FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
I'm Farai Chideya and this is News & Notes. In the waning days of the presidential election, Americans have learned a lot about our own racial attitudes. And sometimes, we've learned about our history as well. Senator John McCain has a deep and specific tie to the history of the country's racial legacy. McCain's ancestors owned a Mississippi plantation and about 120 slaves who worked on the grounds.
Douglas Blackmon is the Atlanta bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal, and he tracked down some of the descendents of the McCain plantation. He just wrote the article "Two Families Named McCain." We're also joined today by one of those family members, Lillie McCain. She's a professor of psychology at Mott Community College in Flint, Michigan. Welcome to both of you.
Ms. LILLIE MCCAIN (Descendent, McCain's Ancestral Plantation): Thank you very much.
Mr. DOUGLAS BLACKMON (Atlanta Bureau Chief, The Wall Street Journal): Thanks for having me.
CHIDEYA: So let me start with you, Douglas. Why did you decide to research the McCain genealogy? And then, how did you do it?
Mr. BLACKMON: Well I had a book that came out earlier this year called "Slavery By Another Name," that was about this sort of terrible history in our past of how African-Americans were forced back into a kind of slavery after the Civil War and deep into the 20th century. And one of the readers of that book emailed me a couple of months ago and suggested that I might find it interesting to look into the history of the McCain family. And what really intrigued me, though, was not that the McCains had once owned slaves, but the idea that if there were descendents of those slaves who I could find today, how would they see this extraordinarily historic moment in our life as a society in which we have this person connected to their past in such an intimate way running for president against the first African-American nominee?
CHIDEYA: And how did you find Lillie McCain?
Mr. BLACKMON: I went over to Mississippi, to Carroll County, where she has siblings who are still living there, one of them on the family property that's been in the family for a couple of generations now, and spent some time looking through census records and asking around, and finally, you know, found my way to her sister, Mary McCain Fluker (ph). From there, I had the good fortune to get to meet all of Lillie McCain's living siblings, who are a truly remarkable group of Americans and really demonstrate fascinating things about how much our society has changed in the last hundred years.
CHIDEYA: So what was it like when he first contacted you?
Ms. MCCAIN: I was surprised that he'd contacted us. It just happened that we were on our way to Mississippi to surprise our brother for his 60th birthday, and my sister informed us that Douglas would meet us at her home. We were delighted to share with him, and found that intriguing that he was interested in the story.
CHIDEYA: Tell me a little bit about your family's path from the time that members of your family were enslaved on this plantation to being not only free people, but obviously you yourself being a, you know, a Ph.D-holding professional. Give me just a couple of people who were part of that change.
Ms. MCCAIN: Actually, it goes back as far as my paternal grandfather, who owned 40 acres of land. When my father returned from World War II, he purchased 120 acres of land and split it with his cousin. And we grew up, then, on the 60-acre farm right there at Teoc, Mississippi. Now, Teoc, as I understand it, used to be the McCain plantation. And therefore, McCain was just a prominent name in that area. It felt as if we were related to everybody in the community.
CHIDEYA: There was no particular secret that your McCains were descended from the relatives of Senator McCain. Did you ever think...?
Ms. MCCAIN: Absolutely not. We were told of that from childhood.
CHIDEYA: Did you bring it up yourself during the election, like going around being like, hey, you know what, you know, Senator McCain, you know, he's connected to our family?
Ms. MCCAIN: No I didn't. there was an oral history program put together (unintelligible) some time ago. We started - the program was related to the civil rights era. I participate in an interview related. And during that interview, I wandered on to the years of my childhood at Teoc, Mississippi, and eventually found myself talking about the McCain connection. And they were interested in that at my college. From that point, I really have not talked about it frequently. Although it's not something I'm ashamed of, I've just not talked about it frequently.
CHIDEYA: Doug, in your article you quote a statement from Senator McCain that says, "how the Teoc descendants have served their community, and by extension, their country, is a testament to the power of family, love, compassion, and the human spirit." How do you, personally, Doug, relate to that statement?
Mr. BLACKMON: Well the black McCains, I just can't say enough about what a remarkable group of people they are. Not just Lillie McCain and her siblings, but all the way back to the slave, whose name was Isam (ph) McCain and his wife, Lettie (ph) McCain, who married sometime right after the Civil War or around the end of the Civil War, but every generation of the black McCains, from the very beginning after emancipation.
This was a family that was intent on their own self-improvement and on the self-improvement of the community that they lived in. Lillie's great-grandfather was involved in starting what must have been the very first school for African-Americans in this incredibly impoverished community in the 1880s. Her grandfather, as she told you, bought land, and was a man who encouraged other African-Americans to obtain property and build their own economic independence.
And then her father led voter registration drives in the 1960s, he worked with Stokely Carmichael when Stokely came to Greenwood, Mississippi, and Carroll County. Lillie and her - some of her siblings were arrested in a march in Jackson, Mississippi. They integrated the public schools, their church was burned down by the Klu Klux Klan after Stokely Carmichael spoke there. Lillie's sister, Mary, ended up as a teacher. Spending her career as a teacher in the public schools of Carroll County, that none of the McCain children were allowed to attend until they integrated those schools.
Ms. MCCAIN: That's right.
CHIDEYA: Lillie, what's your family like? And what I mean by that is, obviously you have a long and proud history of being part of the fabric of American self-improvement. What are you like, in terms of getting together? I mean, would we find a bunch of the McCains sitting around a table talking about politics, or do you guys get together for family reunions and talk about your family's stories?
Ms. MCCAIN: We are a very closely knitted family. I have not, to date, spent a Christmas away from home. And when I say home, I'm talking Teoc, Mississippi. Our parents left the 60 acres to us. The home house is still active, we go there, we get together, we love to eat and talk. We absolutely love each other, we have great respect for what each individual has contributed. We support each other in everything that we do.
CHIDEYA: Have you talked about this presidential election, and who you, among your family, are going to vote for?
Ms. MCCAIN: I'm very pleased to tell you that I'm going to support Barack Obama, and it's a pleasure to do that. I'm fairly sure that all of my siblings are supporting Barack Obama. Not because he's a black man, but because of his intelligence, because we believe that he is the man for the job.
CHIDEYA: Douglas, what kind of reaction have you gotten to the article?
Mr. BLACKMON: It has spanned the gamut of everything you might imagine. I have gotten hundreds of emails and other comments over the last three days. And many readers read the story exactly in the way that I hoped it would be read. As a triumphal story, really of two families. Of how the black McCains overcame the legacy of slavery, but also how the white McCains broke from that very dark past and created a new tradition of national service and military service.
I've also gotten an enormous number of emails from people who interpreted this story to be some sort of an attempt to smear John McCain, which of course it's not. Because the fact that his great-great-grandfather owned slaves speaks nothing about who John McCain is today. I do think it's impressive that after all of this time, that the McCain reunion at Teoc Plantation that happens every two years has African-Americans and whites. And that whether they agree on their biological connections or not, that they have a shared respect for one another.
CHIDEYA: Lillie, before I let you go. Do you get a sense, just from, you know, being a teacher, for example, at Mott Community College, that people who may not have been invested in the past, you know, in voting and civics, are engaged?
Ms. MCCAIN: Yes I do. My impression is that we have far more young people involved than we have had before. And I attribute much of that to the energy of Barack Obama's campaign. I think the idea that particularly African-American young people are able to see hope in that America has come to the point to where they're willing to give Barack Obama a chance. Not because of the color of his skin, but again, as Dr. King said, because of the content of his character. I'm just so elated that America has grown so much in such a short period of time. Douglas was able to reveal that I'm only five generations from slavery. When I think about that, I am just amazed at the growth of this country.
CHIDEYA: Lillie, Doug, thank you.
Mr. BLACKMON: Thank you.
Ms. MCCAIN: You're so welcome.
CHIDEYA: Lillie McCain is a professor of psychology at Mott Community College in Flint, Michigan. She joined us from the studios of Radio Broadcast Services in Royal Oak, Michigan. And Douglas Blackmon is the Atlanta bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. He just wrote the article, "Two Families Named McCain: Candidate's Kin Share History With Descendants of Slaves." He's also the author of "Slavery By Another Name," and he joined us from the studios of Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.