A family death in 1858 left Ben Affleck’s great-great-great grandfather with legal custody of his mother-in-law’s most valuable property — her slaves.
There was Cuffey, whose value was estimated at US$500 in handwritten estate records still on file with the Chatham County Probate Court. There were Henry and James, valued at US$1,000 apiece. And Robert and Becky, worth US$600 as a couple. They were among 24 slaves willed to Benjamin L Cole with instructions to turn them over to his three sons once they reached adulthood.
Nineteenth century documents offer a window into the life of the Hollywood star’s ancestor and put Benjamin Cole right at the center of the South’s reckoning with slavery. His family not only owned slaves, but he also served for nearly a decade as sheriff of Chatham County, which includes Savannah, Georgia.
Photo: AP/ Lauren Victoria Burke
His nearly a decade as the top law enforcement official in one of the South’s most important cities started before the Civil War, when slavery was a way of life, continued throughout the war, when its citizens were fighting to maintain slavery, and ended years after the secessionist Confederates surrendered, when tensions between newly freed slaves and whites desperate to maintain control coursed through the city.
“Slavery touched everything. Everybody had some kind of a connection to it in some way,” said W Todd Groce, president of the Georgia Historical Society.
Evidence that Cole owned slaves drove Affleck to ask the Public Broadcasting Service and Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates to remove his relative from a TV program exploring Affleck’s family tree. After Affleck’s actions became public last month, the Argo actor and director identified the relative as Benjamin Cole on Twitter. A publicist for Affleck reached by the AP offered no further comment. The AP used historical public records to independently confirm that Cole was Affleck’s ancestor.
Photo: AP/ Russ Bynum
“I didn’t want any television show about my family to include a guy who owned slaves,” Affleck said in a Facebook post from April 21. “I was embarrassed. The very thought left a bad taste in my mouth.”
Nearly 144 years before he was dismissed by his great-great-great grandson as an embarrassment, Cole was praised as a “universally respected” citizen by the Savannah Morning News after he died on Nov. 16, 1871. Though his birth date is not precisely known, Cole lived for about 57 years.
When Cole became sheriff in 1860, after briefly holding the job in 1856, slaves made up about a third of Savannah’s 22,000 people. Many labored on vast rice plantations south of the city. Others worked as house servants, wagon drivers, hotel waiters and messengers.
Cole himself had a modest farm with about 100 acres of cleared land. Census records from 1850 identify Cole as the owner of 25 slaves.
City and county tax digests paint a different picture. They show Cole paid taxes on his land, a dog, a horse and a carriage. But he never paid for any slaves, which were also taxed as personal property.
The 1860 census offers a possible explanation. It shows Cole held 31 slaves as an estate executor and trustee for Ann S Norton and SL Speissegger, Cole’s in-laws from two marriages. It was Norton who left her slaves to Cole’s sons from a previous marriage. In 1857 he married Georgia A Cole, Speissegger’s daughter. She was Affleck’s great-great-great grandmother.
Benjamin and Georgia Cole had at least one slave of their own. Cole’s wife paid taxes on a single slave in 1863 and 1864. It’s not clear if the slaves Cole held in trust worked for him.
“You can pretty much count on him not letting them sit around,” said Jacqueline Jones, history department chair at the University of Texas at Austin and author of the book Saving Savannah: The City and the Civil War. “If he’s going to feed and clothe them, he wants them to be productive.”
But the end was near. Savannah surrendered to the Union in December 1864 and the Confederate army itself surrendered the following April, forcing the South to yield to the abolition of slavery. Sheriff Cole was left to keep the peace between fearful, resentful whites and freed blacks demanding access to the ballot and other citizenship rights.
In April 1867, in the yard of the county jail, the sheriff presided over the hanging of two black men condemned for murder. The Savannah Daily News and Herald reported Cole personally placed white caps over the men’s faces before releasing the trapdoor beneath their feet.
A year later, during Cole’s final months as sheriff, the newspaper reported a courthouse clash between Cole’s men and military authorities as crowds of freed blacks tried to vote in an election.
Ending slavery had a devastating effect on the wealth of many white Southerners. Public records suggest Cole’s family fortunes may have suffered too.
In 1858, Cole held in trust slaves worth an estimated US$13,100. Thirteen years later, he died with US$575 in the bank and US$543 worth of land and household furniture. Estate records show Cole’s heirs received another US$1,000 from the Georgia Legislature as compensation for unpaid services during Cole’s time as sheriff.
Cole’s body now lies buried in an unmarked grave at Laurel Grove Cemetery.
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