Ben Affleck admitted his embarrassment over learning that an ancestor owned slaves. He tried to hide that past in the PBS genealogy show Finding Your Roots With Henry Louis Gates, Jr. After his efforts came to light, the actor and director identified that relative as Benjamin Cole.
Well, the Associated Press decided to conduct an independent public records search of its own to uncover the details.
Affleck’s great-great-great-grandfather Benjamin Cole gained custody of his mother-in-law’s 24 slaves upon her death in 1858. The will instructed him to turn them over to his three sons when they became adults.
But census records from 1850 (eight years earlier) state that he owned 25 slaves. Cole was the sheriff of Chatham County, Ga., which includes the city of Savannah, and owned a “modest” farm of about 100 acres of cleared land. County records show that he paid taxes on his land, a dog, a horse and a carriage—but not for his slaves, also considered taxable personal property.
AP found a possible explanation for the murky records in the 1860 census. Cole may have held those slaves as an estate executor and trustee. But it’s clear, according to AP, that Cole and his wife owned at least one slave of their own.
As a Southern sheriff, Cole may have worked to deny freed blacks their rights after the Civil War.
The Savannah Daily News and Herald reported in 1867 that Cole’s men clashed with military authorities at a courthouse when a group of freed blacks tried to vote.
Read more at the Associated Press.