Records offer view into Affleck’s ancestor and slavery

By Russ Bynum AP

SAVANNAH, Georgia — 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 �X 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.

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 in April, the ��Argo�� actor and director identified the relative as Benjamin Cole on Twitter. A publicist for Affleck reached by The Associated Press offered no further comment. The AP used historical public records to independently confirm that Cole was Affleck’s ancestor.

��I didn’t want any television show about my family to include a guy who owned slaves,�� Affleck said in a Facebook post 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 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.