In Franklin, Descendants Of A Slave And Slaveowner Talk About Their Shared History | Nashville Public Radio

In Franklin, Descendants Of A Slave And Slaveowner Talk About Their Shared History

Jan 12, 2016

Mary Scott holds Ann Walling as a baby in the 1940s. Scott worked for Walling's great-grandmother, who was the same age — first as a slave, then as a houseworker, later as a companion.
Credit Courtesy of Ann Walling

Ann Walling has a haunting old family photograph.

It was taken of her as a baby in Mississippi in the 1940s, and she's held in the lap of an African-American woman. That woman, whose full name was Mary Jane Fairfield Hodges Perlina Green Scott, worked for Walling’s great-grandmother for decades — originally, as a slave.

As Walling was writing a book about her family's Southern history, she started examining the complicated relationship between Scott and her own family. In the process, she met Scott's great-great-great granddaughter. Andrea Scott, who works as a nurse in Valdosta, Ga., visited Walling in Franklin in November. 

Interview Highlights

On the first conversation: Ann's cousin proposed the idea of finding the descendants of the African-Americans who had worked for their family in Mississippi. When he first talked to Andrea, she wasn't sure how to react.

“He unloads all this info as far as your family," she tells Ann. "It was all just kind of weird, and my brother was like, 'What do they want?' I was like, 'I don’t know.' Slave, slaveowner — you know, a lot of white people, they're not trying to touch that.”

On the family photograph: After Ann sent Andrea a copy of the book, Andrea wrote an email describing her reaction to seeing a picture of her great-great-great-grandmother for the first time.

"I hurriedly turned to the pages where I could, along with the rest of the world, see my great-great-great-grandmother, finally, as a human being. I’m not sure how long I stared at that picture, holding a baby that was clearly of no relation to her, but probably no one thought of one simple picture of her holding her own grandbaby.”

Ann says she teared up reading Andrea's email. "Just the lightbulb clarity that I could never see before — that she’s holding the wrong baby."

On Mary Scott's legacy: Before hearing from Ann's family, Andrea didn't know Mary Scott existed. Her family didn't have the luxury of a well-documented history. So when Ann invited her to meet in person, Andrea agreed.

"I'm grateful for that because now I have names, and I have pictures, and I have an inside perspective with someone who lived with my great-great-great grandmother. 

Andrea Scott, left, and Ann Walling speak at Parnassus Books.
Credit Kim Green

"I just felt I owed it to my grandmother. Why would I not take the opportunity to be her voice? Let’s go ahead and talk to Miss Georgia’s granddaughter. Let’s have a conversation about it.”

On the legacy of slavery: Ann says she's had a long process of realizing how much Southern culture places white, Christian men at the top of a rigid hierarchy. "The race question is so difficult in our society. That structure, even though it's got a jillion cracks in it, it's still there."

On what Mary Scott would think about Ann and Andrea meeting: "With this situation, she'd be proud. [With] society, she'd probably be more or less like, 'The more things change, the more they stay the same.' "

Writing Excerpts

Ann and Andrea spoke at Parnassus Books in November, shortly after the release of Ann's memoir, "Sunday Dinner: Coming of Age in the Segregated South.”