As descendants of Cato and Venus Sutton, who both were born slaves in the 1850’s in Duplin and Sampson County, respectively, the Sutton family recently celebrated the life and legacy of our early ancestors, something we do annually on each Labor Day weekend. However, we didn’t know that choosing the Labor Day weekend would prove to be so very fitting. In the process of further researching the family history, it was discovered that my grandparents Jacob and Corena Wright Sutton were married on Sept. 6, 1914, with their marriage vows being exchanged at the residence of Judge Crumpler who lived in Honeycutts Township, near the Bearskin community in western Sampson County.
In the post-Reconstruction Era, the lives of my great-grandparents Cato and Venus would have been vastly different if the American government had lived up to the promise of equality as outlined in the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. This missed opportunity to fulfill the promise of America had a profound impact on the humanity of my ancestors and their divine right to freedom. Instead, they were relegated to an existence as second-class citizens in the country of their birth.
Sadly, we will never know how their potential for greatness would have manifested itself if they would have been treated with the full measure of equality and respect, along with having access to equal opportunity. Instead, my great-grandparents lived at a time when black Americans enjoyed limited civil rights and liberties, with the vast majority of blacks working primarily as sharecroppers’ living in a vicious “cycle of poverty and debt.”
For the most part, a whole generation of freed black people, following the end of the Civil War in 1865 had their humanity dismissed and were mistreated solely because of the color of their skin. Realizing the struggle for racial equality and justice should have been “everybody’s fight” from the very beginning, it’s not hard for me to lend my support to the Black Lives Matter Movement and to support the stand taken by Colin Kaepernick as well.
Still, as a country, we need to do more to acknowledge the harm and devastation caused by years of slavery and the incalculable psychological effects of Jim Crow. One doesn’t have to look at the state of Black America for too long to realize that many of these issues are the “legacy of slavery” exacerbated by years of discrimination and racism. Particularly, economic justice is still far away, requiring us to do much more in closing the employment and education gap.
As a nation, we have a moral obligation to commit to equality of opportunity for all, putting in place policies and practices that help the underserved and underemployed. I do believe “the potential for greatness lives within each of us.”
As a family, the descendants of Cato and Venus Sutton will continue to honor our ancestors for having to endure such degradation of their divine right to freedom.