“Frequently Heard Her Threaten to Sell Him”
Relations between White Women and Enslaved Black Men
De nex day I goes to de missy and tells her what Rufus wants and missy say dat am de massa’s wishes.
When Rose’s mistress coerced her to establish a household with Rufus, she asserted her authority. In Rose’s account, her mistress did not weigh Rufus’s or Rose’s concerns and instead reminded her of her supposed indebtedness to her master and of the physical punishment that awaited Rose if she did not obey his orders. The mistress in this situation ensured that Rufus would also be coerced into sexual intimacy with Rose.
Scholarship on the power that white women held in slave societies has generally emphasized the overwhelming subordination of white women to white patriarchs and their “domestic confinement.”1 Their husbands’ infidelities with white and black women, spousal abuse, restrictive divorce laws, and the legal and economic restraints placed on white women all underscore their degraded status. But this characterization of their position is possible only in relation to white men. When we widen our field of view to include enslaved people, we can see some of the forms of power that white women held.
Scholars have shown that mistresses were often as sadistic and abusive as masters and overseers.2 Cecily Jones argues that white women in Barbadian plantation society, for example, were “pivotal actors in the reproduction of ideologies and practices that secured white identity.”3 Gilberto Freyre argued that in Brazil, women as well as men operated in a climate of power and privilege that nurtured “sadism” and abuse. A jealous white mistress who knew of or feared sexual liaisons between enslaved women and the mistress’s husband often physically punished enslaved women, making them victims of both husband and wife.4 Likewise, Stephanie Jones Rogers reminds us that “white slaveholding women exercised life and death power over enslaved women and men” and did so as enforcers of the slave system.5 Others note that white women participated in sexualized violations of enslaved people in a variety of ways, including exploiting enslaved women as wet nurses and the forced and coerced prostitution of enslaved women in ports.6 This chapter contributes to that revised image of the role that white women, slave-owning and not, played in enforcing slavery and racial hierarchies.
The prevalence of sexual contact between white women and enslaved black men has been noted by numerous scholars, but few have explained the occurrence using the lens of sexual exploitation of enslaved men. The widespread presence of persons of mixed racial ancestry across the American South in the era of slavery has long stood as firm evidence, in the face of denials, that white men regularly sexually assaulted black women. Madison Hemings, for example, who was enslaved in Virginia by Thomas Jefferson, argued in 1841 that “the proof” of the rape of enslaved black women by white men was that “a very considerable portion of the slaves are of the mixed race.”7 But the converse situation, the regular instances of intimacy between white women and enslaved men, has not similarly been recognized as stemming from the sexual vulnerability of enslaved men and white women’s expression of power and dominance. The shards of evidence that we have about white women’s sexual actions toward enslaved men would indicate that the occurrences were produced by the very conditions of slavery that also fostered sexual contact between white men and enslaved women—the sexual availability of enslaved people and the use of sexual contact to maintain hierarchies conducive to the slave system. The absence of any explanation for sex between white women and enslaved men enables a naturalized assumption of consensual sexual contact, at best—and a traditional view of passive white women and the sexually aggressive black men who desire them, at worst. Characterizations of the men in sexual relationships with white women as “lovers” and “husbands” capture the general view of the relations as consensual.8
Sexual relations between white women and enslaved black men have not generally been viewed with the same concern about power imbalances as have relations between enslaved women and white men partly because we are still influenced by the legacy of slavery, a legacy that characterizes enslaved men as hypersexual. We are also still confronting legacies of patriarchy that denied white women sexual agency. Those powerful views of enslaved men and white women have long informed how we could see and understand relationships between white women and black men. Legacies of slavery also influenced the histories we have told and remembered. Initially, many of these histories espoused the vantage point of white patriarchs, denying white women virtually all agency and experiences and nurturing views of enslaved men that emphasized hypersexuality and dangerous manhood. Generations of scholars have worked to examine the evidence of enslavement and have redressed many of these historical fictions—but much remains to be (un)done.
Many of the sources that allow us to recognize the troubled nature of intimate relations between white women and enslaved black men are problematic. Some of these sources come to us from white men who had personal motives for characterizing white women as having engaged in aggressive sexual behavior with enslaved men: divorce cases filed by angry husbands and sexual assault cases provide commentary about white women’s sexual agency in a manner that was designed to attack their character in order to skew the outcome against the women. Taken individually, few of these cases would stand the scrutiny and weight placed on them as strong and unbiased evidence of women’s behaviors. However, these sources echo what we find in other types of sources and cases: the testimony of neighbors who appear to be without strong bias relating their knowledge of actions, the testimony of formerly enslaved men recalling their experiences, and the recollections of formerly enslaved women about what they witnessed. These sources all corroborate the evidence from white men regarding white women’s sexual actions. Collectively, the preponderance of evidence from a wide range of periods and geographic locations makes the case for white women’s sexual violations of enslaved men.
PREVALENCE AND OPPORTUNITY
Despite legal, social, and cultural prohibitions, sexual contact between white women and black men has been documented in virtually all colonies and states throughout the time of slavery. As Eugene Genovese argued over a generation ago, “White women of all classes had black lovers and sometimes husbands in all parts of the South, especially in the towns and cities.”9 Court and church records and newspaper accounts evidence that sexual intimacy between white women and enslaved men was not uncommon. As Richard Dunn has noted, in the early years of colonization in the West Indies it was “not unknown … for white women in the islands to cohabit with black men.”10 In 1681 one white woman married an enslaved black man in Maryland, apparently with impunity.11 In 1785 a woman in Virginia was punished by her church for “committing fornication by cohabiting with a negro.”12 As Bill Cecil-Fronsman concludes, in the antebellum era common whites believed that “their own place in society depended on the maintenance of a degraded black place.” However, some lower-status whites broke social and cultural barriers and “forged alliances with slaves.”13
In the era of slavery, white patriarchal society recognized white women’s sexual agency, resulting in social and cultural conditions in which white women were punished more often than white men for their sexual interactions with enslaved men. This has been correctly explained by a double standard that served white men’s positions in society, but it is also the product of a recognition of white women’s threats to white male patriarchy by troubling racial definitions and patriarchal bloodlines as well as standards of white male patriarchy. The courts punished nonelite white women disproportionately as a way to police the color line and in recognition of white women’s violations of it. Elite women generally escaped punishments and had greater opportunity and advantages to establish contacts with enslaved men that have escaped documentation.
We probably have more robust data on relations between white women and black men than those between enslaved women and white men because the former were more readily punished. This occurred in a wide variety of locations. In Virginia, Kathleen Brown found that the practice only increased from the late seventeenth century to early eighteenth century.14 In eighteenth-century North Carolina, for example, Kirsten Fischer reminds us that although interracial marriages were outlawed, only white women seem to have paid the price for forming them.15 Trevor Burnard and others have also observed this double standard whereby white women were punished for interracial relations while white men’s relations were kept as an open secret, especially in the Caribbean.16
Records of mixed-race children born to unmarried white women also evidence these sexual relations. One sixteenth-century traveler to the Portuguese settlements on São Tomé recorded that “few of the women bore children of the whitemen; very many more bore children of the negros.”17 Ira Berlin argued that roughly one-quarter to one-third of bastard children born to white women during the seventeenth century in Virginia were mulatto.18 Kathleen Brown found that in Norfolk County, Virginia, between 1681 and 1691, four of the seventeen white women punished for bastardy had children with enslaved black men. In the wake of that law, the number of white servant women punished by the courts for having “mulatto” children out of wedlock grew: in the 1690s they were 17 percent of cases, and by the 1700s, nearly 30 percent.19 In 1689 in Charles City, a servant named Rebecca Corney was convicted of giving birth to a “Mulatto bastard.” She was ordered to serve her master additional time as reimbursement for his payment of her fine.20 Mechal Sobel points out that Virginia records of “mulatto children, born to white women, appear in virtually all the church and county court records, although their number declines in the eighteenth century.”21 In eighteenth-century Maryland in the 1740s and 1750s, ten women were charged with having bastard mulatto children.22 In early eighteenth-century Maryland, for example, one white woman who lived with an enslaved man had seven children.23 In the 1720s and 1730s sixteen white women were convicted of having children with enslaved black men.24 Mary Skinner in 1769 had a child by a man she enslaved.25 Glenda Riley notes that in 1790 the first divorce granted in the postrevolutionary South was in Maryland—a case brought by one John Sewall, who sued for divorce after his wife gave birth to a “mulatto child.”26 The same was true for Virginia in 1802.27
Antebellum divorce records also evidence white women’s actions. Loren Schweninger’s examination of divorce in the antebellum South concluded that sexual relationships between black men and white women were “not uncommon in the southern states.”28 Bill Cecil-Fronsman noted that 7.5 percent of North Carolina divorces from 1800 to 1835 were for cohabitation with “black lovers.”29 As Thomas E. Buckley found, in Virginia roughly 9 percent of divorce petitions from 1786 to 1851 were for interracial adultery, with twenty-three of those petitions coming from white men who complained about their wives’ relationships with black men.30 Between 1800 and 1835 almost 8 percent of divorce petitions were for interracial adultery.31
As the above findings demonstrate, sexual contact between enslaved men and white women appears in virtually all slave-holding regions during the era of enslavement and has long been recognized by scholars as a feature of those disparate societies. What has escaped scholars, however, is an explanation for this contact that takes into account what we know about sex and slavery: power is always present in such occurrences.
WHITE WOMEN’S AGENCY
Given what we know about white women’s active participation in enslavement as well as the sexualized cultural view of enslaved men, the regular occurrence of sexual contact between enslaved men and white women must be viewed accordingly. The actions that white women take in this context help us to better understand the sheer numbers of enslaved men who were exploited by white women.
Examples of white women portrayed as the instigators of intimate relations with enslaved men appear in virtually all types of available sources. One traveler recorded that in Virginia he had learned about a “planter’s daughter having fallen in love with one of her father’s slaves, had actually seduced him.”32 In addition to sexual contact, some enslaved men suffered intimate contact in a broad sense at the hands of mistresses. One formerly enslaved man described a degree of physical intimacy that occurred with his enslaver, whom he described as a “tyrant.” “While I was at home she kept me all the time rubbing furniture, washing, scrubbing the floors; and when I was not doing this, she would often seat herself in a large rocking chair, with two pillows about her, and would make me rock her, and keep off the flies.” He shared that his enslaver would require him to attend to her body and that some of the interactions occurred in her bedroom: “She was too lazy to scratch her own head, and would often make me scratch and comb it for her. She would at other times lie on her bed, in warm weather, and make me fan her while she slept, scratch and rub her feet.” As if to emphasize that such intimacy was tenuous and resulted in no better treatment, he added: “But after awhile she got sick of me, and preferred a maiden servant to do such business.”33
Sexual overtures toward enslaved men added to the aspects of enslavement that black men endured and, in some cases, navigated. Court records include instances of white women allegedly approaching enslaved men. Recall from chapter 1 that one Virginia woman, Katherine Watkins, had been accused of aggressively commenting on and groping enslaved men’s bodies and genitals. In 1681 Watkins found herself the subject of communal talk as part of the criminal investigation surrounding her own accusation of sexual assault. Testimony gathered in the course of investigating that sexual assault included several individuals who witnessed the victim drinking and making sexual advances toward enslaved men sometime during the week before the sexual assault. Twenty-six-year-old Lambert Tye similarly testified. He was there working with other servants when he saw Katherine with what he described as “very high Colour in her face,” which was explained to him as being the result of drinking cider with those present. He saw her tell Jack that “she loved him for his father’s sake.”34
One man, thirty-two-year-old John Aust, observed Watkins making sexually suggestive comments and physical advances toward enslaved men. He testified that while “Negroe dirke” walked by her she “tooke up the taile of his shirt (saying) Dirke thouh wilt have a good long thing, and soe did several tymes as he past by her.” The testimony did not mention how he responded but stated that she also approached a second enslaved man and “putt her hand on his codpiece, at which he smil’d, and went on his way.” Shortly thereafter, she went to a third enslaved man, named Mingoe, “tooke” him “about the Necke and fling on the bed and Kissed him and putt her hand into his Codpiece.” Shortly before he left he saw her go into a room with Jack but could not say what might have transpired. According to the records, it “being near night this deponent left her and the Negroes together, (He thinking her to be mich in drinke).” Aust’s decision to leave her there indicates no concern for her safety among the men, suggesting that he believed that she was in a position of power.
Other testimony corroborated Aust’s version and added additional details. Thirty-five-year-old William Harding witnessed her “turne up the tale of Negroe Dirks shirt, and said that he would have a good pricke.” A twenty-two-year-old woman, Mary Winter, who was present testified that she saw Katherine drinking with the men and “tooke Mulatto Jack by the hand in the outward roome and ledd him into the inward roome doore and then thrust him in before her and told him she loved him for his Fathers sake for his Father was a very handsome young Man.” In response he “went out from her,” but she “fetched him into the roome againe and hugged and kist him.” The language of having “thrust” him, of being the one who “tooke” him and “fetched” him, and of having “ledd” him all indicates agency on Watkins’s part. His response suggests a certain amount of measured resistance in trying to handle a situation that could perhaps have been difficult.
Taken at face value, the testimony describes a variety of tactics used by Watkins, as well as responses by the enslaved men that seem well rehearsed through past experience. None of them expressed any surprise at her behavior. If we are more skeptical of the testimony of the men present, it is worth considering that they believed such comments would be plausible, suggesting that this kind of behavior was not out of the ordinary between white women and enslaved men.
The practice of forcing enslaved boys and young men to wear long shirts without pants left them vulnerable to such assaults. Women were well familiar with this, as we have already seen in the recollections of one eighteenth-century traveler in Virginia who recorded seeing “young negroes from sixteen to twenty years old, with not an article of clothing, but a loose shirt, descending half way down their thighs” as they waited on “ladies” as well as men. He noted that the women were well accustomed to this exposure, with a hint of a suggestion of impropriety on their part for not having “any apparent embarrassment,” and he underscored the unsavory nature of the scene by highlighting that in the course of their work, enslaved men were exposed.35
Recall from chapter 1 that white women had access to men’s bodies. Cecily Jones argues that all white women in Barbados had some “access” to “the bodies and labour power of enslaved women and men.” The practice of hiring out allowed poorer white women access to enslaved men even if only for short periods of time.36 Jones notes that Hilary Beckles correctly pointed out that what was expected of white women in terms of sexual restraint allowed for seemingly contradictory moments, such as when at slave auctions in Barbados white women could be seen “dispassionately fondling the genitalia of semi-naked black male slaves in order to assess their health and future breeding potential.”37
White women’s sexual intimacy with enslaved black men was noted by more than one early American observer, often as derisive attacks against the women. Thomas Thistlewood’s eighteenth-century diary denounced a white woman in Jamaica who was “making free” with male slaves.38 His comment, although brief, indicated her agency in the matter. Such behaviors were echoed in negative depictions of white women that appeared in the culture. For example, in 1731 one white woman declared about another woman that she “would have Jumpt over nine hedges to have had a Negroe.”39 One Maryland planter commented in 1739 that a white woman who had heard about a slave rebellion from one of her slaves did nothing because, he quipped, “perhaps She had a mind for a black husband.”40
In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, white women’s actions were targeted for legal punishments and cultural derision. Newspaper accounts, for example, criticized white women beyond the local orbit of church and court gossip. In 1769 a Maryland man declared that he would not honor his wife’s debts because she had “polluted” his “Bed” by having a child by “her own Negro Slave.”41 Similarly, in New Orleans in 1852 an article about the arrest of a black man and white woman for “cohabitation” reported that “Snowy White” was “sent to the workhouse for a quarter of a year,” and “Sooty” was flogged. It quipped: “The frail female woman ought to be also flogged.”42
Divorcing husbands and wives occasionally documented white women’s sexual agency in relations with enslaved men. In Nancy Graves’s case for divorce from her husband, testimony included mention of her alleged involvement with enslaved men. The justice of the peace visited neighbor Mary Leatheram at her home and took testimony about what she knew. She had heard Mr. Graves stating that his wife “kept a negro lodge and a negro hoardom at my house.” He also “said his wife caught the Clap of Spencer’s negro—Hard—and said she was a negro hoar.” In her petition, Nancy complained that her husband “frequently charged” her “with having connexion with Negroes.” For his part, the husband denied many of her accusations of physical abuse, but about sex with enslaved men he explained that he did not make this charge until she made it about him. According to the case records, it was “the neighbourhood report that petitioner had been having illicit intercourse with John Spencer’s negro man ‘Hard.’”43
The accusation that she “kept a negro lodge and a negro hoardom” should be considered in the context of research that has shown that some white women did prostitute enslaved women. The same man enslaved by Spencer figured in another divorce case from the region, suggesting perhaps that Mr. Graves’s claim might have been correct. In Mr. Williams’s petition for divorce, he contended that his wife had a reputation for having “sexual intercourse” with numerous men in the neighborhood and that she left him to live with one of those men, Samuel Spencer. While there, he argued, she gave birth to a child that he heard was fathered by a “negro man by the name of Hand belonging to Samuel Spencer.” According to Williams, Hand had also “been caught several times in carnal intercourse with her.” Mary Williams denied the relationships with other men and complained that her husband turned her out, that she was forced to reside at Spencer’s house and “work for a living,” and that any appearance of adultery was false. According to the records, “any appearance of impropriety of conduct on her part has been the result of his own harsh and cruel treatment and exposure to the temptations of the world deprived of that arm of protection which had been pledged to protect and support & sustain her through life.”44 Her explanation that she was forced into “exposure to the temptations of the world” suggests perhaps that sexual contact may indeed have occurred.
If sexual contact did take place, Mary Williams would certainly not have been alone, as records include other instances of women who stood accused of intimate relations with neighboring enslaved people. In his petition for divorce, Rhodias Riley stated that his wife, Nancy, had separated herself from him, that they had had nothing to do with each other for the last six years, and that she had “kept up promiscuous adulterous intercourse with divers other men particularly with Dave, a negro slave belonging to Hugh McCain.”45 Henry Shouse complained to the courts that he became suspicious of his wife after he could no longer deny that the baby she gave birth to was “mulatto.” For some time after the birth, he tried to believe that the child’s skin color was due to “disease” or some other “cause unknown.” He continued to refuse her betrayal for over a year, until he became “neighbourhood talk,” and so he had a “medical gentleman of high reputation” examine the child, and he “pronounced it to be of negro blood.” Shouse believed that she had the child with one of his own slaves, perhaps from observing previous interactions.46
As the enslaved man, Dave, was within the household we can speculate about that dynamic and the danger that the situation would have posed for him. Might he have kept this relationship silent if it had not become town talk? Did some white husbands, seeking harmony in their homes, allow women to have intercourse with enslaved men and look the other way? This scenario is raised by another divorce case, that of the Hickmans. William Hickman similarly waited to file for divorce and only did so once he could no longer avoid community knowledge of the slave paternity of his wife, Nancy’s child. He was “unwilling to publish his own shame,” but eventually she left him. Their marriage had been childless from 1805 until about 1820. She then had a child, and William did not suspect anything until three years later, when she had another, and “rumors” in the neighborhood gave him great concerns. By 1827 she had moved out. He accused her of relations with more than one man, but “especially with a mulatto slave living in the neighbourhood” whom he “believes is the father of the children.”47
The divorce case of Dorothea and Lewis Bourne reveals another instance that tells us that women took the initiative with enslaved men. In this 1825 divorce, testimony from neighbors and friends revealed that Dorothea had enjoyed a long-term relationship with Edmond, a man enslaved by her neighbor and with whom she had probably had several children. Neighbors revealed themselves to be well aware of her conduct and, perhaps more surprisingly, did not frame it as wholly unusual. Martha Hodes argues that this case is yet more evidence that black men were not necessarily assumed to be the initiators in such relationships and that the figure of the aggressive black man or that of the sexually passive white woman had not yet emerged as cultural stereotypes. Indeed, Judith Richardson, who owned Edmond, testified that Dorothea was often seen “lurking about her negroes houses.”48
Abolitionist literature also occasionally drew attention to white women’s agency in depictions of interracial intimacy. Harriet Jacobs noted in her account that sex between white women and black men was not all that unusual, as did another former slave named J. W. Lindsay, who said, “There are cases where white women fall in love with their servants.”49 Martha Hodes explains that one African American man told the AFIC that when he had worked as a steward on the Mississippi River it was common for black men who worked on the river to exchange information about “the desires of certain white women to ‘sleep with them.’”50 Another told the AFIC that during his time in Tennessee he observed that “planters here in Tennessee have sometimes to watch their daughters to keep them from intercourse with the negroes. This though of course exceptional, is yet common enough to be a source of uneasiness to parents.”51
White abolitionist Richard J. Hinton’s testimony with the AFIC included several examples that illustrated what he had learned about women’s coercive practices during his time with freedmen during the Civil War. Hinton told the AFIC that one enslaved man recounted to him a story of being “ordered” “to sleep with” his mistress within a year of her husband’s death, something that he said had happened “regularly.” In another example, he told of hearing that “colored men on that river knew that the women of the Ward family of Louisville, Kentucky, were in the habit of having the [black] stewards, or other fine looking fellows, sleep with them when they were on the boats.”52 Recall from chapter 1 that he also testified that “I have never yet found a bright looking colored man … who has not told me of instances where he has been compelled, either by his mistress, or by white women of the same class, to have connection with them.” In all three examples, we see that his language supports the conclusion of coercion and force. Women in these instances “compel,” “order,” and “have” men engage in sexual contact with them.
Divorce records similarly include instances that underscore women’s agency in pursuing sexual contact with enslaved men. Katherine Jones of Virginia, for example, was accused by Samuel Smith of “consorting and keeping company” with the men and women that he enslaved, and he added that this occurred often in her kitchen.53 Similarly, in North Carolina James Larrimore accused his wife of the following with a man that he enslaved named Peter: “At various times before said Catherine left his house, she has at late hours of the night long after all the family had gone to bed and after she herself had gone to bed, has got up went to the kitchen where the fellow staid, has remained with him for hours together no person being present except her and the negro.”54 Stephen Cole alleged that his wife, Mary, had a child with “a Negro man slave by the name of Richmond belonging to the estate of Daniel McDonald, deceased, or with some other Negro man to your Petitioner unknown.” A physician told Cole that the baby’s color was dark due to the mother’s health during “procreation,” but Cole then came to believe that the child’s real father was a black man. In her testimony, Mary accused her husband of extreme physical cruelty. She also interestingly stated that she was “frequently compelled to seek protection and sleep in the kitchen among the negroes, and is not conscious of what may have taken place with her in that condition, but she admits that the child which she has is a mulatto child.” Here the white woman portrayed herself as a victim and used her position to claim no culpability for what “may have taken place with her in that condition.” Mary Cole further contended that Stephen regularly “was in the habit of keeping a negro girl of his” in the bedroom and that she had woken up to find them in bed.55 As scholars have shown, the conflicts of husbands and wives could add dimensions of danger to the lives of enslaved people in the household. This case raises the question of the bodies of the enslaved being used in jealous moments of revenge between husbands and wives, a danger for the men as well as the women.
METHODS OF COERCION
The fact that white women at times took the initiative in interracial sex is not, of course, in itself evidence of the sexual abuse of enslaved men, although it is worth repeating that the enslaved status of black men in such interactions made them necessarily vulnerable. Other evidence more clearly points to instances of coercion and sexual exploitation.
White women derived power from a variety of social and culture mechanisms, including the courts. Although the view of white women as passive victims of black male sexual aggressions would not become culturally dominant until after slavery ended, we must keep in mind that even in the colonial era, rape accusations against black men by white women were generally successful in prosecution, standing in contrast to rape accusations against white peers. As Betty Wood concludes in her study of white servant women in seventeenth-century Virginia, for example, enslaved men “had to be extremely wary of those women who made advances to them lest they allege rape.”56 Kathleen Brown found the same for the eighteenth century, arguing that white women had a better chance than others of securing convictions against black men. Twelve of the nineteen black men accused of rape between 1670 and 1767 were executed.57 As Sharon Block has shown, overall convictions of black men were disproportionately harsher and more easily obtained than those of white men.58
White women of the planter class were certainly able to wield power over black men—although all white women could coerce enslaved black men, given the legal and social settings in which they lived. Planter-class women might more easily and more believably have persuaded the community to view them as innocent victims of their sexual contact with black men. One black man who recruited black Union soldiers told the AFIC that another black man had told him how white women could assume the mantle of white female purity to facilitate the sexual assault of black men. Even women who may have been physically smaller and weaker than their victims may have wielded a powerful threat. The recruiter testified about “a young girl” who “got him out in the woods and told him she would declare he attempted to force her, if he didn’t have connection with her.” Others testified that this sort of coercion was not unusual; one Patrick Minor, for example, told Hinton that he knew of “several cases of the same kind.”59
One Tennessee man’s claim in 1822, that his wife had a six-month relationship with an enslaved man formerly owned by her husband, suggests that the woman was able to secure silence not only from the enslaved man but also from a large number of enslaved people in her household. The man complained to the courts that the relationship was well known among the men and women he enslaved. As Loren Schweninger argues, enslaved people “were wise to remain silent” when they observed marital discord, as choosing one spouse over another could frequently backfire.60 Although women risked a great deal in such relationships, cases like this hint that women would have been able to secure silence from enslaved people and go undetected in the records.
In nineteenth-century Louisiana, relationships between black men and white women tended to involve servant women more than planter-class women, given the “powerful stigma” of interracial sexual relations. Ann Patton Malone notes, however, that because of that stigma the relationships would have been “more carefully concealed.”61 The high stakes for women, especially planter-class women, would have encouraged those who sought to exploit enslaved men to do so using intensely manipulative methods to conceal their actions. The following newspaper notice underscored the punishments and public humiliation that awaited any black man who risked such intimacy and suggests the power that white women held: “Eliza Saucier, or Liz, for short, and Mary Darey, a pair of fallen angels—dwellers in Sanctity Row, on Elysian Fields street, were arrested for cohabiting with two snow balls one of them Spencer, owned by the Cotton Press Co.; the other Ambrose, the property of Mr Cucullu. The frail fair ones were sent to the parish prison—the darkies received a half hundred of lashes between them.”62
Even in cases where white women’s reputations were impugned by stories of sexual assault by enslaved men, enslaved men faced the greatest threat to their well-being. In 1825, for example, one North Carolina woman, Polly, who accused an enslaved man named Jim of rape found her own reputation being scrutinized, with many neighbors testifying to her socializing with black men, including Jim, while others testified that the couple had a long-term relationship as common-law husband and wife.63 However, as Hodes notes about the case, Polly wielded power in the relationship, and Jim was the one who “truly lacked choices” and who “spent months in the county jail, probably chained to a filthy, cold floor, thinking about mounting the gallows.”64
As an alternative to or in conjunction with threats of retribution, some white women may have wielded the purse as a means of coercing enslaved men to have sex with them. That is to say, following the custom of occasionally tipping enslaved men for services provided to individuals, some men may have been paid for their sexual services to white women. One black steward reported that a white woman from Louisville, Kentucky, “offered him five dollars to arrive at her house in Louisville at a particular time.”65 The words suggest that she might have been negotiating a way to discreetly engage in sex with him. Enslaved men, like enslaved women, may well have turned opportunities that sex under slavery presented them to their advantage. For men, this would have posed a paradox: the wages could provide a measure of manly independence while also potentially emasculating them as sexually subservient. One black man testified to the AFIC precisely how such encounters might have begun: “I will tell you how it is here. I will go up with the towels, and when I go into the room the woman will keep following me with her eyes, until I take notice of it, and one thing leads to another. Others will take hold of me and pull me on to the sofa, and others will stick out their foot and ask one to tie their boot, and I will take hold of their foot and say ‘what a pretty foot!’”66
The promise of freedom may also have been used to entice enslaved men into sexual contact with white women. In eighteenth-century Pennsylvania, one court record of punishment meted out to a white woman and an enslaved man for having a child together sentenced her to be whipped and ordered him to “never more” “meddle with white women uppon paine of his life.” When the man was examined by the court he defended himself by complaining that she had “intised him and promised him to marry him.” His version was corroborated by the woman, who “confest the same.” Was this a promise to free him? Did she entice him and promise to marry him, or was the promise of marriage part of the enticement?67
A similar case suggests that a promise of freedom may have figured as a method of enticement. In 1813 an enslaved man named David was convicted of rape in Virginia. In a petition to the governor in David’s defense, one neighbor testified that the woman Dolly Getts had in fact engaged in “improper intimacy” with David for three years prior to the rape accusation. Dolly and David were known by her father to “bed together” in the father’s house. He contended that Dolly had “admitted” that David’s “improper conduct arose from her persuasions, that she frequently made use of great importunities to the said David for the purpose of prevailing on him to run off with her which he for some time refused to accede to.” Several times she apparently convinced David to spend time together miles away from the house. On one such occasion, she “earnestly solicited David to go to her father and tell him they were married and perhaps they might be permitted to remain together.” Unwilling to take these risks, “David refused and charged her with having brought him into his then unpleasant situation.”68 In another related example, in 1826 a white woman was captured after having stolen a horse and an enslaved man. She had disguised herself as a man, and according to the account, “she persuaded him off and that she was the whole and sole cause of his stealing his master’s horse.” The enslaved man was punished for the theft of the horse.69
The promise of freedom was probably less common than the threat of selling an enslaved man away. Court testimony from an 1841 Kentucky case involved an enslaved man and a white woman who lived together as husband and wife and whose case had come to court over the woman’s ability to sell her own land. The court declared that their relationship was not marriage but was instead one of “concubinage.” Moreover, the case included testimony that revealed the power dynamic within the relationship, since it was reported that the white woman “sometimes threatend to sell” the man, James, “when vexed with him.” Another neighbor testified that he “frequently heard her threaten to sell him if he did not behave himself.”70 In a related example, William Thomas complained that his wife, Sarah Jane, knew that he was going to sell an enslaved man, “for previously on two occasions defendant had found said negro too near Petitioner’s Bed in the night time and slipping away from her Bed privately.”71 The threat of being sold was a constant fear for enslaved people; it included the terror of being sold to southern states and the West Indies, known for brutal conditions and higher mortality rates, and the pain of being wrenched away from loved ones, kin, and community.
Violations of privacy included punishments that involved nakedness; the threat of such physical punishment could also be wielded by some women. One former slave described his mistress as whipping him: “Mr. Hammans was a very severe and cruel master, and his wife still worse; she used to tie me up and flog me while naked.”72 Another man described his mistress in similar terms, emphasizing physical contact that occurred after being “stripped naked”:
His wife was a harsh, cruel, hardhearted, tyrannical woman, her whole being was filled with hatred of the blackest and bitterest kind against the poor down-trodden, crushed, despised and trampled slave; she seemed possessed with some Satanic influence, and never was in her glory unless she could have her slaves tied up to the whipping post, stripped naked, with a pair of flat irons fastened to their feet, then she would stand by, drawing the lash like an infuriated demon, all the nicer sensibilities of her womanly nature seemed to be crushed out of existence. She would ply the lash until the poor victim would faint dead away.73
Hinton’s testimony also revealed something about the variety of tactics that women employed toward men in such circumstances, many of them strikingly similar to the strategies employed by white owners against black women: “I have generally found that, unless the woman has treated them kindly, and won their confidence, they have to be threatened, or have their passions aroused by actual contact.”74 Here we see that direct threats accompanied some of these relationships, or indirect manipulation, with a subtler threat of violence. Once physical contact and arousal had been achieved, a man might have little ability to resist.
Regardless of the circumstances that prompted these varied arrangements, many of them clearly took place in the context of servitude and highlighted the power of the enslaving woman over the enslaved man. Harriet Jacobs, in her mention of a white woman who preyed on an enslaved man, wrote that she had picked a man who was “the most brutalized, over whom her authority could be exercised with less fear of exposure.”75 Anecdotes such as these suggest that some white women initiated sexual encounters and made clear what they wanted, knowing that their cultural role, the sexual innocence expected of them, helped to hide their actions. Jacobs’s account noted that she was personally familiar with this household. Her account also suggested that the woman preyed on more than one man. She “did not make advances … to her father’s more intelligent servants” but singled out for sexual assault instead a man “over whom her authority could be exercised with less fear of exposure” because he was so traumatized. Such a man, it is suggested, had been terrorized into submission on the plantation, and she took advantage of his state of mind to force herself upon him—with the threat of additional punishment if he did not accept her assault and if he did not keep it clandestine.
Wives and daughters of planters who formed these sexual relationships took advantage of their position within the slave system. Having sex with their white counterparts in the insular world of the white planter class, if exposed, would certainly have risked opprobrium, and even gossip about the women’s actions might have marred their reputations. Daughters of planters could use enslaved men in domestic settings, however, retain their virtue, and maintain the appearance of passionlessness and virginity while seeking sexual experimentation. In other words, one of the ways that some southern women may have protected their public virtue was by clandestine relations with black men. Hinton also told the AFIC that a white doctor reported to him that in Virginia and Missouri “white women, especially the daughters of the smaller planters, who were brought into more direct relations with the negro, had compelled some one of the men to have something to do with them.”76
Sons of planters also engaged in such conduct, as Hinton also noted, even suggesting that young women imitated the behavior of their brothers. Hinton explained that some daughters of wealthy individuals on the American frontier, where interactions with male suitors were also relatively limited, as they were for planters’ daughters, given social constraints, “knew that their brothers were sleeping with the chambermaids, or other servants, and I don’t see how it could be otherwise than they too should give loose to their passions.”77 Another man reported that the conditions of slavery not only brought about the “promiscuous intercourse among blacks, and between black women and white men” but also created a context that encouraged white women to be “involved” in the “general depravity.”78 Harriet Jacobs wrote that daughters “know that the women slaves are subject to their father’s authority over men slaves” and therefore “selected” and coerced certain enslaved men to be sexual partners. Although Hinton and Jacobs perhaps could not conceive of women taking the initiative on their own and understood them as following the example set by their fathers and brothers, we should note that daughters seem to have engaged in the same behavior as fathers and sons, if not perhaps as many. Although clearly from Jacobs’s testimony, field hands were abused, we should also note that house slaves, given their closer proximity to white women, would have fallen under special control.
White women’s sexual exploitation of enslaved men may well have led to marital tensions among enslaved couples. In antebellum Alabama, one white man petitioned for divorce and alleged that his wife had been “delivered of a black child, the fruits of illicit intercourse carried on between the said Matilda [his wife] and a negro slave” owned by her father. Loren Schweninger uses the case as an example of how enslaved people sometimes seized opportunities to run away when husbands and wives, and thus households, were disrupted.79 In this case, the enslaved man’s wife ran away at this time. It might also be worth pondering this case from a different angle. What would have been the experience of this enslaved man? His master’s daughter, Matilda, engaged him in sexual relations. His wife ran away. Was love lost? Was he able to say no to Matilda? Or did she break up this enslaved family, with the man’s wife running away to escape an unbearable situation?
From Rose’s interview we glean no indications about Rufus’s experiences with white women other than that his mistress played a key role in his forced coupling with Rose. Sexual relations between white women and enslaved black men were well known in early America and resulted in court and church pronouncements and punishments, cultural derision, and the dissolution of white marriages. Efforts to police intimate relations between black men and white women stemmed in part from a desire to control women. Such behavior threatened white men and their authority over white women’s sexuality. Discussions of these relationships have often taken their cues from late nineteenth-century understandings of white women’s passive victimhood and black male sexual aggression, but even a cursory examination of the extant records surrounding these interactions suggests that much more was at work in these deeply fraught interactions. The relative power that white women had over enslaved black men’s bodies and their lives and circumstances makes it possible for us to view their sexual relations as defying white patriarchal authority but at the expense of enslaved men and their families, kin, and communities. Whatever white women’s actions accomplished in terms of solidifying their own autonomy was not equally shared by the enslaved men with whom they had intimate relations. Those men lived under constant threat of punishment and could only carefully navigate and negotiate the thorny path that white women presented them whenever sexual intimacy occurred. One wonders if the myth of the black rapist that emerged after emancipation, the fiction that black men uncontrollably sought sexual contact with white women, was not partly informed by white women justifying their actions during enslavement—and their fear of revenge.