Servant Unto Death in hopes ever to merit your Esteem!
I often imagine Harford Tate was a tall, strong man whose presence filled a room. Born in 1803, in Georgia, Harford was brought to Alabama by his slave master, former United States Senator Charles Tait in 1819 who was taking advantage of available land in the new territory. In 1813, the US annexed West Florida after the Spanish surrendered Mobile to the American troops. This opened up millions of acres of Creek Indian territory to white settlers, including Senator Tait and his son James. James Asbury Tait originally came to Alabama in 1817 with three slaves to start preparing land for the arrival of his father. Senator Tait sent 60 additional slaves in January 1819 to help clear the land and plant corn and cotton. Intriguingly, 40 of the slaves that arrived in the territory belong to the Senator and 20 were a wedding present to James. It is hard to know if Harford was one of the 60 slaves that came to Alabama to work under James but we do know he eventually settled in Alabama with Senator Tait and James.
Harford was of fair complexion because it is believed that Senator Tait was his father. This was common on plantations. Harford was a smart man who unlike his fellow slaves, could read and write. Maybe because he was the son of the slave master, he received a very basic education and became a trusted confidant of Sen. Tait. This is evident in a letter Harford wrote to the Senator in 1826, providing an update of life on the plantation.
The letter was included in a 1929 book entitled Life and Labor in the Old South by Ulrich Bonnell Phillips.
There is not a lot of information about Harford other than a few mentions in the letters of Senator Tait and his son James. He is mentioned in Senator Tait’s will along with another slave named Howard (also believed to be Senator Tait’s son). Harford was to be freed after the death of Senator Tait and Howard after the death of his wife Sarah. There is no information about whether Harford was freed after Senator Tait’s death; however, in June 1836 Sarah sold Howard for $1,000.
The will of Senator Charles Tait
The document above reads, “On or before the 1st of December next I promise to pay Mrs. Sarah Tait or heir in the sum of one thousand dollars for a yellow man [illegible] named Howard. This 8th June 1836.” This image is the property of the Auburn University Libraries.
This is the history of my family. Harford is my fourth great-grandfather. The line goes, Harford, Harford, Jr., Homer, Carlia (Williams), Sarah (Roberson), Brenda (Barnes) and me. Its amazing to think how much life has changed since Harford’s birth in 1803. The Civil War ended slavery in 1865 and the 1960s brought about full citizenship for American blacks. However, what continues to survive 176 years after Harford’s birth is the institutionalized economic disparities that exist between blacks and whites in the United States. When Harford came to Alabama, he wasn’t able to benefit from the land made available to white citizens. He was forced to work the land that did not belong to him. His university educated “half-brother” James Asbury Tait took advantage of his status as a white citizen and built a large plantation in Wilcox County that reflected his wealth. A document I was reading from the National Park Service (NPS) states that “the Tait family of Wilcox County, Alabama was one of the wealthiest and most influential in central Alabama. At the time of his death in 1854, James owned plantations and lands in Alabama and Mississippi, and approximately 360 slaves. Upon his death, he provided his eight children with the means to live as royalty. Robert Tait inherited approximately 3,250 acres and part of his father’s stock in the Wilcox Female Institute. With this inheritance, son Robert Tait built the Tait-Ervin House in 1854.” Harford on the other hand toiled the land and supported the plantation of Senator Tait. He and his descendants became tenant farmers on the land of white landowners barely making enough to get by.
Senator Charles Tait (l) and his son, James A. Tait (r). Photos from myheritage.com.
Today, there is a lot of talk of institutional racism. It is a deep and highly charged subject because few people in power want to admit that the system that they have excelled in is systematically stacked against certain individuals in society. However, we should think about it like this, institutions in the United States were built when the country discriminated against blacks, women, Native Americans, Japanese, Chinese, and the list goes on. Article one; section two of the US Constitution of the United States declares that any person who was not free would be counted as three-fifths of a free individual for the purposes of determining congressional representation. Even our beloved Constitution was written with racial bias. The 14th amendment which was ratified in 1868 changed this provision and removed the bias from Article one. Harford was considered three-fifths of a white citizen when it came to political representation. He was unable to vote and exercise any rights as an American citizen.
When the second wave of American founding fathers in the 1960s came along, they fought to create a “more perfect union” demanding civil and voting rights. Instead of tearing down these institutions and rebuilding them to be inclusive of all Americans, we made cosmetic changes to the system and declared ourselves a “post-racial society.” Even up to today, we have been adding laws and regulations to a “house that was not designed to support these new additions.” In other words, the foundation that was laid in 1776 and 1789 can never create “a more perfect union.” We are coming to term with the fact that many of these institutions have legacies steeped in our racist past.
People, led by the Black Lives Matter movement are demanding reforms of law enforcement in the United States. If we look at the history of law enforcement in the United States, we will see many examples of police officers, sheriffs and FBI agents targeting black Americans and their leaders. Many times, those selected to protect and serve were allowing mobs to kill innocent men and women. From the very beginning, the system was that “law enforcement” was not designed to protect enslaved black people but rather to treat them as property and return them to their owners, no matter how cruel those owners were to their slaves. In the post-Civil War period, these same law enforcement figures turned a blind eye as black men and women were killed for just looking at a white person the wrong way. In 1893, a white mob killed four black teenagers in Monroe County, Alabama after a white farmer and his daughter were murdered and their home set on fire. Law enforcement officials coerced one of the accused into a confession that implicated the four young men. Once the community heard of their arrest, a mob surrounded the jail and demanded the teens be released into their custody. The mob hung the teens outside of Monroeville, Alabama. These teen faced no due process and were killed with little evidence pointing them to the crime. This case had eerily similarities to the Central Park Five case in the late 1980s. I used the example from Monroe County because Harford’s descendants would have been familiar with this case as they were living in Monroe Country, Alabama.
Rebuilding law enforcement in the US needs to be about removing the racist legacy and establishing in its place a system that truly serves, protects, and uplifts society. Context is important as we talk about race and understanding the ugly history of the US is important to understanding why institutional racism still affects the upward mobility of many in our society.
Some of the descendants of Harford Tait (Tate) during the 2020 Williams Tate Sigler Family Reunion.