Slavery is America's pre-existing condition

We are two people welded together by personal history and this country's legacy of slavery

By Lucian K. Truscott IV


Published May 21, 2017 1:00PM (EDT)

 (Courtesy of the Author)
(Courtesy of the Author)

This is a photograph of America’s pre-existing condition. It’s true that it’s a Truscott family photograph rather than a depiction of a sick person, and it’s not a recent photo, either. In fact, it was taken over half a century ago in Loudon County, Virginia, by my grandmother in the summer of 1951, just before my father went off to war in Korea. I'm on the left, age four, and on the right is my mother, Anne Harloe Truscott, and standing between us behind the rose bush is my brother Francis Meriwether Truscott, who was then about two years old. Walking between two buildings in the background wearing sweat-stained Army khakis is my grandfather and namesake, Lucian K. Truscott Jr., who only six years earlier had commanded the 5th Army in northern Italy until he took the surrender of Kesslering’s forces at the end of World War II. What we are doing in the photo was picking Japanese beetles from the rosebush and putting them in a Ball quart jar of kerosene held by my mother, a task which had been assigned by my grandfather, who thought of it as a good way for little boys to earn their keep.

When I first found this photograph in a shoebox in my father’s closet not long after he died, everyone in the photo was familiar to me, including the black girl standing just behind my brother. She is wearing what would have then been called a servant’s uniform: a black cotton skirt and blouse with detachable white collar, cuffs, handkerchief and apron, all of them starched stiff. Her head is tilted forward, and at first glance she appears to be watching what we’re doing with that rosebush. But if you look closely, her eyes are looking up, directly into the camera, and she is smiling not shyly, but slyly. The photograph was intended by my grandmother to be a picture of her grandchildren and daughter-in-law, but the moment belongs to the African-American girl in the servant’s uniform. Standing at its center, she dominates the picture with her body language and skin color against the whitewashed clapboard side of the farmhouse behind her. She is the only person who beckons to the camera with her eyes. Her smile comments enigmatically on the people kneeling before her, and by extension, on the whole scene — the garden and the farm and my family and grandma and grandpa and what we were like back then, and how she felt about us, and how she felt about herself at the moment the shutter snapped. When I found her in Loudon County many years later, I learned that this photo is in fact a comment on our pre-existing condition.

Even though this photo was taken when I was only four years old, I remember that day clearly. For my whole life, I’ve been able to form a picture of grandpa’s farm in my mind’s eye — where the barn and the outbuildings were in relation to the main house, how the formal garden looked in the back yard, and where the creek was just down the hill on the other side of a horse pasture. I remember that mom and dad and my grandparents would sit in the back yard in the evening having cocktails, and Frank and I would go down to the creek and throw rocks into the water. I remember that Frank and I used to wake up in the morning and scamper down the narrow staircase next to the kitchen and run out the back door to the barn, where we chased chickens and played with a litter of kittens. I remember that we were looked after by a young black girl who had a high, squeaky voice. And I remember that one day, she took us for a walk down the dirt road about a mile to her house, a small log cabin on the side of the road next to several others just like it.

I don’t know why I remember so much about grandpa’s farm, unless it was because that summer was the first time dad left us and went away for a long time because the Army said he had to. It had to have been traumatic not only for Frank and me, but for mom, as well. Maybe when dad left it was so painful that I ended up salving the wound with memories, to protect myself from the first time in my life I realized that dad might not come back. Or maybe it was the summer of my memory’s natural awakening, because the months and years that followed are just as fresh to me. My memories of that summer are those of a child, but the understanding I was looking for when I found the photo was that of an adult.

The picture is my Rosetta stone. All of its elements were present throughout my youth: mom in a thin cotton dress with a ripped seam in the armpit and summer espadrilles with a hole in the toe doing something with Frank and me in the absence of dad, who was following Army orders, gone off unquestioningly to whatever hellhole the Army had sent him; my brother Frank, intently and silently focused on what’s going on; grandpa looming in the background, coarse, impatient, scowling with much on his mind, looking like he’s on his way to chew someone’s head off; a black maid, hired by the family for a practical reason, such as looking after the boys, but in actuality, standing there very much aware of and amused by our struggle to follow grandma’s edict to be on our best behavior in the presence of “the colored help.”

The more I studied the picture, the more I thought the girl in the picture held the key to unlocking its mysteries. What were we doing out there in the garden on what must have been a stiflingly hot afternoon in July? Where was grandpa going, and why did he appear to be so pissed off ? What might have mom been thinking about as she crouched next to us in her shabby summer clothes? What was going on in our lives on the farm in Bluemont in the summer of 1951?

Her name is Ruth Basil and she was born less than a mile from the farm of the photograph in the log cabin we visited alongside the road from Bluemont to Centerville. The cabin was built in 1865 by her great-great grandparents just after they were freed from slavery at the end of the Civil War on land that was sold to them by the man who had owned my grandfather’s farm and the families themselves, including Ruth’s.

When I flew to Virginia some years ago and went looking for Ruth, I had a hard time finding her house because although the cabins were still there alongside the road, they were unrecognizable, as they had been covered in aluminum siding. But there they were, still occupied in Ruth’s case and that of several others, by the families of the freed slaves that built them. Ruth was 16 at the time this photo was taken, only 12 years older than me. She knew her great grandmother, who was born before the end of the Civil War, which means that Ruth grew up with a woman who had been a slave.

At the time this photo was taken, slavery wasn’t so long in the past — only 86 years, in fact. I have friends who are 86. Hell, in only 16 years, I’ll be 86. That’s how close we were in 1951 to slavery. That’s how close we still are today, that Ruth grew up in the home of a great grandmother who had been enslaved, that my grandparents bought that farm from the family of slave owners who had owned her family, that she still worked on that farm.

My grandmother was born at Edgehill plantation in Charlottesville, Virginia, less than 100 miles from her farm in Loudon County. Her family, the Randolph family, owned slaves at Edgehill and at several other plantations in that area, including Cloverfield, Shadwell and Monticello. Her mother, Mary Walker Randolph, was born in 1866, so she wasn’t a slave owner. But her grandfather and grandmother were, and so was her great-great grandfather, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, who was Jefferson’s first grandson and who owned Edgehill. My great grandmother, who I knew and visited the same summer this photo was taken, spent the first nine years of her life at Edgehill with Thomas Jefferson Randolph, who lived until 1875, which means that she grew up in a house owned by a man who had been a slave owner, who spent the first 34 years of his life with another slave owner, his grandfather Thomas Jefferson, who was also our third president.

That’s how close we are to slavery, to the history of the founding of this country. At the time this photo was taken, when we drove down to Charlottesville to visit my grandmother, there was only one dead person, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, between me and Thomas Jefferson, both of whom were slave owners. That’s how close we are to our past. It’s not ancient history. It’s right there.

I ended up spending a couple of days in Loudon County with Ruth. She remembered the summer of 1951 much better than I did. When I showed her the photo, she gasped, covering her mouth. “My goodness, look at me in that uniform! Oh, how I used to hate those things!” She explained that all the black women who worked for white families in those days had to wear them. The maid’s uniforms were hot, and the aprons and cuffs had to be starched and carefully ironed every day. For a 16-year-old girl who had to walk about a mile to and from my grandparents’ house every day, the uniform was a sign of servitude, as if the color of her skin wasn’t enough to set her apart from the people she worked for. She said my grandparents paid her 50 cents an hour, at a time when the going rate was only 25 cents. Ruth explained that her mother had gotten sick earlier in 1951, and she had to step in and take her place. She worked every day after school, and all day during the summer. Because of the extra money my grandparents paid her, she was able to earn money to help support her family, enough for clothes and books and school supplies.

But the thing that made it possible for her to work for my grandparents was that she didn’t have to cook. “My mother hadn’t bothered with teaching me anything about cooking,” she explained. “And so when she came down sick, there I was, having to take her job, and me, I didn’t know a thing about a kitchen. Every girl who worked for the white folks back then had to cook three meals a day. But not me, because your grandfather did most all of the cooking, and oh, was he such a good cook. I learned so much about cooking from him and your grandmother. I ate three good meals a day up there, and it’s a wonder I don’t look like a butterball in that picture!”

By the time I met her, Ruth had been running her own catering business for many years. One day I helped her cook for a gathering of about 200 who were celebrating the anniversary of one of the local black churches. The next day, a Sunday, she took me to her church. It was a stone building not far from her house. Families of freed slaves had pooled their resources right after the Civil War and bought the land and built the church. The families who built the church still attended on Sundays. It was the first structure in that area black people were legally allowed to own in the state of Virginia other than the homes of freed black slaves before the Civil War. They made it their own in 1865 or 1866, and it was still an important place in their lives.

Everything you would think would be true of Ruth actually was. She went to an all-black one-room schoolhouse. She walked along dirt roads to school. She grew up in a Virginia with “colored” bathrooms and “colored” water fountains, in a place where the only restaurants that would serve her were black restaurants. Her family had been very, very poor.

After my grandparents sold the farm, she went to work for the lady who bought it, and in fact, she still looked after the house for her on Mondays. But her family wasn’t poor any longer. She had been educated in a segregated system, but she owned the house where she grew up, now she owned her own business, and her older brother had recently retired from a high-level job with the CIA — where, coincidentally, my grandfather had been a deputy director in the late 1950s and early 1960s. And she still lived in the state of Virginia, which celebrated the era of slavery with statues of its famous “sons” like Robert E. Lee, who fought in the Civil War for the cause of slavery. In fact, symbols of slavery were all around. The road leading to the church where we cooked the dinner was named for John S. Mosby, the Confederate general famous for commanding “Mosby’s Raiders.”

Slavery was still with us in more ways than symbols. Its aftereffects were right there in the old photograph we studied, in the ironies in our lives. The great-great granddaughter of a slave looking after the great-great grandsons of slave owners. The different directions our lives had taken, and yet the similarities. She had learned to cook from my grandparents, and now her business was cooking. I had learned to cook from them as well, and I frequently wrote about cooking. Her brother worked for my grandfather in the CIA back in the early 1960s. How a single photograph I had found had brought us back together after so many years.

I have stopped in Virginia and visited Ruth several times over the years. The farm has been sold again, to a family sworn to preserve it, a change from the McMansion horse farms that have sprung up where other old farms have been torn down all over Loudon County. Along with Ruth’s house and the other houses of former slaves just down the road, that farm stands as a piece of a history we would do well to think of more often than we do. Ruth and I were lucky enough to be raised to know that our histories are not far in our pasts. We are America’s pre-existing condition, descendants of slaves and slave owners, welded together by our history. How we heal our pre-existing condition will determine if, morally, we live or die as a nation.

By Lucian K. Truscott IV

Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist and screenwriter. He has covered stories such as Watergate, the Stonewall riots and wars in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels and several unsuccessful motion pictures. He has three children, lives in rural Pennsylvania and spends his time Worrying About the State of Our Nation and madly scribbling in a so-far fruitless attempt to Make Things Better. You can read his daily columns at and follow him on Twitter @LucianKTruscott and on Facebook at Lucian K. Truscott IV.

MORE FROM Lucian K. Truscott IV

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

American History Editor'a Picks Personal Essay Slavery Thomas Jefferson