Beto O'Rourke says his family's ancestors owned slaves

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By Tim Stelloh  with NBC News Politics
Beto O'Rourke
Democratic presidential candidate and former U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke speaks at the Manchester Democrats annual Potluck Picnic at Oak Park in Manchester, N.H., on Saturday.   -   Copyright  Cheryl Senter AP

Democratic presidential hopeful Beto O'Rourke revealed Sunday that his family's ancestors owned slaves — a fact he said injected new urgency into a slate of policy proposals designed to grapple with slavery's legacy.

In a post on Medium, O'Rourke wrote that his paternal great-great-great grandfather enslaved two women, Eliza and Rose, in the 1850s. A maternal ancestor may have also owned slaves, he wrote.

Ancestors of O'Rourke's wife, Amy, also owned slaves, he wrote.

The Guardian first reported O'Rourke's family history, saying that "abundant" documentation exists on the website of the couple's "slave-owning" ancestors and "their support for the Confederacy."

In the Medium post, O'Rourke said he and his wife recently received documents that listed Eliza and Rose in a property log.

Sunday's revelation comes one week after NBC News reported that two great-great-great grandfathers of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell owned 14 slaves.

McConnell has opposed reparations for descendants of slaves, saying he did not think compensation "for something that happened 150 years ago, when none of us currently living are responsible, is a good idea."

In Sunday's post, O'Rourke attributed America's "stark differences in opportunities and outcomes, depending on race" to slavery and the generations of institutionalized racism that followed.

"That 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," he wrote.

O'Rourke said he supported reparations and proposed changes to education, economic, health care and criminal justice policies to "deliver on this responsibility."

Speaking recently to NBC News, Louis Cain, professor emeritus at Loyola University Chicago and an expert on the economics of slavery, said ancestral stories like O'Rourke's are probably far more common than people think.

"I suspect with the mobility of the American population in the 20th and 21st centuries, most of us have ancestors that owned slaves, including many individuals who did not arrive until well after the Civil War," Cain said. "The responsibility for what happened was collective, not individual."