Black History Books News Slavery

In ‘They Were Her Property,’ a historian shows that white women were deeply involved in the slave economy — The Undefeated

In ‘They Were Her Property,’ a historian shows that white women were deeply involved in the slave economy — The Undefeated

White women of the pre-Civil Conflict period were much more shrewd and complicated than stereotypes would have us consider. They were savvy financial actors, not airheads in crinolines and corsets.

A new e-book from College of California, Berkeley historian Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers should dispel the fable of the Southern belle for good. In They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave House owners in the American South, Jones-Rogers appears at testimonials from formerly enslaved individuals, collected by Federal Writers’ Challenge as a part of the 1930s Works Progress Administration. She then cross-referenced their accounts with payments of sale, census knowledge and different legal paperwork to color a new picture of what female slaveholders were like. By displaying the monumental financial pursuits white women had in slavery and the steps they took to safe those interests, Jones-Rogers offers proof that these women typically were no totally different from their male counterparts.

Yet, the picture of the sort, nurturing white lady is deeply ingrained in our culture in terms of race relations. Actor Allison Williams encountered this phenomenon after the release of Get Out in 2017. In an interview on Late Night time with Seth Meyers, Williams revealed how white followers would query her about her character, Rose Armitage, who is at the middle of a diabolical plot to entrap black males.

“They’d say, ‘She was hypnotized, right?’ And I’m like, ‘No! She’s just evil.’ How hard is that to accept? She’s bad!” Williams stated.

“And they’re like, ‘But maybe she’s also a victim?’ ”

Those who discovered it troublesome to consider in Rose’s unmitigated evil should learn They Were Her Property, which suggests there were fairly a few Rose Armitages in American history. The professor just lately spoke about her analysis with The Undefeated.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

How does the approach slave-owning women are depicted in pop culture have an effect on our notion of them? And how is that totally different from the method they actually behaved?

We now have Scarlett O’Hara in thoughts once we think about white women’s relationships to slavery. And there are a lot of explanation why that’s the case. In the period of slavery there was a very strategic try and craft a very constructive perception of slavery as an establishment, in a direct distinction to the characterization by abolitionists at the time.

One among the key parts of that narrative has to do with the depiction of white women’s position in the establishment of slavery. Considered one of the main things abolitionists stated was, ‘Look at what slavery does to white women. This is the fairer sex. This is the gentler sex. Slavery turns these white women into monsters. And if slavery can do that to the best of us, the better of humanity, then we need to get rid of it. We have to get rid of it because this is what it does to the individuals who care and nurture the most.’

Yale University Press

So pro-slavery apologists, who are refuting destructive views of slavery, are saying, ‘Oh, no. Look at what white women do. White women are caring for these enslaved people like their children.’

That image has caught. Apart from one actually necessary exception, and that’s the Jealous Mistress: the white lady who lives in the house and learns that her husband is having sex with an enslaved lady and she or he lashes out violently at that lady because she will’t lash out violently at her husband due to patriarchy.

So female slaveholders weren’t simply lashing out because of frustration with their lack of power in their marriages?

Whenever you take a look at what previously enslaved individuals needed to say about that, not solely do they not let white women off the hook for merely turning a blind eye, they don’t see it as that they had no selection. They see it as these acts of sexual assault were also financial calculations.

There’s one specific instance in which a lady stated her mistress stated principally, ‘So what?’ And she or he stated, ‘Go on. Do what he asked you to do, because you’re his property and you belong to him.’ Primarily acknowledging that a part of ownership, a key factor of possession, was with the ability to do what might be completed to enslaved individuals. Not only were white women complicit in acts of sexual violence towards enslaved individuals, enslaved individuals additionally stated that there were white women who orchestrated acts of sexual violence towards them.

A white lady who owned enslaved individuals in Louisiana would pressure enslaved males and enslaved women to have sex with each other. When those pressured sexual relations produced youngsters, she would hold the women, sell the boys. And then as soon as those women got here of age and became of age to the level the place they might have sex, she would drive them to do the similar factor. It was a multigenerational cycle of sexual violence that this lady orchestrated. The formerly enslaved lady who provides this account, she doesn’t know this not directly. She is aware of this personally as a result of she was subjected to this, and she or he stated that her mom was subjected to this. There’s no white male slave proprietor in her accounts. This is merely a white lady, who owned her and owned her mom, who’s orchestrating acts of sexual violence so that she might then reap the economic advantages of their means to supply youngsters as a consequence of their sexual assault.

What made you determine to write down this e-book?

In graduate faculty I specialized in African-American history, however I used to be also interested in women’s and gender historical past. What I observed was much of the scholarship I used to be reading about the experiences of enslaved African-People was in some way contradicting what many historians of white Southern women were saying about these women’s roles in relationship to slavery.

I had a gut feeling that there was extra. I went to one among the main locations where we attempt to document the financial dimensions of slavery and the slave trade, and that’s payments of sale.

There’s one specific instance in which a lady stated her mistress stated principally, “So what?” And she or he stated, “Go on. Do what he asked you to do, because you’re his property and you belong to him.”

There were hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of women who were both consumers or sellers listed on these bills of gross sales. Would I find references to these women in the data of slave traders, people who purchased and bought slaves for a dwelling? Would I discover them in those paperwork as consumers and sellers?

Women were in these paperwork as consumers and sellers.

Would I find references to them in the slave market, so individuals who might have handed by the slave market, been in the slave market, would they mention seeing women at auctions?

They were there.

Every other place that I seemed I was discovering copious proof to help what previously enslaved and enslaved individuals were saying about white women’s financial relationships to the establishment.

Who advantages when this info is obscured?

This is a very ugly feminist history. This is a story about a sure group of women finding their freedom, discovering their liberty, discovering their agency and their autonomy in the bondage, the oppression, the subjugation of one other group of individuals. That’s not a pretty feminist story. That isn’t the type of feminism that makes women’s historical past and feminism morally snug.

What happens once we understand and reckon with the reality that these people who we need to consider are maternal, we need to consider are more caring, are more nurturing, are in reality destroying families, severing connections between moms and youngsters, are promoting human beings away from every part they know and love for the remainder of their lives? What can we do once we understand that those individuals who we had hoped upon hope are our better angels will not be our higher angels? That they’re equally as darkish, equally as vicious and brutal and calculating, you already know? The jig can be up.

You write that it was widespread follow to treat individuals who were formerly enslaved and spoke to the Federal Writers’ Undertaking as unreliable narrators of their own lives. Why?

I feel it has to do with issues that historians have stated about why we should always strategy these narratives with warning. It has to do with the reality that many of those formerly enslaved individuals were youngsters once they were enslaved. They were youngsters, so how a lot might they really keep in mind about enslaved individuals or slavery once they’re, like, 7 years previous? They’re in their 80s and 90s and a few of them are even 100 once they’re giving interviews.

Others say perhaps these stories have been handed to them after which all the stories that they’ve heard type this type of conglomerate, this type of mosh of different individuals’s accounts, that they will’t really deem them credible because they don’t know that these stories don’t belong to them. The other thing that they are saying is that lots of the interviewers who carried out the interviews, the Federal Writers themselves, were white Southerners, were also descendants of slave house owners, so these formerly enslaved individuals were highly intimidated. They might not reveal the fact of slavery to those people for worry of insulting them or also for worry of violent retaliation.

From my own research, I discover that we’ve been overly cautious about these accounts. We now have infantilized formerly enslaved individuals by saying that we can’t belief what they say. These are the issues that we say about youngsters. These aren’t the things that we are saying about a person who stood in the crowds at a public slave public sale and watched their moms be bought to Tennessee. We’re infantilizing formerly enslaved people who might never forget something like that. They will always remember being themselves on auction blocks and being bought away from their moms and their households and never seeing them again.

What can we do once we understand that these individuals who we had hoped upon hope are our better angels will not be our higher angels?

There’s evidence, there are documents, that recommend that we’re being overly cautious. Accounts that were taken immediately after slavery was over, not 30, 40, 50 years later, however instantly after slavery was over, substantiate a lot of what formerly enslaved individuals were saying much later to WPA Federal Writers. I feel it’s time for us to only get over it and to trust that the individuals who experienced slavery and oppression on a every day basis can be the specialists to tell us about these experiences.

You present receipts on prime of receipts on prime of receipts, in phrases of main supply paperwork.

It was straightforward to do that in many instances. There are situations in some of the paperwork, some of the testimony of previously enslaved individuals, the place they provide first names, center names and final names. They usually say what her maiden identify was. When you will have those details, it isn’t exhausting.

They might inform me who she married, who she was married to earlier than she married the one that they later known as their master. They were giving genealogies that were related to their continued and perpetual enslavement. They were primarily telling these life stories by means of who had owned them and then also creating household timber for their house owners that allowed for me to go to different sources — the census, for instance — and hint these women for many years by way of the census knowledge to be able to determine and to corroborate what they were saying about who these women were married to, once they turned widows, in the event that they remarried, who they remarried.

I used to be capable of undergo the paperwork that historians and others beyond the academy deem as ‘legitimate’ and discover that the details could possibly be corroborated by means of those legitimated sources.

So for me it was actually necessary to do that because, once more, I feel we infantilize these formerly enslaved individuals once they tell us these stories and we are saying, ‘Well, we don’t understand how we will tell …’ There are situations in which we will now for positive, with out a doubt, without a query.

It just simply took me saying, ‘I need to do this because I know that people are gonna question what these people have to say. And here are the documents. Here are their receipts.’

You illustrate that white women developed workarounds for relinquishing their belongings to their husbands upon marriage. I considered the means marriage is usually prescribed to poor black individuals as a mechanism for closing the racial wealth hole, as if the cause there are so many poor black youngsters is as a result of their mother and father aren’t married.

These women know what’s going to happen to them once they get married. They understand that in the event that they personal anything, it becomes their husband’s. Not only do they know those issues beforehand, but they know that the regulation will ultimately cripple them in really necessary methods that would permit for them to be financially secure and autonomous, would permit for them to have a legal id separate from their husband.

Mother and father know this. The women know this. The women know this. They usually work around the regulation. They work out how they will protect some measure of monetary safety, in this specific case by means of the ownership of human beings, the ownership of enslaved African-People.

It’s really laughable that individuals would argue that for a black lady marrying somebody would truly be a financial profit for that. It’s laughable because you’ll be able to truly see white women preventing very onerous to keep away from the monetary incapacity that comes with marriage, that are constructed into the institution of marriage.

For those who take a look at these [white] women and the gymnastics that they interact in in order to bypass these disabilities that include marriage, in terms of their financial well-being, you understand that if it doesn’t work for them, it positive as hell ain’t gonna for the black lady.

You don’t provide concrete numbers relating to the quantity or proportion of white women who owned enslaved individuals. Why not?


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As a result of the number of women who owned enslaved individuals in the 19th century alone is so extraordinarily giant that I couldn’t gather and analyze that knowledge in the time that it took me to put in writing this e-book by myself. That is something that is one thing that I’m doing now. I’ve begun a undertaking that is taking a look at chosen cities and rural areas in the South, both in 1850 and 1860, in order to try to get a type of simply a slight, a primary understanding of slaveholding patterns amongst white women all through the South during these 20 years to attempt to perceive the broader phenomenon.

South Carolina has payments of sale for property transactions from the 1700s to pretty lately. I checked out a sample of 3,000 payments of sale involving enslaved individuals being bought or bought. Close to 40 % of the bills of sale included either a female purchaser or a feminine vendor.

The documents are there to collect this knowledge. I consider that if these different knowledge units are suggestive of anything, it might recommend that the number is way larger than we’ve imagined that they were earlier than. The numbers, although they aren’t in the guide, they’re forthcoming. But they recommend exactly what I show, that white women were deeply invested economically in the establishment of slavery and in the bondage and oppression of enslaved African-People.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, trend, the arts, and literature. She’s based mostly in Brooklyn.