Rembert Methodist Church, built around 1835, sits outside of Woodrow, South Carolina. Courtesy photo.

By Elizabeth Rembert

My interest in my family history didn’t start until a black man with the same last name messaged me on LinkedIn.

“I’m sorry to bother you but my family is from Rembert, S.C., and I’m very curious how we come together in the family,” Hosey Rembert, an Army veteran from Dallas wrote. “I can only go back so far to a person named James Rembert; a slave owner my dad used to tell me about.”

I immediately messaged my own father: “Did our ancestors own slaves???????” I knew the Rembert family had been in the United States for a long time, but I didn’t know the facts of their immigration.

My dad directed me to my grandfather, Andy Rembert, who affirmed that Andre and Ann Rambert, our skilled, educated and prosperous ancestors, had settled in South Carolina.

Andre Rambert built on that foundation once he was in America.

“He seems to have been a planter who, in the course of the half century or more of his life in America, had acquired a considerable fortune which had apparently been invested otherwise in lands,” an entry on findagrave.com notes.

This fortune was probably passed through the generations to reach James Rembert. My grandfather said he was likely the wealthiest of our ancestors, and the legacy of his wealth lives on in an old church.

My grandfather visited the church during a South Carolina trip. As one of the state’s earliest Methodist gathering places, it’s on the National Registry of Historic Places.

James Rembert built it in 1835 and donated the land around it to the Methodist Church after he died. Now a cemetery filled with Rembert headstones surrounds the church.

“He was wealthy enough to build a church, and he was a successful planter with a lot of land,” my grandfather said. “In the mid-19th century, he would have needed slaves to work the fields.”

Census records from 1860 show that James Rembert was one of the largest slave owners in 1860 Sumter County, South Carolina. He owned 77 slaves during that census period, although the records also show that 98 freed slaves claimed the surname “Rembert” in the 1870 census.

The average cost of a slave in 1860, with age, sex and condition held constant, is almost $23,000  in modern currency. For men in their prime or with technical skills, the prices ranged from $34,000 to $57,000.

Altogether James Rembert probably held almost $1.8 million in enslaved assets. Looking into my family, you can see how it paid off: we’re generations deep in college degrees and my great-grandfather introduced the concept of middle schools to Houston. My grandfather studied at Oxford University to earn a doctorate in philosophy. He has held dean and president positions in private colleges throughout the country. My grandparents live in a house valued at almost $400,000.

Certainly, my family members have worked hard and done good things. There’s a family story about my great-grandfather riding into Galveston on horseback to help blockaders during the 1900 hurricane, which was the deadliest U.S. natural disaster and killed up to 12,000 people.

So, yes, it’s reality that we’re caring, hard-working people. And it’s also reality that part of our foundation of education and affluence was built by exploiting, abusing and owning African Americans.

I’m tempted by the family insistence that “Remberts have always been good, compassionate people. They would have treated their slaves well.”

Then I read an1850s guide to owners on how to keep orderly slaves, and I see that there’s no compassion in an institution based on inhumanity.

  • Maintain strict discipline and unconditional submission
  • Create a sense of personal inferiority, so that “slaves know their place”
  • Instill fear
  • Prevent access to education and recreation, to ensure that slaves remain uneducated, helpless and dependent

Learning about this part of my family’s history was difficult.  It’s one thing to understand that slavery was bad and feel generalized guilt, but it’s another thing to have messages on LinkedIn and census records that show how your family prospered from the slave trade.

It’s difficult and it’s shameful, but it’s important to acknowledge it. I was born in 1997. James Rembert lived in 1860. I know I am not responsible for his actions,  and I did not create the systemic and institutional racism that still works against people of color.

But I have benefited from it. My skin color gives me privilege, as does the wealth and education my ancestors stole from African Americans, and I think that fact, along with family anecdotes about altruism and influence, should be a part of my origin story.