With many figures in American history under attack because of ties to slavery, local Siamese twins descendant Tanya Jones respects opinions voiced — but thinks the twins shouldn’t be judged solely by their involvement with that institution.
“Just as with the stories of many of our forefathers, the story of the lives of Eng and Chang Bunker is not about the glorification of slavery,” Jones responded when asked to comment on recent concerns raised publicly about this link.
“Theirs is a story of two men from Asia who came to this country and overcame amazing obstacles,” added Jones, who declined to be interviewed directly on the matter — instead providing written answers to submitted questions.
“I was raised to believe that each of us sins,” she stated in acknowledging the twins’ reported role as slave owners against the backdrop of the many other admirable qualities they represent. “Hopefully, it is not those sins that define us, but rather our good works.”
The legendary pair recognized as the original Siamese twins were born in 1811 in Siam — the present-day Thailand — connected at the breastbone by a small piece of cartilage.
They later migrated to America and achieved fame through numerous public appearances highlighting their physical oddity, before settling near Mount Airy to farm and raise large families. Eng and Chang Bunker died in 1874, still conjoined, and were buried at a cemetery in the White Plains community.
Slavery concern surfaces
Twins descendants hold annual reunions in Mount Airy, also attended in recent years by representatives from the Royal Thai Embassy in Washington, D.C., which at the last gathering in July included Thailand’s ambassador to the U.S., Manasvi Srisodapol.
Jones, meanwhile, in addition to being a great-great-granddaughter of Eng Bunker — who along with Chang has numerous descendants in this area and elsewhere — is executive director of the Surry Arts Council.
That organization is planning to build a major new facility near Blackmon Amphitheatre which is to feature a Siamese Twins museum and a statue honoring the pair.
As the reunions and building plans have proceeded over the years, the specter of slavery encompassing other historical figures gradually has crept into the Eng and Chang Bunker legacy.
At times this is manifested though stray anonymous online comments reacting to news events highlighting the Siamese twins, but it reached a new level with the publishing of a letter to the editor in The Mount Airy News on Aug. 1 in the wake of the last reunion.
David Busick of Mount Airy, the letter’s author, referred to comments made by Ambassador Srisodapol during a July 17 reunion luncheon praising the “pioneering spirit” embodied by Eng and Chang along with their hard work and entrepreneurship.
“Does Ambassador Srisodapo know their history?” Busick wrote in reference to the slavery issue. He then went on to cite accounts of the Bunkers buying two children while labeling the twins as slave owners and traders.
“They were only two of a large number of slaves bought and sold by the Bunkers,” Busick wrote of the children, mentioning the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill as a source documenting such activity.
Jones did not respond to Busick’s letter itself, relying on guidance she once received from a former Mount Airy mayor, the late Maynard Beamer:
“I continue to follow the advice that Mayor Beamer gave me many years ago — don’t write letters and don’t respond to them,” the Surry Arts Council official commented. “You just keep on your blinders and do what you are doing.”
However, Jones did address the slavery aspect highlighted in the letter to the editor which also has become a nationwide concern — particularly after the death of George Floyd, leading to removal of Confederate statues and, some would argue, unfair revisionist history.
“I, personally, respect the opinions and beliefs of others on the many subjects that have become very polarizing,” Jones responded in light of that scenario.
“It is a fact that most civilizations and societies had slavery as part of their history and many still do,” she continued. “It is also true … that many of our forefathers owned slaves as did the successful farm families in Surry County’s history.”
Jones mentioned the slave-owning involvement of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, the latter being the author of the Declaration of Independence and one of the primary writers for the preamble to the U.S. Constitution.
While advocating that all men are created equal, Jefferson also owned more than 600 slaves and profited directly from slavery, she noted.
Yet Eng and Chang Bunker also can be viewed through other lenses within the context of the American Dream, Jones believes.
“The twins’ ‘American Dream’ and their priorities were to provide for their families and educate their children,” she observed. “They stated that very clearly in their wills.”
The full scope of the brothers’ lives should not be obscured, according to Jones.
“I value their story as an important one in Surry County history, American history, in the history of U.S.-Asian diplomatic relations, in the field of medicine, in our country’s/world’s religious history and in many other academic fields of study,” she stated.
“It is my and our goal to tell their story with the dignity that they worked hard to maintain during their lifetime,” Jones pledged regarding the museum plans.