Recent research conducted by Reuters has shed light on the genealogies of America’s political elite, revealing that a significant portion of members of Congress, living presidents, Supreme Court justices, and governors are direct descendants of ancestors who enslaved Black people.
Among the 536 members of the last sitting Congress, Reuters found that at least 100 have ancestors who were slaveholders.
Furthermore, over a quarter of the Senate, or 28 members, can trace their families back to slaveholding ancestors.
This spans Democratic and Republican lawmakers, including influential figures such as Republican Senators Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham, and Tom Cotton, as well as Democrats Elizabeth Warren, Tammy Duckworth, and Jeanne Shaheen.
The examination also revealed that President Joe Biden and every living former U.S. president, except Donald Trump, have direct connections to slaveholders.
That list includes Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and even Barack Obama through his white mother’s lineage.
Additionally, two of the nine sitting U.S. Supreme Court justices, Amy Coney Barrett and Neil Gorsuch, have ancestors who were involved in enslavement.
The research conducted by Reuters also delved into the gubernatorial level, revealing that in 2022, 11 out of 50 U.S. states had governors who were descendants of slaveholders.
Eight governors hail from states that formed the Confederate States of America, which fought to preserve slavery.
Among them, Asa Hutchinson, the former governor of Arkansas, and Doug Burgum of North Dakota are seeking the Republican nomination for president.
According to Reuters’ findings, at least 8% of Democrats and 28% of Republicans in the last Congress had ancestral ties to slaveholders.
This disparity reflects the historical strength of the Republican Party in the South, where slavery was concentrated.
South Carolina, where the Civil War began, exemplifies the familial connections between lawmakers and the nation’s history of slavery.
Every member of the state’s delegation to the last Congress has ancestral ties to slavery. Sen. Tim Scott, a Republican presidential candidate, and Rep. James Clyburn, a prominent Democrat, both have ancestors who were enslaved.
All seven white lawmakers from South Carolina in the 117th Congress are direct descendants of slaveholders, as is the state’s Republican governor, Henry McMaster.
The unveiling of these ancestral ties to slavery comes at a time when the legacy of slavery is under renewed and intense debate.
The investigation by Reuters emphasizes the ongoing relationship between America and the institution of slavery, particularly among those who influence the country’s laws.
Henry Louis Gates Jr., a professor at Harvard University specializing in African and African American Research, emphasized in an NBC News interview that identifying these ancestral connections is not about assigning blame but recognizing the close link between lawmakers and slavery.
Gates stated that it served as an opportunity for individuals to learn and for the American people to gain a deeper understanding of their shared history.
The Reuters analysis goes beyond previous documentation of ancestral ties to slavery by focusing on the most powerful officeholders of today, many of whom have taken stances on race-related policies.
The comprehensive research provides a broader and more detailed perspective on the extent of these leaders’ connections to America’s “original sin.”
It also explores the personal and significant implications for lawmakers and prominent officials as they confront the realities of their own family’s involvement in slavery.
The research focused on direct lineal descendants rather than distant cousins. The sources analyzed included Census records, tax documents, estate records, family Bibles, newspaper accounts, and birth and death certificates.
To ensure accuracy, board-certified genealogists reviewed each case linking a contemporary leader to a slaveholding ancestor.
While the Reuters examination provided a valuable understanding of the ancestral ties between the political elite and slavery, it’s further acknowledged that the records available may not capture the full extent of those connections.
Many records have been lost or destroyed over time, leading to the possibility of an undercount.
Stacy M. Brown is the NNPA Newswire senior national correspondent.