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Why Slave-Era Barriers to Black Literacy Still Matter

Editorial Desk, New York Times, January 1, 2006
Editorial Observer; Why Slave-Era Barriers to Black Literacy Still Matter
By Brent Staples

Those of us who write about our families inevitably engage in conversations with the dead. The two specters who take up most of my time these days were black, slave-era founders of the Staples family line. My great-grandfather John Wesley Staples, of whom I have often written, was conceived in the waning days of the Civil War, narrowly missed being born a slave and died just 11 years before my birth. His mother, Somerville Staples, was enslaved in the home of a prominent Virginia doctor when she became pregnant with John Wesley, her last child and the first freeborn member of the Staples clan.

My great-grandfather and his mother were barely visible against the backdrop of the 19th-century South when I first started to focus on them about 15 years ago. Since then, the outlines of their lives have become steadily clearer, thanks to remembrances from elderly relatives and documents that have recently turned up in the public record. It will take years, perhaps even decades, to flesh them out fully. But it is already clear that their 21st-century descendants stand heavily in their debt and that my career as a writer would have been much less likely -- and perhaps even impossible -- without them.

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