House Speaker Johnson among US politicians with ancestral ties to slavery

By Tom Lasseter

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – It was one of the first moments in the Washington spotlight for junior congressman Mike Johnson. In 2019, the Republican from Louisiana was the ranking member of a U.S. House subcommittee discussing the controversial subject of slavery reparations.

Johnson told the panel he opposed taking money “from current taxpayers for the sins of a small subset of Americans from many generations ago.” To highlight the point, he shared a personal story.

“I actually have a much older son who happens to be African American,” Johnson explained. The lawmaker and his wife, who are white, “took custody of Michael and made him part of our family 22 years ago when we were just newlyweds, and Michael was just 14 and out on the streets and nowhere to go and on a very dangerous path.”

Ahead of the hearing, the congressman said, he had asked Michael “what he thinks about the idea of reparations. In a very thoughtful way, he explained his opposition,” Johnson said, without saying specifically what Michael had said.

Johnson, who in October was voted speaker of the House, had another personal tie to the issue of reparations: At least three of his direct ancestors were slaveholders. Johnson’s ancestral ties to slavery have not been previously reported.

A Reuters review of his lineage shows that one Johnson forebear, Honore Fredieu, enslaved 14 Black people in Natchitoches, Louisiana, in 1860. Among those listed on that year’s census is a pair of 1-year-old girls whom he enslaved.

Another Johnson ancestor, Amedee Rachal, enslaved four people just a few households away, the 1860 records show. Each of those slaveholders was a great-great-great-great-grandfather of Johnson; their children married each other.

Earlier, in 1830, Amedee Rachal’s father, Cyprian Rachal, enslaved 10 people.

In addition to Johnson — who as House speaker holds one of the most powerful positions in U.S. government — a Reuters examination of slavery and America’s political elite found some of the most influential politicians of today descend from slaveholders. They include President Joe Biden, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and two of the nine sitting U.S. Supreme Court justices – Amy Coney Barrett and Neil Gorsuch.

Among members of the last sitting Congress, Reuters found at least 100 lawmakers whose forebears were slaveholders in America. For most, including Johnson, it was the first time those connections to slavery have been publicly explored.

A spokesperson for Johnson’s office, Taylor Haulsee, sent a statement for this story: “As has been well-documented, the horrific legacy of slavery touches the ancestry of political leaders across the spectrum, including Presidents Biden and Obama. But the actions of people who lived hundreds of years ago do not have any bearing on the Speaker’s lifelong work for a colorblind society.”

Former President Barack Obama descends from a slaveholder through his white mother’s side of the family.

During an earlier review, Reuters examined a different Johnson ancestor as a possible slaveholder but could not determine if the ancestral link was sound. Johnson’s relationship to Fredieu and the Rachal family came to light when a genealogist working with Reuters examined other branches of the Johnson family tree after Johnson ascended to the speakership.

As with other political leaders, Reuters made clear in a letter describing the project to Johnson that it was not suggesting they were “personally responsible for the actions of ancestors who lived 160 or more years ago.”

Americans are divided on the issue of reparations. A Reuters/Ipsos survey published earlier this year found that slightly more than half of respondents identifying as Democrats – 58% – support reparations. Just 18% of Republicans do. The split is even greater between Black and white Americans. The poll found that 74% of Black Americans favor reparations compared to 26% of white Americans.

Reuters was unable to reach the man whom the Johnsons took into their family as a teenager. In an interview published last month, the Daily Mail identified him as Michael James. The publication quoted James as saying that, “If the Johnsons hadn’t taken me in as a teenager, my life would look very different today. I would probably be in prison or I might not have made it at all.” James added: “I always felt loved like I was a part of their family.”

Johnson’s office has in the past confirmed that he did not legally adopt Michael James because of the lengthy process involved.

Public records show a man by that name, who is approximately 40 years old, living in Los Angeles County, California. There was no response to phone calls and an email from Reuters to the number and address listed for him.

On matters of race, Johnson has at least twice publicly invoked Michael. During the 2019 reparations hearing, Johnson said he had “walked with him through discrimination that he has had to endure over the years and the hurdles he sometimes faced.”

Johnson also mentioned Michael the next year, during an interview on PBS that took place weeks after George Floyd, a Black man, was killed by Minneapolis police. Floyd’s killing set off protests in cities across America. “It was an act of murder,” Johnson said.

In the PBS interview, Johnson compared Michael’s life with that of the congressman’s son Jack, who is white and was 14 at the time.

“The reality is — and no one can tell me otherwise — my son Michael had a harder time than my son Jack is going to have simply because of the color of his skin,” Johnson said. “And that’s a reality. It’s an uncomfortable, painful one to acknowledge, but people have to recognize that’s a fact.”

(Reporting By Tom Lasseter. Edited by Blake Morrison.)