NEW ORLEANS — Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, is stressing his family tradition in his repeated pitches to voters as he seeks reelection, particularly in the field of law and order and the direct line of four generations who held the sheriff’s badge in Tangipahoa Parish.
“One of the greatest influences in my life that made me who I am today was growing up in a law enforcement family,” said an advertisement this summer for Mr. Edwards’ reelection campaign. “My father was a sheriff, my grandfather and great-grandfathers were sheriffs, one of my brothers is a sheriff and another is a police chief.”
The governor’s personal record does not reflect racist votes or comments, but there are roots to the Edwards’ family tree and elements of its law-and-order approach that his campaign has not highlighted.
Mr. Edwards often refers to “four generations” of Edwardses, a time frame that includes Frank Millard Edwards, the governor’s grandfather who was a state lawmaker in addition to Tangipahoa Parish sheriff.
While in Baton Rouge, in 1956, Frank Millard Edwards voted for legislation that would have kept state schools segregated in violation of the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, which mandated segregation at all athletic and “public” events such as dances, and required white teachers for white students.
Another bill that earned Frank Millard Edwards’ approval would have classified donated blood. In July 1958, records show, the governor’s grandfather voted for legislation that would have required donated blood to be labeled “Caucasian,” “Negroid” or “Mongoloid” to indicate the race of the donor and require blood recipients to be informed of its origin except in emergencies.
The governor said late Thursday that he stands on his personal record.
“I have spent my career fighting for every man, woman and child to have equal opportunities for prosperity and success,” Mr. Edwards said in a statement to The Washington Times on Thursday evening. “The actions of my ancestors before I was born, if true, do not in any way reflect my views. As the song says, ‘may the work I’ve done speak for me.’ Anyone who knows me knows that I’ve spent my life fighting against inequality, and I will continue that work into the future.”
The Edwards campaign did not dispute the accuracy of any of the records The Washington Times used in this article.
Histories of many families, especially in the Deep South, are entwined with slavery and its aftermath and are part of a complicated issue that many Democrats are working to put at the center of the national conversation.
Left-wing activists and scholars argue that much of the white wealth in the U.S. was amassed through the exploitation of slave labor and that reparations are in order.
Some Democratic 2020 presidential candidates are co-sponsors of a bill to study reparations for slavery, and the Democratic majority in the House called black celebrities to testify on the topic this summer. Media outlets such as The New York Times have announced that racial history will inform all of its coverage and have started projects to set the nation’s founding not with the Declaration of Independence in 1776 or the Pilgrims’ landing, but to the first arrival of slaves on Carolina shores.
Mr. Edwards, 53, was asked directly about reparations Monday at the Press Club in Baton Rouge and said it is “not something that I have studied or am considering.”
The governor’s position as the leading member of a family that has long profited from some of the ignoble aspects of Louisiana history is not unusual, analysts said.
“A lot of white politicians have something like this in their background, especially in the South,” said Jeff Sadow, a conservative writer and a political science professor at Louisiana State University in Shreveport.
“But what we see in this case is a political family that seems pretty comfortable with what was present in the Jim Crow era,” Mr. Sadow said. “The voting rolls back then did not always accurately reflect the black population, and therefore the family must have depended on some sort of white supremacy coalition to get elected.”
Two Republicans are the chief opponents of Mr. Edwards heading into the Oct. 12 primary. One of them, Rep. Ralph Lee Abraham, said no one in his family ever owned slaves or profited from slavery.
Baton Rouge businessman Eddie Rispone, the other main Republican challenger, did not respond to requests about whether slavery played a role in his family history.
In the case of Mr. Edwards, slave labor appears to have been instrumental in the family’s rise to affluence. Records show that spacious family homes, such as Edwards Manor near Wilmer, were built by slaves who used timber they cut and hued from the family’s extensive land holdings.
Conveyance records in the St. Tammany Parish Courthouse show Daniel Edwards, a friend of Andrew Jackson’s and the family patriarch who first held elected office in Louisiana, buying and selling slaves.
The governor’s great-great-grandfather, Nicholas Stone Edwards, then became a member of the exclusive “planter” class, which historians generally describe as people who owned more than 20 slaves.
Census records show Nicholas Stone Edwards expanded the family’s slave ownership. In 1830, he owned 35 slaves. By 1860, on the eve of the Civil War — in which he fought on the Confederate side leading what was known as the “Edwards Guards” — the family’s slave holdings had swelled to 57 people.
These dark chapters of the family history have been deliberately suppressed, said Omar Dantzler, a black Democratic gubernatorial candidate whose family has long clashed politically with members of the Edwards family in Tangipahoa Parish.
“A lot went on in this parish that concerns me,” said Mr. Dantzler, whose low poll numbers have kept him out of gubernatorial debates this fall. “A lot of African Americans aren’t aware of this — that’s the catch.”
Some of the governor’s black allies in Baton Rouge leapt to Mr. Edwards’ defense and said the timing of the story smacks of underhanded politics.
“This is a smear campaign in the final weeks of an election and has nothing to do with Gov. Edwards or his record as governor and a legislator,¨ said state Rep. Randal Gaines, the chairman of the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus and the vice chairman of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
“Gov. Edwards has championed equal rights under the law, but also fought for opportunities for success for future African American generations. There’s a reason these sorts of attacks are coming right now — out-of-state special interest groups know that Gov. Edwards has the support of a vast majority of Louisianans, and we stand by him 100%.”
Chuck Collins, director of the Program on Inequality at the liberal Institute for Policy Studies, said family trees such as Mr. Edwards’ are indicative of the sort that lie at the center of the reparations discussion.
“A family with over 50 years of enslaving people prior to the Civil War, [this] should be understood as a substantial form of wealth ownership,” said Mr. Collins, speaking generally and not specifically about Mr. Edwards. “This would have contributed to substantial [unpaid] improvements to land-based wealth. Even with the shock of wealth evaporation after the Civil War and Emancipation, these families benefited from decades of unpaid labor.
“It is common sense that families that have this wealth heritage are akin to owning land and other assets that benefit subsequent generations,” he said.