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Descendant Of Slave Owner: Lynching Memorial Brings To Light A 'Buried Narrative'


As I mentioned, I was in Montgomery for the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. And it was a very emotional experience for many, as you might imagine, especially for descendants of lynchings who came to see their ancestors suffering acknowledged, in some cases, for the first time. But it was also deeply moving for people with other connections to the story it tells. Margaret Wrinkle is one of the people I met at the opening. She is a writer. She's from Birmingham, Ala. And while many visitors there were dealing, in general terms, with a painful Southern legacy, Ms. Wrinkle had a distinctly personal perspective. She knows that her ancestors owned slaves, and she spent years trying to come to peace with her family's legacy. Ms. Wrinkle is still in Montgomery, Ala., where she's been exploring the memorial, and she was kind enough to take some time to talk with us. Hi, Margaret. Thanks so much for joining us.

MARGARET WRINKLE: Hi, Michel. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So, just remind us - how did you figure out that your family had been slaveholders in the past?

WRINKLE: Gosh, I feel like I've known it for so long. I don't know when I came to know it. One family gathering at an old home place, the house is gone but the two fireplaces are still there, and my cousin looked from one fire place to the other and said to me, I guess the question is not did they have slaves but how many did they have? And so I knew it. I'm seventh-generation Southern on one side and eighth on the other. So, I knew, I guess, probably since high school, maybe?

MARTIN: So what was your - first of all, why did you want to go to the opening of the memorial, and what was your reaction when you went?

WRINKLE: The memorial is bringing to light this buried narrative, this hidden story that has shaped so much of our behavior and our actions. And, you know, those people are horrified by those postcards of people at these lynchings bringing their children and everything, but I think they forget that the lynchings were also a form of social control for white people. Because if you take a seven-year-old white child to a lynching, he's never going to make friends with a black child. It just reinforces the racial lines and that was the purpose of it. And so when you have this memorial and you have all these people coming together in this - in this sacred space, then we all come out of the lie and we're all able to be together. It's hugely significant, and powerful, and healing.

MARTIN: I know it's a sensitive question but can I ask you when you talk to other members of your family about what you've discovered and what you've been thinking about all these years, what did they say?

WRINKLE: Well, it's challenging for them, but I think they're proud of me, and I think we're all moving forward. I might be dragging some of my family but I know - you know, we're all on a spectrum on where we are with this. As I say to them, I mean, I'm the first post-civil-rights-movement generation. I was born in July of '63. So, I'm the first generation who was actually taught that we're all equal. So, I'm the first generation who's had the benefit of that being the norm.

MARTIN: What do you say to those who say - and you know, we hear it all the time like that was a long time ago. It has nothing to do with me. Black people need to get over it. You know, stop talking about slavery, stop talking about reconstruction, stop talking about lynchings that's just an excuse for not getting your act together, not going to school, taking care of your kids. You know, and clearly people feel that...

WRINKLE: What I say to that...

MARTIN: What do you say to that?

WRINKLE: What I say to that is the people who got their act together got lynched. I mean, it was an economic terrorism. One of the reasons people got lynched is that they were successful, economically, competitive. We're looking at the aftermath of a very intentional campaign. And so we have to be very intentional in addressing that campaign, acknowledging it, and trying to move forward from here.

MARTIN: Margaret Wrinkle was kind enough to talk to us from Montgomery, Ala., where she's attending the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the opening of the Legacy Museum. Her latest novel "Wash" came out in 2013. Margaret, thanks so much for talking to us.

WRINKLE: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.