, to further unwrap these tangled branches.
Intersecting with race, I would have also been disqualified because I have epilepsy. In fact, epilepsy was specifically discussed by the DAR because of the controversy surrounding DAR founder Ellen Hardin Walworth. Walworth’s son was convicted of a crime and subsequently diagnosed with epilepsy (which was believed to cause criminality). At that time, epilepsy was one of the many ‘defects’ that eugenicists wanted to ‘weed out’ and many DAR saw Walworth’s family as evidence that the organization should be concerned about the fitness of Revolutionary descendants. They believed that ‘it took but one unfortunate union to corrupt Revolutionary blood and to produce degenerate or defective progeny’ (Strange 110). Me. A weed to be plucked at the base of the Randall family tree.
I would also be considered unacceptable because of my politics. Devotion to God came first for the DAR. Atheists and feminists were considered un-American and were amongst a long list of people that were a threat to the DAR’s project of preserving the white traditional family and nation. The DAR was vocally anti-suffrage and anti-feminist and characterized themselves as female patriots. They banned the discussion of feminism and women’s rights in their meetings. Their agenda was to prune the branches of patriarchal trunks. My goal has always been to dig up those roots.
The DAR was actively involved in patriotic education. If I was around at that time, I would have definitely been on their list of un-American teachers. I come from a long line of scholars and teachers. But rather than teaching the white, male canon, I teach my students about the power they have to mobilize and fight white supremacy culture, patriarchy, capitalism, and colonialism. I am involved in an entirely different revolution with a radically different vision of how to find liberation and freedom. I am a blight on the upward mobility and succession of my forefathers and mothers. And it is spreading.
What this search for ancestry reveals is that my ancestors gained their own liberty at the expense of others. They passed downland that was stolen from Indigenous peoples and fostered an ethnic-nationalistic American culture. They were soldiers in colonial wars, as well as members of proto-military, white lineage-based organizations. They passed on the story that our family got where they did because they worked hard and came from ‘old stock’, rather than benefiting from the white supremacy culture, class, and gendered privilege of settlers.
This is her story of privileged daughters who failed to see how this revolution did not provide a revolution for their daughters, who were pushed back into the private sphere following the war.
My goal is to learn about the colonized soil in which my family’s roots are firmly planted. To look directly at the water and nutrients of white supremacy culture that feeds my family tree. To understand the process of pruning and shaping branches through hegemonic stories and education. It is about how this family tree absorbs the sun/son of colonial hetero-patriarchy and how the leaves will fall. It is about the direction new branches will take.
To be clear: this isn’t about guilt or shame. That does nothing to challenge colonialism and white supremacy culture. It is about facing the truth ‘so it need not be lived again’ (Angelou). Because it is being lived right now. I have the power and privilege to contribute to writing a new story, starting with an understanding of my family’s history on these lands and a commitment to a revolution that dispossesses no one. As future ancestors, it is our responsibility to challenge the politics of our lineage by the actions we take in the present for the future.
- Angelou, Maya. On the Pulse of Morning. Random House, 1993.
- Briggs, L. Vernon. History and genealogy of the Briggs family, 1254–1937. Charles E. Goodspeed & Co., 1938. https://wellcomecollection.org/works/h6fsm4ww/items?canvas=151. Accessed 28 November 2021.
- Chujo, Ken. ‘The Daughters of the American Revolution and Its Attitude Toward African Americans.’ Transforming Anthropology, vol. 13, no. 2, Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2005. pp. 160–64.
- Hunt, Krista. ‘Race-baiting and Slut Shaming: My family’s search for ancestry.’ in Be Yourself. Medium. 19 October 2021. https://byrslf.co/race-baiting-and-slut-shaming-my-familys-search-for-ancestry-e2976a4da88c. Accessed 28 November 2021.
- Meldicott, Carolyn. ‘One Social Milieu, Paradoxical Responses: A Geographical Reexamination of the Ku Klux Klan and the Daughters of the American Revolution in the Early Twentieth Century.’ Spaces of Hate. Ed. Colin Flint. Routledge, 2004. pp. 33–60.
- McRae, Elizabeth Gillespie. Mothers of Massive Resistance : White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy. Oxford University Press, 2018.
- Randall, Frank Alfred. Randall and Allied Families. Seeking My Roots. Raveret-Weber Printing Company, 1943. https://www.seekingmyroots.com/members/files/G005576.pdf. Accessed 28 November 2021.
- Strange, Carolyn. ‘Sisterhood of Blood: The Will to Descend and the Formation of the Daughters of the American Revolution.’ Journal of Women’s History, vol. 26, no. 3, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014. pp. 105–28.
- Wendt, Simon. “Defenders of Patriotism or Mothers of Fascism? The Daughters of the American Revolution, Antiradicalism, and Un-Americanism in the Interwar Period.” Journal of American Studies, vol. 47, no. 4, Cambridge University Press, 2013. pp. 943–69.
- Featured image from People vector created by stories – www.freepik.com