I am a descendant of enslavers. I learned this a few years ago, yet lately, what I’m discovering is how examining history and choosing to face it provides an opportunity for truth-telling, open conversations, and a path to repair and heal from the past.
When my sister Gayle and I were teenagers in the 1970s, our maternal grandfather often spoke with pride about his paternal grandfather, the abolitionist, who had lived in the part of Missouri that favored the Confederacy during the Civil War. The Confederate Army conscripted him into service, yet the family story goes that he paid another man $300 to fight for him. That is the only story Gayle and I remember about our ancestors as it relates to racism and enslavement.
Since the early 2000s, the Embrey Family Foundation has focused its investments on several passion points, including social justice and racial equity. While these have been major pillars for the foundation and for myself personally, I’d never really stopped to review my family’s own history. More recently, my curiosity about our personal lineage grew, particularly as it relates to White privilege, systemic racism, and inequity.
Through online research, my sister uncovered a plethora of information about the people who make up our family. Because we come predominantly from southern states, we knew there would likely be enslavers somewhere in our family’s genealogy, but we weren’t prepared for how frequently Gayle found links to enslavement in both our maternal and paternal lines. During the past few years, we discovered some families in our ancestral lines enslaved one Black person while others enslaved up to 23 Black people.
One ancestral family enslaved a nine-year-old Black boy and no one else. I wondered, was he orphaned? Did his parents die on the voyage to America? Or was he taken from them and enslaved once he arrived here? I thought about what this boy’s life must have been like, growing up without parents to love and protect him. I’ve tried to comprehend what it would’ve been like to not be considered a human being. To have no rights and no hope for advancement. No agency over self, living in constant fear for your life.
Because of our family’s lineage and what we can assume our ancestors did to his family, to this young boy, and to others enslaved by our ancestors, I have chosen to own my complicity, my involvement in the immense systemic disparities that exist in America today. After witnessing the social unrest over the last year, I have been emboldened to take what I know, take action, and speak out about my history.
In claiming my ancestry, I choose not to pretend the horrors of the past did not happen: from enslavement, to Black communities being destroyed, to cities designed to separate, to food deserts. I choose to face my ancestral lineage and my family’s contribution to the system that I have benefitted from all my life, the system of White supremacy. I acknowledge my White privilege and choose to look it straight in the eye.
I began learning about the concept of White privilege in my early days at the Embrey Family Foundation. That was the first step on a personal journey of awareness and discovery. This process required me to dig into my deep-seated belief systems and implicit racial biases. The realities revealed to me of our social structures, coupled with the knowledge of my ancestral lineage, provides me the space to consciously choose to help reform and repair our one-sided systems.
Beyond my personal journey, the work of the foundation continues today as we pursue investments that seed opportunities for racial equity in Dallas.
Dallas Truth Racial Healing and Transformation (DTRHT) is a non-profit organization that addresses race and racism through narrative change, relationship building and equitable policies and practices.
Just one week after the July 7th, 2016 Dallas shootings at a Black Lives Matter Rally, DTRHT was incubated as the result of a call with Dr. Gail Christopher, a VP at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and designer of the Truth Racial Healing and Transformation curricula. She came to Dallas to meet and visit with the foundation community. Six foundations signed on to a letter from The Embrey Family Foundation, requesting Dallas be considered for a multi-year grant to launch racial healing work in our city.
Dallas received the grant. And due to that much has been accomplished in these past few years, but there is still more to be done.
The Embrey Family Foundation team has learned from, partnered with and invested in Dallas Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation with the mission to make the city radically-inclusive. We call on foundations and community members to fund and support this work.
Join us on Tuesday, June 29th from 10am-11:30pm for Funding Racial Equity: A Call to Transformation, a free online event geared towards the local and national funding community including foundations, corporate giving organizations, giving circles, individual donors, and any philanthropically connected community members. Register online at: https://dallastrht.org/
As I’ve learned through my own lineage and through the foundation’s initiatives, examining history can be painful and uncomfortable, but we have to make an effort so we can reach a level of understanding that helps us more effectively deal with the problem. Examining history provides a path to repair and heal from the past. It is a choice.
To the White community: make the choice to examine your history. Unearth your story. Discover the truth and deepen your understanding. When we know more about where we came from, we can find understanding, initiate healing conversations, and begin to achieve equity.
Lauren Embrey is President and Philanthropic Visionary of The Embrey Family Foundation and CEO of Embrey Interests, Ltd. She serves on Boards in Dallas, Washington DC, and New York City including The AT&T Performing Arts Center, The Women’s Media Center, and PEN America.