2020 Presidential Race

Beto O’Rourke discloses that he’s descended from slave owners

“Something that we’ve been thinking about and talking about in town hall meetings and out on the campaign — the legacy of slavery in the United States — now has a much more personal connection,” O'Rourke wrote.

Former U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke.

2020 Presidential Race

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Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke disclosed Sunday that he and his wife are both descended from slave owners.

The former congressman from El Paso said the revelation “only increases the urgency I feel to help change this country so that it works for those who have been locked-out of — or locked-up in — this system.”

O’Rourke revealed the information in a post on Medium and in an email to supporters around the same time The Guardian posted a story saying it informed O’Rourke that “abundant documentation exists of his and his wife Amy’s ancestors’ slave-owning and their support for the Confederacy.” O’Rourke told the newspaper that his family knew nothing about the ties until The Guardian contacted him.

In the email, he revealed that he was given documents showing that his paternal great-great-great-grandfather had two women, Rose and Eliza, listed as possessions.

O’Rourke’s ancestors “were able to build wealth on the backs and off the sweat of others, wealth that they would then be able to pass down to their children and their children’s children,” he wrote. “In some way, and in some form, that advantage would pass through to me and my children.”

He added, “Something that we’ve been thinking about and talking about in town hall meetings and out on the campaign — the legacy of slavery in the United States — now has a much more personal connection.”

In addition to his paternal great-great-great-grandfather, he said that it was likely that a maternal great-great-great-grandfather owned slaves in the 1860s. He also wrote that his wife, Amy O’Rourke, had an ancestor who owned slaves and another who was a member of the Confederate army.

“I benefit from a system that my ancestors built to favor themselves at the expense of others,” he wrote. “As a person, as a candidate for the office of the Presidency, I will do everything I can to deliver on this responsibility.”

This isn’t the first time O’Rourke has talked openly about the privilege he enjoys as a married white man. In an appearance on “The View” earlier this year, he acknowledged there are “things that I have been privileged to do in my life that others cannot” and expressed some regret over a Vanity Fair cover that coincided with his campaign announcement and quoted him as saying he is “just born to be in it.”

In his message Sunday, O’Rourke listed several education, economic, health care and criminal justice policy proposals with the aim of aiding people of color, including “police accountability,” expunging arrest records for nonviolent drug crimes, home health visits to women of color to help reduce maternal and infant mortality rates, and increasing funding to minority-majority public schools. He also said that he would continue to support reparations for African Americans over slavery.

“That those enslaved Americans owned by my ancestors were denied their freedom, denied the ability to amass wealth, denied full civil rights in America after slavery also had long term repercussions for them and their descendants,” he said. “In the aggregate, slavery, its legacy and the ensuing forms of institutionalized racism have produced an America with stark differences in opportunities and outcomes, depending on race.”

Like others in the 2020 field, O’Rourke has grappled with the issue of reparations already this year. His first comments on the issue as a candidate emphasized the need for the country to first have a conversation about racism in its history, and he said at the time that he didn’t believe reparations should be the “primary or initial focus” of that discussion.

He later said as president he would sign into law a bill by U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, that would create a commission to study reparations, legislation that has drawn the support of most 2020 contenders, including fellow Texan Julián Castro. More recently, as noted in The Guardian, O’Rourke responded yes when asked by a voter in South Carolina if he supports reparations.

Patrick Svitek contributed reporting.