The images depict the outside and a section inside the Donato estate. This was the former home/plantation of my uncle. The other image is a document of the life of Martin Donato. He did marry and have children. The document also places numbers of the number of slaves he owned and the value of his estate.
For those who saw my short clip on season 3 of Genealogy Roadshow (Boston), I was told about a distant relative of mine, my 6th great-uncle Martin Donato Bello – later dropped Bello and became Martin Donato, who was a free man of color and owned slaves. I had heard of African Americans owning slaves, but I had never imagined that I would have free people of color within my own family who would perpetuate the unjust and hypocritical nature of slavery. I was shocked when I was presented with the information. I was speechless at what i had heard. They presented me with a few documents that showed slave purchases and records indicating the number of slaves my uncle had owned. I saw a number over a hundred, of slaves he had owned at one time. I continue to ask myself why.
Why did he, who was a black man, enslave other black individuals? Perhaps we owned so many slaves to establish economic status and credibility. Perhaps he owned so many slaves because this was the life that he grew to see as “normal”. His father, my 6th great-grandfather (Donato Bello), was a European who had come to Louisiana with his European wife, my 6th great-grandmother, and owned slaves and had a family. Donato Bello later fell in love with a free woman of color and had several children with her. I am aware that she owned slaves, but not nearly as many as her son. The Creole culture came to be because of European men falling in love with free or enslaved women of color. Michael Nolden Henderson details this culture well in his novel, Got Proof: My Genealogical Journey Through the Use of Documentation.
While I do not know why Martin chose to own slaves, I find the owning of slaves by other people of color hypocritical. I understand the economic value and nature of slavery, but that does not mean that I condone it. I understand the confusion that free people of color may have had. In some states for free people color to remain, they had to own slaves. This notion is detailed in The Known World by Edward P. Jones.
I am sure I have other relatives, and possible direct ancestors who may have owned slaves. This particular relative of mine just caught my attention and blew my mind out of the waters with the numbers. Not to mention, his story is detailed, so I was able to find a lot of information about him and his family. He had a son, who fought for the confederate army during the Civil War. This, I am not surprised, and I can find other relatives, both distant and direct, who fought in the Civil War all of whom sided with the Confederates. I am confused as to why they – they being free blacks – agreed with the enslaved of the black people. In the will of Martin Donato, he freed about 12 of his enslaved people, but why? Why didn’t he free all of them. What was the purpose of owning them? What was the purpose of only freeing a small portion of his 90 slaves at the time of his death? I have a lot “why” questions that may never find whole answers, but I am curious to understand the life of Martin to try to paint a picture of the nature of this man and why he chose the path he did.
While I am appalled by the disgusting nature of slavery, I cannot hide from my own family’s truths. This is a part of my family history and I must own that. The house of Martin Donato Bello is located today at 8342 U.S. Highway 182 in Opelousas. It is one of the places marked by the National Register of Historic Places. The architectural style is considered to be a French Creole Cottage. House sat along side the first Simien’s in St. Landry Parish.