By Elisabeth Bumiller
December 22, 2007
Chapter 1: Twice as Good
The story of Condoleezza Rice begins at the close of the nineteenth century on a cotton plantation in southeastern Alabama, near the flourishing little town of Union Springs. The area was on the edge of Alabama’s Black Belt, named for the rich soil and slave labor essential for cotton, the state’s number one cash crop. By the early 1890s the slaves had been free for more than a generation, but so many remained as sharecroppers on the masters’ plantations that planters still controlled the lifeblood of the land. New railroads that intersected in Union Springs had only made the planters richer, as their grand Victorian and Greek Revival homes attested. Now they could send their cotton to the markets in Montgomery in hours instead of the days it had taken by mule.
In 1892, according to the census records of the surrounding Bullock County, Condoleezza Rice’s grandfather, Albert Robinson Ray III, was born. His father was a plantation field hand. But Albert’s grandfather, at least according to Rice family lore, was the white owner of the plantation, and his mother was a favored black servant in the plantation household. The family has no written record of Alto, and there are no clues in the 1890 or 1900 Bullock County census records. Rice knows little about Alto-her great-great grandfather-or the nature of his relationship to her great-great-grandmother beyond the apparent one of sexual exploitation of servant by master common to this place and time. “I know that Alto, who was white, was either Italian-born in Italy and made it here somehow, or his parents made it here somehow,” she recalled in an interview years later.
Rice also knew that one of her great-aunts, Nancy Ray, had sandy-colored hair and blue eyes. That was clear from the photographs of Nancy that Rice saw as a child, and from the recollections of her parents and grandparents. White ancestry was common to other middle-class black families in Birmingham, and across the South-one of Rice’s black friends claims a Jewish judge in her bloodline-and, while not something discussed casually with outsiders, was no cause for shame. Many black household servants were taught to read, were exposed to fine things like “silver and china and linen,” and came to learn “about how advantaged Americans lived,” said Rice’s friend Freeman Hrabowski, a Birmingham native who is now the president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. (Hrabowski says his great-great-grandfather was a white slave owner from a plantation near Selma.) One of Rice’s friends has recalled jokingly discussing with her whose white ancestors were more aristocratic. “It was just sort of part of the landscape,” Rice said.
Whatever the specifics of Rice’s ancestry-the family says there were white landowners, favored household servants, and education going back generations on her father’s side as well-the important point is that it powerfully shaped her view of herself as a black patrician. Any serious look at her life must begin here, in an intermingling of the races and two separate strands of American history. Rice grew up seeing herself as part of the nation’s founding culture. At the least, her ancestry was a crucial part of the self-confidence that fueled her rise. She never considered herself an outsider or called herself an “African-American”-to her ears an immigrant designation she has always rejected.
“We have a racial birth defect that we’ve never quite dealt with,” Rice said. “Which is that, really, there were two founding races-Europeans and Africans. They came here together, there was miscegenation. We founded and built this country together, and we are more intertwined and intertangled than we would like to think.” She has long said that the shock over Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with the slave Sally Hemmings was misplaced and naive, although she acknowledges the legacy of rape that produced so many mixed-race children in the South at the time. “It’s a legacy that was basically not one of choice and volition but of violence and oppression,” she said. “And so I think that’s why people have trouble admitting it and talking about it and understanding it.”
In Rice’s family, the Italian ancestry appears to have been a source of pride, or at least was valued enough to make the family pass Italian names down through succeeding generations. Albert Robinson Ray III’s brother was named Alto, and later, Albert would name one of his own sons Alto-Alto Ray, Condoleezza Rice’s uncle. Two of the other children of Albert-Angelena and Genoa-also had Italian names.
Condoleezza is of course an Italian name, too, made up by Rice’s mother from the Italian musical notation, “con dolcezza,” which means “with sweetness.” The family story has always been that Rice’s mother picked the name because she was a classically trained musician and loved Italian opera. But in an interview in late 2006 Rice suggested that her name was in part inspired by the man she believes to be her Italian ancestor. “Alto, as you can tell, is an Italian name,” Rice said, adding, “as is Condoleezza.”
In Union Springs in the 1890s, little is known of Albert Robinson Ray III, Condoleezza Rice’s grandfather, other than his likely labor in the cotton fields. Rice family lore picks him up again at the age of eleven, around 1904, when a white man is said to have assaulted his sister. Albert responded to the attack by beating up the white man, a crime so severe for a black youth that he fled Union Springs, terrified that he would be lynched. His fears were not unfounded: Like much of the South, Bullock County experienced a sharp erosion of black civil rights after Reconstruction ended in 1877. Between 1889 and 1921 in Bullock County there were seven documented lynchings.
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