Just Thinking About White Male Privilege

Circa 1795. But hold on, it does bear some relevance to today.

My genealogy hobby has never made an appearance on this blog before, because, well, most people think it’s pretty boring! But while I was transcribing a will, this NPR story came on about local militias. Which have multiplied like crazy ever since we elected a black guy as president, but I’m sure that’s just a coincidence, right?

The reporter had joined an Arizona militia group to figure out what motivated these guys to dress up in camo and play GI Joe. He found that one factor “…seems to be a kind of sense that they — white men — are losing power, and I think a lot of them are not happy with that.”


It occurred to me that these old wills and other documents are a remarkable testament to the power that white men held in our society not so very long ago. Here’s the will of John Parks, brother to my 5th great-grandfather, with my notes in bold text.

In the name of God Amen the Sixteenth day of May in the year of our Lord Seventeen Hundred and Ninety-Five

I John Parks of the County of Rowan and the State of North Carolina Being sick in Body but of sound mind and Memory and knowing that it is Apointed for all Men once to Die do think fit at this time to Make and Ordain this my Last Will and Testament and

first and principaly I Recommend my Soul to god who gave it and my Body to Buried in a Cristian and Decent like Manner at the Discretion of my Executors Nothing Doubting but I shall have the same again Reunited of my Body at the Resurrection by the Might favor of God through the Merits of my Redeemer

and as touching the things of this Life herewith it hath pleased god to Bless me with I give, devise and bequeath those Manner and Form following (viz)

[Of course “God blessed him” with these things in part because he was a white man in North Carolina in 1795…]

first I will all my Just and Lawfull Debts to be paid out of my personal Estate

secondly I give, Devise and Bequeath unto my Dearly Beloved Wife Jean the use of the plantation where on I now Dwell together with all my farming utensils and what Horses and Cows, Sheep & Hogs she May think necessary to keep for her suport and for to school and Raise my Children and all my Household furniture and what Cash and Cash Notes that is in my possession and my three Negros viz, Coffee, Will and Lil to her During her widowhood and until my Oldest Daughter Margaret arrives to the age of Eighteen years

[Two notes here: obviously, he OWNS three other people and can do so because he is white and they are black. Second, he has to explicitly give his wife these items because she does not have her own title to them. Some women did own property at this time, but in general, all property within a marriage belonged to the husband. He could leave her without a penny if he chose to. Women even had to apply for guardianship of their own “orphans” if their husband died.]

thirdly I will as soon as my Daughter Margaret arrives to the age of Eighteen years that all my personal Estate I have mentioned and Otherwise shall be Estimated and Valued and she my said daughter Margaret to have the one fifth part of the Amount thereof Except my Dearly Beloved wife who apears pregnant should Bare and bring forth a Living Child in this case my Daughter Margaret to have the one sixth share or part of my moveable or personal Estate to her her Heirs and Assigns forever.

[The “Dearly Beloved Wife” is just a temporary custodian of his estate. When the oldest child comes of age, the estate must be sold and split up among the children. At this point, a widow would generally live with one of her children until her death (in a household headed by a son, or son-in-law), independent living being almost impossible for an older woman at the time if she did not have substantial property of her own.]

fourthly, I give Devise and Bequeath to my daughter Mary & to my Daughter Jean share and share alike with my Daughter Margaret out of my personal Estate when they Arives to the age of Eighteen years to them their Heirs and Assigns forever.

[Note how this man is reaching out to control his property and family for years beyond the grave, despite the fact that his wife is still living, and is, you know, an adult.]

fifthly I give Devise and Bequeath to my son Hugh three Hundred and fifty Acres of Land the plantation whereon I now reside to be Laid of (off?) to him by a Line Running west from John ?’s Land including the Land joining Jaime Jones one together with a like share of my personal Estate with Daughters aforesaid and to be school’d and learn’d to be a good English Scholar if his capacity ? receiv’d it to him his Heirs and Assigns for Ever

[John Parks was considerate enough to leave some money to his daughters. However, the bulk of the value of the estate, the land, goes to his son, who was in this case, the third child and only about two years old at the time.]

sixthly I give, Devise and Bequeath In Case my wife who Apears pregnant should Bring forth a Living Child if a son to him the remainder of my Land Lying South of the Land aforesd and Bequeathed to my son Hugh and and the one sixth part of my Moveable personal Estate and Schooling Equal to my son Hugh and if a daughter to have share and share alike with my other Children my personal Estate to him or her their Heirs and Assigns forever

[If the fifth child is a boy, he also gets land. He and his older brother also get an education, while the daughters do not.]

seventhly I will & Devise that in Case my wife should not bring forth a Living Child a Male that the afore Mentioned to be given to my dearly Beloved wife Jean and to my well beloved Children Margaret, Mary, Jean to them their Heirs and Assigns forever.

Eighthly I will that my Smith tool & Still and Defels? and what of my Stock (?) my Dearly Beloved wife & my Executors may think Cumbersome to her and not Convenient for her to to keep may be sold and the Money arising from the sale thereof to be Equally Divided to all my Children & if Negro Will should prove Stubborn to be sold and the money arising from the sale thereof to be Divided to my Children Likewise

[If this man named Will is “stubborn” he is to be sold–presumably away from his family. Unwanted slaves were often sold to be field hands in harsh conditions on large plantations in places like Louisiana and South Carolina. This was a common punitive practice, and the source of the term “sold down the river.” So, if you were a white man of property, it was relatively easy to rid yourself of any black man or woman who might disagree with you.]

I make and Ordain my Dearly Beloved Wife Jean, My Loving Brother Hugh Parks and James Gibson Executors of this my Last Will and testament and I do Utterly Dismiss and Revoke all former wills by me Made Ratifying and Confirming this as my Last Will and testament in witness whereof I have thereunto set my hand and seal the Day and year first Written

Signed Sealed and published in presence of John Parks
Robert Cochran
Jacob Benning
Jno. Elston

This is where white men were just 220 years ago in the most democratic country on earth at the time. They were absolute monarchs in their own households, with complete control over all property–including other human beings. Their only competition for property, money, or power was other white men: women and anyone of color weren’t even in the game.

It’s just jaw-dropping when you see it over and over again in wills, deeds, and newspaper notices from the era. I wasn’t surprised to find that my ancestors owned slaves, but to see people matter-of-factly discussed as property truly brings home the reality of that situation. (Another will I just read bequeathed a two-day old child to one of the legator’s children. It looks like this was done at least in part to keep the child with its mother, but still, it is astounding that “ownership” of the baby could even be in question.)

So, first point: Americans need to know their history. White people, especially. But everyone should know about both the admirable and shameful parts of our country’s story. Slavery ended just over 150 years ago. Some of my great-great-great grandparents owned slaves. Even I was born just two years after the Civil Rights act. I led a pretty sheltered life in a southern college town, but I can remember some ugly incidents from my childhood, including being refused service at a South Carolina restaurant because there was black person in our party–and seeing one very spooky cross burning on a mountainside while driving through East Tennessee. In my lifetime!

I am also a woman born just forty-six years after the 19th amendment. My great-grandmother couldn’t vote. My grandmother, who is still alive and kicking, was born unable to vote.  Just wow.

Second point: when some aggrieved white man starts talking about making America great again, be wary. Which America does he mean?

Third point: when a bunch of white guys start waving guns around and calling themselves a “militia,” be aware that is a term from the Revolutionary War–exactly the period of John Parks’ will.

Now, go read some history!

John Parks' Will, Rowan County, North Carolina, 1795
John Parks’ Will, Rowan County, North Carolina, 1795


  1. My ancestors in Pennsylvania owned three slaves as well (PA didn’t outlaw until 1800). I always comforted myself that this was a benevolent caring relationship until I found an ad my 5G grandfather placed in a newspaper 1752 for his runaway slave; he sounded pretty bitter that the slave ran off wearing his own clothes which, it turns out, weren’t actually his own, but John’s.

    This John Gemmill was a rock-rimmed Presbyterian whose will lectured his children against fornication and profanity.

    In Pennsylvania though, widows were legally entitled to one-third of their husband’s estate. John’s wealthy widow made it into the 1790 Census under her own name (with 3 slaves enumerated) and founded the town of Alexandria. PA in 1793.


  2. Well stated as always and supported by cold, hard facts. We have to accept the past for what it was but the “good, old days” were generally only good for those in a position of power.


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