By Kirra Jones McDaniel
Kirra Jones McDaniel is an associate in Polsinelli’s Products Liability and Toxic Torts Practice Group, with a secondary emphasis in Commercial Litigation. Kirra’s experience includes managing complex litigation from discovery through appeal. She has represented corporations in diverse industries, including food and agriculture, medical devices, automotive, industrial minerals, utilities, electrical components, and construction.
I am the great-great-great-granddaughter of Isadora Thompson, a Black woman who survived chattel slavery in the United States, and died free. In 1855, Isadora was listed in the property inventory of Baker Boswell Degraffenreid, one of the largest slaveholders in Fayette County, Tennessee. When Baker Degraffenreid’s daughter, Sarah, married Dr. Solomon Green, Baker’s wedding gift to his daughter consisted of various land holdings as well as 14 human beings, including Isadora. Baker drew up a “Deed of Gift” attempting to convey the women, men, and children, and their issue, to Sarah, as separate property, out of reach of her husband.
As the Civil War was fought and the South plunged into economic ruin, the event Baker Degraffenreid had sought to avoid occurred. My great-great-great-grandmother was pledged as collateral to secure Dr. Green’s debt, and his creditors wanted to collect. This is how my grandmother’s name came to be listed in a Tennessee Supreme Court case. Smith v. Green, a case filed in Memphis trial court before the Civil War’s end, but ultimately decided after the war ended in 1867, addressed the creditors’ ability to seize my grandmother to satisfy Dr. Green’s debt. The court held that since she had been emancipated in 1865, during the pendency of the case, the court could no longer hold her as property, and the debt was cancelled.
My great-great-great-grandfather Phil McBride was born in Missouri. At some point he was purchased by the slave trading firm Ware & McCorrey of Brownsville, Tennessee and then sold to Daniel G. McBride, a blacksmith. His “bill of sale” states “[f]or and in consideration of the sum of Six hundred and fifty Dollars to us in hand paid we have this day bargained and Sold unto Daniel G. McBride a negro boy Slave named Filmore of yellow Complexion about Sixteen years of age, the title of which said Boy we bind ourselves to warrant and forever defend. We also warrant him to be sound in body and mind and a slave for life.”
Isadora, born into slavery and freed in 1865, raised my grandmother Elvis Smith Jones, who was born in the summer of 1899. My grandmother told the oral family history to all her children and to anyone else interested in Tennessee history or a colorful yarn or two. In fact, she spent hours telling her West Tennessee stories to a man named John Marshall, a Tennessee magistrate and historian who found the supporting documentation, and used it to write two books and to assist in compiling the history of Tennessee’s first Black legislators, one of whom also came from the Degraffenreid plantation.
Those Black legislators from West Tennessee, who took part in government nearly as soon as the 15th Amendment gave them the right in 1870, numbered 14 by the end of the 45th General Assembly in March of 1887. After that, it would be another 78 years before Tennessee seated another Black legislator, in 1965. That “bright spot” in Tennessee state history is a familiar testament to the fact that opportunity for Black Americans has never been constant, but has come in fits and starts.
Although the years begin with “18” and not “20,” it must be considered that these events are not far removed in time if measured by lifetimes and generations. The inequality created by slavery and entrenched by Jim Crow reaches its tentacles into my generation. Although I could use numerous examples such as real estate, banking, or generational wealth, to illustrate, I will use the one I have the most experience with —the institutions of education. My parents attended segregated schools growing up. When “separate but equal” was the law of the land, my grandfather Curtis Jones purchased a school bus to transport Black children to a single-room schoolhouse, where students used second-hand textbooks with missing pages and outdated information. When Brown v. Board of Education integrated schools, my parents faced various forms of racism from White instructors, students, and guidance counselors who did not take their aspirations seriously and, among other things, steered them into vocational trades instead of college. Many Black people of their generation had such terrible experiences in newly integrated schools they ultimately wished their all-Black schools had been given equal resources, instead of being forced to attend schools with administrators and students who perceived and treated them as inferior. Although I did not experience those same educational hardships, there were considerable barriers to my siblings and I receiving a quality education. But for the courage and advocacy of my mother, we would not have. When my family lived in New Orleans, a school administrator at an elite private school (whose tuition was $5,000 per year) informed my mother the lack of diversity at the school was because “Blacks are not interested in a quality education for their children.” In Dallas, my elementary school principal admitted he intentionally placed the Black and Latinx students into the homeroom of one of the worst teachers in the district, because he “thought they’d feel more comfortable around people they knew.”
As Frederick Douglass said in his famous July 5, 1852 speech to the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society, “[w]e have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.” I tell my story and the story of my ancestors to help people understand the reason for a continued civil rights movement and the necessity for drastic changes to the way the country operates. The vestiges of slavery were entrenched by the Jim Crow era, weaponized by the War on Drugs and mandatory minimum criminal sentences, and are perpetuated by voter suppression, mass incarceration, privatized prisons, and police lynchings.
My mother is approximately three years younger than Emmett Till would have been this year had he lived. And she, like her mother before her, and undoubtedly like my great-great-great-grandmother, has witnessed Black men, women, and children being murdered on a White person’s whim. As a little girl, I remember finding one of my grandmother’s old Jet magazines and looking at Emmett Till’s mutilated face in horror and disbelief, unaware it remained “open season” on Black lives, and I would myself witness the deaths of so many, including the children Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and Aiyana Jones.
The fact that I, an officer of the court, stand on the shoulders of Isadora Thompson, once considered a “possession,” magnifies her words, “you are as good as anybody and better than most.” This signified her refusal to allow others to define her. It is this resilient spirit, plus the sacrifices she and my ancestors endured that propel me to push the ceiling, and establish new or no boundaries.
The time for change is now. I do not want another generation of my family to endure the ills of racist violence perpetrated on our sons and daughters, or to suffer from the systemic oppression that permeates every facet of Black lives in America. The ti me is now to make the ceiling of our ancestors the foundation for our movement so the arc of history can now take a sharp turn toward true justice, equality, and liberty for all.