Virginia Man Sues Local Paper, Reporter for Accurately Reporting His Family’s Slaveholding History

Photo: Scott Olson (Getty Images)

Here’s the thing about descending from a “First Family of Virginia”—there’s going to be an abundance of receipts about your family’s slaveholding past.

One Charlottesville man, apparently, couldn’t abide the publication of those receipts and is suing a local newspaper and professor for disclosing his family’s slaveholding past—and having the sheer gall to insinuate that it might have any bearing on his present circumstances.

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As the Daily Beast originally reported, Edward Dickinson Tayloe II is suing the C-Ville Weekly, as well as a reporter and one of her sources, for focusing heavily on his family’s history in a recent profile of him. Tayloe was the focus of their attention because he is one of the 13 plaintiffs suing to stop the removal of Confederate monuments from the city.

The article, published on March 6, (accurately) refers to Tayloe as descending from “one of the largest slave-owning dynasties in Virginia.” Reporter Lisa Provence also details (accurately) how the Tayloes owned several cotton plantations, including at least seven in Alabama. And, lest the reader want to brush over what exactly a “slave-owning dynasty” entails, Provence notes (accurately) how the Tayloes forced hundreds of the enslaved people—the laborers who made their fortune and power possible—to walk 800 miles to Alabama, where they were then sold.

In the article, Provence reached out to University of Virginia professor Jalane Schmidt, who also leads free monthly tours of Charlottesville’s Confederate statues, according to the Washington Post. Schmidt provided—as sources and experts are supposed to—her thoughts on Tayloe’s family history and his current behavior (that is, staunchly opposing the removal of Confederate monuments).

“For generations, this family has been roiling the lives of black people, and this is what [Tayloe] chooses to pursue,” Schmidt said.

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The 76-year-old filed a defamation suit against Schmidt, Provence, and the C-Ville Weekly two months later, alleging that the reporting of his family’s history, along with Schmidt’s quote, did irreparable harm to his reputation.

From the Post:

The suit alleges that the article destroyed decades of goodwill built up with clients and neighbors by falsely insinuating that Tayloe is “a racist” who joined the monuments lawsuit to “antagonize people of color.” The story also implied he—like his ancestors—generally hopes to “roil the lives of black people,” according to the suit.

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Seems like a man deeply concerned about being portrayed as a racist could have found something else to do with his final years on earth aside from (looks at notes) preserving ahistorical monuments devoted to men who would literally rather die than live in a country without slavery. Still, Tayloe wouldn’t be the first white person to be more preoccupied with the insinuation that he’s racist than whether his choices uphold racism.

At any rate, Tayloe is seeking more than $1 million in damages in a lawsuit that, ironically, will do far more to spread the news of his family’s slaveholding legacy than a local newspaper article ever would. But while legal experts who spoke to the Post believe Tayloe’s case will be thrown out (truthful statements, by definition, cannot be defamatory, and Schmidt’s opinion will likely be protected by the First Amendment), some cautioned that Tayloe’s case could be a harbinger of more such lawsuits to come.

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From the Post:

It seems that as a society we’re currently revisiting our history of slavery,” said Evan Mascagni, political director for the Public Participation Project, a nonprofit group that advocates for First Amendment rights. “As more and more information comes to light … I think we will see a rise in lawsuits targeting those who are drawing attention to that family history.”

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About the author

Anne Branigin

Staff writer, The Root. Sometimes I blog slow, sometimes I blog quick. Do you have this in coconut?