What’s Love Got to Do with It?
I was a little girl, not fourteen years old. One day Mr. Cook told me I must come to his room that night, and take care of him.
Louisa Picquet’s and her mother’s stories of concubinage chart experiences that they shared with thousands of other enslaved women in the antebellum South, and hundreds of thousands in the Atlantic world. Born in the late 1820s on a plantation outside of Columbia, South Carolina, Louisa was sold as an infant, along with her mother, Elizabeth Ramsey. Elizabeth was about twenty years old when Louisa was born. A seamstress and domestic for her mistress by day, Elizabeth was the “quadroon” concubine of her owner, James Hunter Randolph, by night. Although James Randolph had sworn Elizabeth to secrecy regarding the paternity of her “white” baby, Mrs. Randolph could see for herself that Louisa had a remarkable resemblance to her own infant, born only two weeks earlier. Mrs. Randolph insisted that Elizabeth and her child be sold.1
David R. Cook, a cotton planter in Jasper County, Georgia, bought the twenty-year-old mother and her baby. It was not long before Elizabeth again became the concubine of her owner, and had three children by him. Louisa was raised as a child domestic in the Cook home, caring for his children by his wife, Pheba, and no doubt those of her mother. When Cook, a drinking, gambling man, literally “lost the farm” to creditors, he went into hiding. He sent his wife, Pheba, and their children to live with a cousin, and took his concubine, Elizabeth, her children, including Louisa, and a few of his other bond people to Mobile, Alabama, where he rented them out to earn income for him. By the time Louisa was fourteen, her owner, the father of Louisa’s step-siblings, was determined now to “have” her. Louisa resisted, receiving two brutal whippings at Cook’s hand as a result. She had just decided to submit to her owner’s demand when the Georgia sheriff, bent on bringing Cook to justice, caught up with him. Cook’s “property,” including Elizabeth, her son John, and daughter Louisa, were sold for his debts.2
The family was separated. Mother and son went to Texas. Their new owner, Texas’s first lieutenant governor and a founder of Baylor University, Colonel Albert Horton, tried to purchase Louisa, bidding $1,400 for her. But the beautiful youth had captured the sexual imagination of another purchaser. John Williams, a divorced man in his late forties from New Orleans, had planned to buy the “virtuous” Louisa and make her his concubine.3 The bidding war ended with Williams successful. He paid $1,500 for the young teen. Glad that she had escaped Cook, Louisa soon had cause to lament that she had “jump[ed] out of the fryin’-pan into the fire.” Williams had bought her for sex. On the trip to New Orleans, by boat on the Mississippi, “Mr. Williams told me what he bought me for. He said he was getting old, and when he saw me he thought he’d buy me, and end his days with me. He said if I behave myself he’d treat me well: but, if not, he’d whip me almost to death.” Louisa had four children by the “grey haired” man who was at least thirty years her senior.4
Sexual contact between slave masters and their bonded female “property” was a common experience in the Atlantic world. These relations ran the gamut from rape and sodomy to romance, from chance encounters to obsession, concubinage and even “marriage.” They could be hetero-or homosexual in nature. They included, but were not limited to, pedophilia, incest, sadomasochism, and voyeurism. One need only peruse the travel literature, diaries, church records, letters, and even colonial newspapers produced throughout the French, British, Dutch, Portuguese, and Spanish American colonies to find ample evidence. Whether one reads the diary of William Byrd of early eighteenth-century Virginia or Thomas Thistlewood of eighteenth-century Jamaica, Olaudah Equiano’s writings descriptive of his life in Montserrat, or John Steadman’s account of his life in late eighteenth-century Suriname provide details and descriptions. In the travel accounts of other curious European onlookers in the Americas; ecclesiastical records of the Catholic Church in Florida, Brazil, Cuba, New Orleans, and New Spain; printed abolitionist attacks on the immoral consequences of slavery, and, for that matter, Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the same topic; as well as the hundreds of recollections and autobiographical accounts of enslaved people in the Atlantic world, one is confounded by the prevalence of sexual contact between European or European American men and African or African American women bound by the institution of slavery.5 It was a common occurrence by any measure, widespread and obvious.
In North America, sexual relations across the color line may have been more prevalent, or at least more public, in the cities of the lower South such as New Orleans, Mobile, Biloxi, and Charleston. There, systems of plaçage, and other forms of concubinage—sustained sexual contact between an enslaved woman and her master—were part of the publicly acknowledged, circum-Caribbean legacy of interracial sex.6 Still, this particular type of slave labor also existed in smaller cities, in the countryside and on the frontier territories of the U.S. South. Indeed, the practice of concubinage in these smaller southern locales has been woefully underestimated largely because rural isolation permitted an invisibility on isolated farms and plantations where these women toiled.7
“It wus a hard job to find a marster dat didn’t have women ’mong his slaves,” one former antebellum bondsman recalled. “Dat wus a ginerel thing ’mong de slave owners.”8 Federal census enumerators did not typically identify mixed-race bond people in their descriptions of the free black or enslaved populations during the antebellum era. They did so for the first time in 1850, offering substantial evidence of interracial sexual contacts—11 percent of enslaved persons were designated as “mulatto,” along with 37 percent of “free blacks.”9 Indeed, there is no more sufficient marker of the commonality of a slave experience than its recording in popular song. Throughout the South, as in Kentucky, South Carolina, and Louisiana, for example, enslaved men sang, to the accompaniment of banjo and guitar, the appropriately titled song “Massa Had a Yaller Gal.” This version, from South Carolina, suggests the competition between enslaved and slaveholding men for the affections of these women.
Ol’ Mars’er had a pretty yaller gal, he bought her fum de Souf;
Her hair it curled so berry tight she couldn’t shet her mouf.
Chorus: Way down in Mississippi
Where de gals dey are so pretty,
W’at a happy time, way down in ol’ Car’line!
Dis darkey fell in love
Wid a han’some yaller Dinah.
Levi Pollard, a former slave from Virginia, remembered singing a song of similar theme:
Black gal sweet,
Some like goodies dat de white folks eat;
Don’t you take ’n tell her name,
En den if sompin’ happen, you won’t ketch de blame.
Yaller gal fine
She may be yo’ne, but she oughter be mine,
Lemme git by
En see what she mean by de cut er dat eye . . .11
Likewise, concubinage was not just a phenomenon practiced in the Americas during the slave era. Rather, it was an institution as old, widespread and diverse as systems of human bondage. Just as some form of slavery has manifest itself in virtually every major civilization in recorded history, including those of ancient Rome, Greece, Israel, China, Persia, India, various European and pre-Columbian American societies, as well as throughout Africa, so too did some form of sexual relations exist between owners and those owned in these societies. Indeed, historians believe that sexual slavery was practiced in those West and Central African societies from which many of the female captives who arrived in the Americas were drawn. Paul Lovejoy, for example, notes of concubinage in northern Nigeria that almost all enslaved women who worked in the domestic sphere “spent at least part of their sexually mature years as concubines.”12 Martin Klein likewise asserts that in French West Africa enslaved “women were sexually available to be commanded rather than courted.”13 Joseph Miller concurred, concluding that in West Central Africa, “girls and young women who struck male purchasers as sexually attractive were universally prized.”14 As for eastern Africa, Frederick Cooper reported that there too, “any female slave was legally at the sexual disposal of her master.”15
The practice and experience of concubinage is important to understand, therefore, because of its place within the range of experiences that helped to define the southern female slave’s emotional and psychological development, domestic life, and work routine. It also deepens the connection between her experiences to those of other enslaved people across time, place, and culture. Opening the door to this aspect of a female slave’s sexual experiences exposes her ideas about her body as a location of pleasure, production, and procreation as well as a site of exploitation, alienation, loss, and shame. A study of concubinage also can suggest much about the internal dynamics of the slave family and community. Were concubines, for example, considered members of the enslaved community? or were they ostracized and regarded as fundamentally different from other bonded women? Equally important is what concubinage can tell us about sexual attitudes and relations in southern black communities; marital relations among the enslaved and their owners; the place of mixed-race children in slave and white families; and the location of mixed-race people in a society in which its residents commonly derived their legal status from being either white or black, not both. Interracial sexual relations, later referred to as “miscegenation,” raised explosive issues of force, female purity, and sexual sanctity in both black and white families, all the while creating a class of women (and men) whom both bonded and slave-holding men and women found physically desirable. Color consciousness and stratification among African Americans resulted from a combination of factors surrounding interracial sexual contact, voluntary and coerced, which produced a large mixed-race population among enslaved and free African Americans. The popularity of racist ideologies about color differences and racial hierarchies and their practical application in antebellum southern society was widespread. The remainder of this essay explores two topics: the nature of enslaved women’s sexual work, with an emphasis on concubinage; and the responses of various factions of the antebellum southern community to the presence of sustained sexual relationships between white men and enslaved African American women.
BRED AND SOLD FOR SEX
“When my sister was 16 years old,” Lewis Clarke of Madison County, Kentucky, explained, “her master sent for her.” It was a meeting that changed the young woman’s life, and that of her family, forever. According to Clarke, his sister was “pretty” and near white. “She was whiter than I am, for she took after her father,” he explained of his sibling. “When he sent for her again,” Clarke continued, “she cried, and didn’t want to go.” Finally she confided her troubles to their mother, who had lived through the same experience. Their female parent could offer little advice or comfort. Try to “be decent, and hold up [your] head above such things, if [you can],” she told the girl. Their master, William Campbell, enraged by both Clarke’s sister’s public exposure of his desire for her, and her rejection of him, “sold her right off to Louisiana.” “We were told afterwards,” Lewis added, that “she died there of hard usage.”16 Elizabeth Keckley, the famed seamstress of Mary Todd Lincoln, Mrs. Jefferson Davis, and other politicians’ wives in the 1850s and 1860s, described her adolescent experiences as a bonded female in North Carolina. “I was regarded as fair-looking for one of my race, and for four years a white man—. . . had base designs on me. . . . I do not care to dwell upon this subject, for it is one that is fraught with pain,” Keckley declared. “Suffice it to say, that he persecuted me for four years, and I—I became a mother.”17
Mary Reynolds had been enslaved in Concordia Parish, Louisiana, and recalled of the arrival of the mulatto woman Margaret around 1850. “Once massa goes to Baton Rouge and brung back a yaller girl dressed in fine style. . . . She was a seamster nigger.” Reynolds explained that everyone on the plantation of fifty or so slaves soon noticed how their master, Dr. A. H. Kilpatrick, treated his new bondwoman. They also understood why. “He builds her a house way from the quarters,” Mary noted, “and she done fine sewin’ for the whites. Us niggers knowed the doctor took a black woman quick as he did a white and took any on his place he wanted, and he took them often. But mostly the chillun born on the place looked like niggers. Aunt Cheyney allus say four of hers were massas, but he didn’t give them no mind. But this yaller gal breeds so fast and gits a mess of white young’uns.” Indeed, the 1860 census from Concordia indicates that Dr. Kilpatrick did own one twenty-seven-year-old “mulatto woman” and three “mulatto” children, a six-month-old boy, a six-year-old girl, and a nine-year-old boy. “She larnt them fine manners and combs out they hair,” Mary Reynolds recalled. “Onct two of them goes down the hill to the doll house where the Kilpatrick chillun am playin’. They wants to go in the dollhouse and one the Kilpatrick boys say, ‘That’s for white chillun.’ They say, ‘We ain’t no niggers, cause we got the same daddy you has.’”18
A profoundly important difference between the experiences of enslaved females and males as laborers in the antebellum South is that most bondsmen did not face the constant sexual harassment or battery that many enslaved girls and women such as Elizabeth Ramsey, Louisa Picquet, Elizabeth Keckley, Margaret Kilpatrick, and Lewis Clarke’s mother and sister (whose stories are recounted above), confronted during their most vulnerable years. Nor could slave men expect that their physical attractiveness and sex appeal were likely to gain them the same access to “emancipation” or material well-being as some of these women.
The prices of enslaved females reveal the “value” slaveholders placed on their feminine “assets.” Bonded men generally cost more than females, skilled laborers more than field hands, and the young more than the elderly.19 The only real exception to these rules of the market was the “fancy girl” trade and “good breeding” women, two categories of sexual commodification of enslaved females that were not mutually exclusive, particularly since many of the women targeted for this trade were mixed race. Indeed, historian Lawrence Kotlikoff concludes in his study of slave prices in New Orleans from 1804 to 1862 that “light skin color added over 5.3 percent to the female’s price; while only 2.29% to the price of enslaved males.”20 If these women proved to be fertile and were impregnated by a white male, the child they bore would be even lighter, and thereby, more valuable monetarily as “slave property” for their owners, particularly if the offspring were female. “Marie was pretty, dat’s why he took her to Richmond to sell her. You see, you could git a powerful lot of money in dose days for a pretty gal,” Carol Anna Randall explained of her sister’s sale to the Carolinas. Joe Bruin, of the Alexandria, Virginia, slave trading firm of Bruin and Hill, placed Emily Russell, a beautiful young girl whom he planned to sell as a prostitute in New Orleans, on the market in 1850 for $1,800. Mr. J. Davenport was offered $2,500 for Harriet, his enslaved woman who looked like a white girl and was likely considered a “quadroon.”21 In his autobiography, James Pennington, who had been enslaved in Queen Anne’s County, Maryland, explained: “It is under the mildest form of slavery, as it exists in Maryland, Virginia and Kentucky, that the finest specimens of coloured females are reared. . . . for the express purpose of supplying the market [to] a class of economical Louisiana and Mississippi gentlemen, who do not wish to incur the expense of rearing legitimate families, they are, nevertheless, on account of their attractions, exposed to the most shameful degradation.”22 Pennington went on to illustrate his claims by presenting the case of Mary Jane and Emily Catherine Edmondson, enslaved girls aged fourteen and sixteen, priced together at $2,250. There was such an exorbitant fee, Pennington argued, because they intended to sell Mary Jane and Emily as prostitutes in the Deep South.23 Louisa Picquet fetched a price of $1,500. Elizabeth Ramsey’s master asked $1,000 for her, even when she was in her forties, but settled for $900, noting of the pale-skinned domestic, “it’s true she is getting old but she carries her age well, and looks as young as she did twenty years ago.”24
THE CONCUBINE AND HER DUTIES
Most enslaved females and girls were, at some time during their working lives, destined to at least experience some sexual harassment, if not an outright sexual assault, from a male authority figure. Oftentimes being white was the only badge of authority necessary, but this pressure also emanated from male drivers, white overseers, and others with a modicum of “power.” But what typically distinguished those enslaved women who were targeted for occasional or random sexual contact from those whom slaveholding males viewed as potential concubines? When one looks closely at the documents that describe slave concubinage and concubines, females with certain physical, cultural and sometimes intellectual characteristics emerge as desirable. Many were mixed race—African, Native American, European—but the vast majority also were young, beautiful, culturally adept, skilled, sometimes literate, and, most important, physically accessible.
Most concubines were forced or lured into sexual relationships soon after reaching puberty. As such, slaveholding men could assure the “sexual purity” of their conquests and impose a type of psychological control. George Carter of the elite Carter clan in Virginia, for example, was notorious for buying “likely” virgins of “about age 14 or 15.”25 Sally Hemings became Jefferson’s concubine at that age, bearing her first child when she was sixteen years old.26 Harriet Jacobs’s “troubles” started at about the same age. “I now entered on my fifteenth year—a sad epoch in the life of a slave girl,” Harriet began her tale of sexual harassment. “My master began to whisper foul words in my ear. Young as I was, I could not remain ignorant of their import.”27 In Georgia, David Dickinson raped his mother’s enslaved girl Julia when she was twelve and then made her his long-term concubine.28
The physical similarity of these mixed-race girls to those considered the most beautiful Euro-American women of the era was strikingly obvious in the written descriptions, paintings, and drawings. Skin tone and hair texture were especially highlighted, but facial features resembling those of northern Europeans (thin lips and noses, for example) also were important. The general measure was that the lighter the skin and the straighter the hair, the more attractive the woman or girl. “Marse Sid ain’t got but one weakness an’ dat am pretty yaller gals,” Chaney Spell of North Carolina admitted. “He just can’t desist them.”29 Uncle Cephas, “who used to live in Tennessee before the war,” told a late nineteenth-century interviewer “a very pathethic [sic] story of a colored girl, . . . whose master had bought her in Carolina and brought her to Tennessee.” He went on: “Her name was Lizzie Beaufort. She was a most beautiful girl. She had large black eyes, long black hair, a beautiful oval-shaped face, and was of a fine oily brunette complexion. She might have easily passed for a Cuban.”30
Another enslaved woman, “Nellie Johnson, . . . was sold to a mighty bad man,” her unofficial biographer noted. “Nellie was almost white, and had pretty, long, straight hair.”31 Louisa Picquet was described as “medium height. . . of fair complexion and rosy cheeks, with dark eyes, a flowing head of hair with no perceptible inclination to curl. . . No one. . . would suspect that she had a drop of African blood in her veins.” Louisa’s mother, also a concubine, was described as “pretty white” with “long hair” that was “wavy.” Another enslaved seamstress named Lucy who belonged to a member of Louisa’s mistress’s family, and was a concubine, was described as “right white—light hair and blue eyes.”32 Lewis Hayden’s mother also was “chosen” to be the concubine of a local white man in Kentucky. She was biracial but had no African ancestry, rather Native American and Caucasian, and she was described as “very handsome,” with “long, straight black hair.”33 And while no known drawings or paintings exist of perhaps the most famous concubine in southern history, Sally Hemings, bondman Isaac Jefferson described the woman who lived at Monticello with him as “very handsome,” “mighty near white,” with “long straight hair down her back.” Isaac also described Sally’s mother, who had been the concubine of John Wayles and at least one other white man at Monticello, as a “bright mulatto woman.”34
The desire for a woman whose appearance resembled that of white women was also echoed in the preferences for a potential concubine’s cultural accoutrements. Most slaveholding men chose slave consorts who were house servants or skilled laborers (seamstresses were particularly popular). Domestics, after all, had to be more culturally similar to whites than field slaves. Indeed, slaveholding men so typically chose domestic servants to be their concubines that the term “housekeeper” became a popular euphemism that encompassed these women’s physical, sexual, and emotional labor as their masters’ consorts.35 These women, because they typically lived around their owners’ children and older kin, had to possess a degree of sophistication and cultural knowledge. Domestics and other skilled women certainly had more access to literacy than those whose work did not require that they have an intimate familiarity with southern white females’ culture and conventions. Enslaved domestics, moreover, had been reared to maintain a comfortable home—one that slaveholding men could appreciate. Slave masters preferred that their concubines, therefore, not only look like white women, but also dress, speak, clean, sew, cook, and worship like them as well. Louisa Picquet, for example, was described as “easy and graceful in her manners” and appeared as “an accomplished white lady.”36
An advertisement appearing in the July 4, 1835, American Beacon for the escaped woman Harriet Jacobs reiterates the traits most slaveholding men desired in their concubines. In that advertisement Dr. James Norcom describes Harriet as “a light mulatto, 21 years of age, about 5 feet 4 inches high, of a thick and corpulent habit, having on her head a thick covering of black hair that curls naturally, but which can be easily combed straight.” Norcom went on to depict other aspects of Harriet’s appearance that indicate her attractiveness to him. Of her dress, the doctor noted: “Being a good seamstress, she has been accustomed to dress well, had a variety of very fine clothes, made in the prevailing fashion, and will probably appear, . . . tricked out in gay and fashionable finery.” Norcom added, with regard to Jacob’s demeanor and presence, “she speaks easily and fluently, and had an agreeable carriage and address.”37 In other words, Harriet, the enslaved woman he wanted so desperately to be his concubine, was young, beautiful, charming, and refined. Is it any wonder then that Norcom was desperate to get her back? Equally desperate was another slaveholder, Mr. J. Davenport of Mississippi, who advertised in 1839 for the return of his domestic Harriet Powell, who escaped during their trip to Syracuse, New York. Davenport was willing to pay $200 for the return of the twenty-four-year-old “Bright Quadroon” whom he described as “of a full and well proportioned form, straight light brown hair, dark eyes, approaching to black, of fresh complexion, and so fair that she would generally be taken for white. . . . Her demeanor is very quiet, and her deportment modest.”38
The daily routine of these “housekeepers” was the same as with other domestics, with the additional burden of sex on demand. On the farms and smaller plantations, some of these women worked in the house and the field. “What did I do?,” one former Alabama concubine responded to a question about her work routine. “I spun an’ cooked, an’ waited, an’ plowed; dere weren’t nothin’ I didn’t do.”39 Most began learning their skilled trades as children, sometimes as the companion of planter youths, or in the kitchen, sewing room, and barnyard with older domestics. Like other domestics, as well, they had extremely limited privacy and often were at the beck and call of their owners, and other members of the owners’ families, day and night.
The labor and domiciles for domestics, of course, also allowed slaveholding men greater physical access. It was not unusual for enslaved girls, raised in the main house or in the adjacent yard as the children of older domestics (some of whom also had been concubines), to become the sexual targets of the planter boys and men who also resided there. Rose Maddox, an enslaved woman raised in Mississippi and Louisiana, emphasized that “a white man laid a nigger gal whenever he wanted her. Seems like some of them had a plumb craving for the other color. Leastways they wanted to start themselves out on the nigger women.”40 Rose’s suggestion that slaveholding men first began demanding sexual favors from enslaved African American women as adolescents was quite true. Under the control of teenaged boys seeking sexual pleasure and experience when no respectable white woman could afford to participate in such an activity, slave girls and women were forced to comply, and those who worked in the house were most vulnerable.
The double sexual standard in slaveholding families, which rewarded patriarchs and their male heirs with the right to demand sexual favors of their bond-women as part of their duties, was a tradition passed down from one generation of slave-owning men to the next. Judge John Maddox, for example, grew up with his enslaved half sister working in his home. Once married and settled on his own plantation in Marion County, Georgia, he bought a “pretty mulatto . . . seam-stress” for himself.41 Ethel Mae, a “yaller gal, told me ’bout Marsa bringing his son Levey . . . down to the cabin,” one former bondman confessed. “They both took her—the father showing the son what it was all about—and she couldn’t do nothing ’bout it.”42
Sexual relations with enslaved girls and women did not just involve white males of several generations in the slave family. It also included bonded women of the same family across time. For example, Ary was raised as a domestic in the home of her white father’s brother. By her midteens, she had become the concubine of her young master, who also was her paternal first cousin.43 Sally Hemings became the concubine of Jefferson while living in his household in Paris during the early republic period. Her mother, Elizabeth, had been the domestic servant of John Wayles during the colonial era and had served as maid to his two wives before she became his consort and bore him six children. Elizabeth’s African mother had been the consort of an English sea captain named Hemings.44 Both Louisa Picquet and her mother were concubines. When Louisa reached puberty, the father of four of her mother’s children also tried to seduce her.45 Incest, of course, was the most extreme and perverse example of how physical intimacy lent itself to serial concubinage and sexual predatorship. The quadroon woman Celia Bryan, for example, was repeatedly raped by her biological father Jacob Bryan in Duval County, Florida, in the late 1840s.46
SLAVEHOLDING MEN AND CONCUBINAGE RELATIONS
Despite the commonality of enslaved women’s sexual harassment, not all slave-holding men actually sought a concubine among their bondwomen. Some pursued no sexual relations with their bond people. Of those who did, however, the costs of concubinage—monetary, social, and moral—were high. To pursue such a relationship was least troublesome if a man was single, wealthy, and socially inconspicuous. Concubinage became more problematic for the master as well as the enslaved female if he was married, of modest holdings, or was in the public eye. Still, many who had public roles as legislators and clergymen, for example, sometimes maintained enslaved concubines and the offspring of the arrangement. While rejecting Norcom’s incessant demands that she be his consort, Harriet Jacobs did become the concubine of Samuel Treadwell Sawyer. Sawyer was a young, wealthy, single lawyer building for himself a political career when he and Jacobs began their intimate relationship. He subsequently became a North Carolina state legislator while involved with Harriet and continued to have contact with her while serving as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives in the late 1830s.47 Likewise, then President Thomas Jefferson continued his relationship with Sally Hemings even after it had been publicly exposed by James Callendar in 1802.48 Henry Grimke, politically and socially prominent in Charleston, South Carolina, maintained Nancy Weston as his slave mistress for nineteen years. She had three children by him. Jefferson and Grimke, however, wisely maintained their slave women in rural isolation, and Sawyer eventually did leave Edenton for Washington, D.C., and later Norfolk, Virginia. All three men were either widowed or single when they began these relationships.
While many of the slaveholding men who established lengthy sexual relationships with enslaved women were wealthy and powerful, most were not. The experience of prolonged sexual relations between owner and owned was so typical as to encompass middling planters as well as overseers. The power of the southern white patriarchy over the bodies of enslaved females sometimes even extended beyond the rich and powerful to white males, regardless of class status. “Marsters an’ overseers use to make slaves dat wuz wid deir husbands git up, [and] do as they say,” one former bondman noted. “Send husbands out on de farm, milkin’ cows or cuttin’ wood. Den he gits in bed wid slave himself. Some women would fight an’ tussel. Others would be [h]umble—feared of dat beatin’.”49 Jacob Manson, who was formerly enslaved in Warren County, North Carolina, recalled that many of the slaveholding men in his area held enslaved women as concubines. Remembering his own master, Colonel Bun Eden’s, sexual exploits in the quarters, Manson was clear: “Marster had no chilluns by white women. He had his sweethearts among his slave women. I ain’t no man for tellin’ false stories. I tells de truth, an’ dat is de truth.”50 None of the slaveholding men with sexual designs on Louisa Picquet, or her mother, were particularly famous or wealthy. Louisa’s father was a middling planter; David Cook, the father of her mother’s other children, went bankrupt. Louisa became the concubine of John Williams, a man who was neither a planter nor wealthy enough to purchase the beautiful woman himself—he had to borrow the money from his brother.51
John Sella Martin, born in 1832, the child of a concubine, recalled bitterly his mother’s story and that his family’s sale and dispersal were fueled by his father’s limited financial means. “Like too many girls,” he began, “my mother had been a victim of the selfish designs of her mistress in securing an eligible match in marriage for the heir of her property.” Mr. Martin, John’s father, was not wealthy, but the family had arranged for him to marry someone of substantial property. His betrothed, however, was several years younger and it would be at least a decade before she was ready to marry. In order to persuade her nephew to wait to marry the heiress, Martin’s aunt, “Mrs. Henderson,” arranged a concubinage relationship for her nephew with Winnifred, John’s mother. Accordingly, “Mrs. Henderson, by methods known only to the system of slavery, encouraged, and finally secured a relationship between Mr. Martin and my mother, of which my sister Caroline and myself were the fruits.”52 Mrs. Henderson arranged for Winnifred, who was white or a “griff,” to have a separate cabin, “nominal” housekeeping duties for her master and mistress, and food from the “big house.” In exchange, Winnifred was Mr. Martin’s concubine for the next ten years. Then, it was time for him to marry his betrothed. According to John, Martin had grown attached to his enslaved family members over the years and refused to marry. Mrs. Henderson would hear nothing of this. He needed a wealthy, respectable wife, not an enslaved concubine. Henderson sent her nephew on a family errand to Virginia, and while he was away, she sold Winnifred and her two children to slave traders in Georgia.53
OF MISTRESSES AND CONCUBINES
Most slaveholding women’s responses to sexual relations that the men in their families had with enslaved women ran the gamut from violent outrage to quiet, perhaps tortured, compliance. Slaveholding mistresses had to do so, keep in mind, while working side by side with these women in their households. A few stepped forward to help those victimized, but the women who did so were not usually the wives of offending males. Louisa Picquet, for example, recalled that one of the women she was hired out to tried to save her from her owner’s grasp. Mrs. Bachelor seemed aware of Cook’s intentions toward the girl and helped her, on more than one occasion, to avoid being left alone with him. She was, Louisa recalled, “the best friend I had.”54 Still, efforts like Mrs. Bachelor’s were rare. Others responded quite differently from Louisa’s protector, and some actually were enablers. Mrs. Henderson, John Martin recalled for example, both created and later destroyed the concubinage arrangement of her nephew with John’s mother, Winnifred.55 “One of de slave girls on a plantation near us went to her missus and tole her ’bout her marster forcing her to let him have somethin’ to do wid her,” one former North Carolina slave related, “and her missus tole her, ‘Well, go on. You belong to him.’”56
While most slaveholding women did not openly deter or enable concubinage, these relationships disturbed them deeply. Mary Chesnut, for example, was completely disgusted with her grandfather-in-law’s sexual liaison with one of his enslaved women, complaining in her famed diary on one of many occasions, “Rachel and her brood make this place a horrid nightmare to me.”57 Wives, no doubt, were the most disturbed and opposed to these relations. “In them times white men went with colored gals and women bold,” another bondman recounted. “Any time they saw one and wanted her, she had to go with him, and his wife didn’t say nothin’ ’bout it.”58
The white wives’ public responses were, as expected, muted. Gendered decorum demanded that slaveholding women exercise a strong sense of propriety, especially in the face of an enslaved person’s humiliating accusation of such damnable acts. Silence, many believed, was their only acceptable public response unless they were willing to risk loss of face within their households and standing in their communities. Some wives were afraid to confront their husbands, a fear that did not escape the knowing eyes of their bondmen and women. “Before my old marster died,” one former enslaved man recalled, “he had a pretty gal he was goin’ with and he wouldn’t let her work nowhere but in the house, and his wife nor nobody else didn’t say nothin’ ’bout it; they knowed better. She had three chillun for him.”59 But after all, it was the wife’s duty to obey her husband. On this point, Mary Chesnut was particularly incensed, expressing her utter disdain for men who hypocritically subjected their wives to this kind of shame and humiliation, while still insisting that slaveholding women’s moral compass be above reproach.
But what do you say to this—to a magnate who runs a hideous black harem, with its consequences, under the same roof with his lovely white wife and his beautiful and accomplished daughters? He holds his head high and poses as the model of all human virtues to these poor women whom God and the laws have given him. From the height of his awful majesty he scolds and thunders at them as if he never did wrong in his life. Fancy such a man finding his daughter reading Don Juan. ‘You with that immoral book!’ he would say, and then he would order her out of his sight. You see Mrs. Stowe did not hit the sorest spot. She makes Legree a bachelor.60
Interracial marriage was outlawed as a criminal offense everywhere in the South since the colonial era, but rarely was the law enforced, particularly during the antebellum era, unless it involved white women and nonwhite men. Indeed, the Virginia state legislature granted its first two divorce settlements, in 1802 and 1803, respectively, to white male petitioners who claimed their wives had been sexually involved with black men and bore their children.61 Few divorces were granted when the tables were turned. This, however, was not always the case. In 1814 and 1848, for example, white women in Virginia successfully petitioned for divorces based on eyewitness accounts that their husbands had committed acts of adultery with enslaved black women.62 Still, a husband’s adultery with an enslaved woman was far from a certain call for divorce in many southern states, particularly if the aggrieved wife could not prove paternity of a child as a result. Given the popular notion that enslaved women were so promiscuous that no one could be certain of their children’s paternity (consider for example the number of historians who argued against Jefferson’s paternity of Hemings’s children until DNA evidence proved otherwise), it was virtually impossible to document a husband’s affair with an enslaved women through the presence of mixed-race children.63
Indeed, some slaveholding men, but probably not in large numbers, made little or no effort to hide their extramarital relations with their enslaved girls and women. As the family patriarch, they believed their behavior was beyond open reproach, especially by their female “dependents.” When George Carter’s sister Sophia found out about his reputation as a pursuer of his enslaved girls and women, for example, she wrote to him, accusing the longtime bachelor of moral debauchery. The Virginia planter’s reply was swift and to the point. “My habits,” he wrote to her in June 1816, “like most men are vicious & corrupt . . . a Sin, [but for which I am] only answerable to God.”64 One former North Carolina bondman recalled that slaveholder Jimmie Shaw “owned a purty slave gal, nearly white, a’ he kept her. His wife caught ’im in a cabin bed wid her. His wife said somethin’ to him ’bout it, an’ he cussed his wife.”65 When wives actually caught their husbands “in the act,” however, they were much less likely to mask their pain and outrage. “She went back to de greathouse an’ got a gun,” the slave continued. “When de marster come in de greathouse, she tole ’im he must let de slave girls alone, dat he belonged to her. He cussed her agin an’ said she would have to tend to her own damn business an’ he would tend to his.”66 After more heated words, the bondman said, “She grabbed de gun an’ let him have it. She shot ’im dead in de hall.” Mrs. Shaw purportedly escaped prosecution by taking her two sons and leaving the area.67
Hurt and angry wives, however, were much more likely to act violently against the enslaved girls and women or their children, or both, than their errant husbands. One former bondwoman recalled that when she finally found out that she was her owner’s child, she began to understand why her mistress had been so cruel to her. “When I was eight years old, Old Mistress died,” she explained, “and Grandmammy told me why Old Mistress picked on me so. She told me about me being half Master Ned’s blood. Then I knowed why Master Ned would say, ‘Let her alone, she got big, big blood in her,’ and then laugh.”68 Oftentimes slaveholding women demanded that these women and their children be sold away immediately, as did Elizabeth Ramsey’s and Louisa Picquet’s mistresses.69 If their spouses refused to do so, some acted quickly to deprive them of their concubine’s pleasures. A Georgia former bondman, Jack Maddox, recalled, his master brought home “a pretty mulatto gal. She was real bright and she had long black hair and was dressed neat and good.”70 The mistress was immediately suspicious. “What you bring that thing here for,” she snapped. Judge Maddox’s reply that the enslaved woman would do all of his wife’s “fine needle work” was less than convincing. “Fine needlework, your hind leg,” she retorted.71 As soon as the judge left the plantation, his wife cut off the woman’s hair “to her skull.”72 Others attacked offspring of these unions. As a formerly enslaved man who lived in Georgia reported, “one white lady that lived near us at McBean slipped in a colored gal’s room and cut her baby’s head clean off ’cause it belonged to her husband. [The baby’s father] beat her ’bout it and started to kill her, but she begged so I reckon he got to feelin’ sorry for her. But he kept goin’ with the colored gal and they had more chillun.”73 Lulu Wilson’s mistress was “special mean to me,” she recalled. Lulu was the offspring of her master, Wash Hodges. “She beat me and used to tie my hands and make me lay flat on the floor and put snuff in my eyes.”74 Wilson eventually became blind.
THE CONCUBINES’ RETORT
“Maybe you think, because they’re slaves, they ain’t got no feelings and no shame?,” declared Lewis Clarke of Kentucky, whose mother was a concubine and whose sister was sold because she refused to become one. “A woman’s being a slave, don’t stop her having genteel ideas; that is, according to their way, and as far as they can.”75 Certainly, many of those former bond people who commented on concubinage relationships characterized them as abusive and forced. As one formerly enslaved man succinctly put it, “white men got plenty chilluns by the nigger women. They didn’t ask them. They just took them.”76 Sexual desire and obsession, backed by racial and male privilege and pride, often led to physical brutalization for those who dared to resist. “Granny,” who had been enslaved in Alabama, recalled that she never developed anything close to a romantic, or even emotionally supportive, relationship with her owner who was the father of her five children. Always afraid that she would be tortured if she refused him, Granny revealed, “I didn’t want him, but I couldn’t do nothin’. I uster say, ‘What do yer want of a woman all cut ter pieces like I is?’ But ’twant no use. I was a dog in dose days, a dog. Nothin’ to eat, an’ all day long work an’ plow, an’ allus [jealous] ole missus.”77
Blond, blue-eyed Henry Gerald recalled of his owner and father, “He beat my mama. He beat her until the blood ran down her back. . . . He beat her because she refused to have relations with him.” Henry knew because he remembered, “he make me wash her back off with salt water.” Born in 1853 in Gallivant’s Ferry in Horry County, South Carolina, Henry Gerald reluctantly told the story of his mother’s forced concubinage. She had four children for her owner before general emancipation.78 David Cook also beat Louisa Picquet brutally because she refused to have sex with him.79 Harriet Jacobs was brutalized for the same reason, and the list goes on.80 Even Thomas Jefferson, a man who was involved with an enslaved woman for decades, had to admit that “the whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.”81
Brutal whippings, however, were not all these girls and women faced if they dared to resist. Some women who refused the sexual overtures of slaveholding men also experienced shaming, sale, loss of their children, or even death. One former bondman, for example, reported the story of a beautiful young woman who was sold for $2,100 to a man who “compelled her to enter into [carnal] relations with him, and when he discovered that she was in a delicate condition, had her tied up and whipped, with a view of producing the death of the child.”82 Sukie Abbott’s master sold her when she refused him.83 Dehumanization and defeminization were ready responses. Nellie, “who was almost white and had long straight hair,” was made to wear men’s pants, and work in the fields with deer horns and bells attached to her head, all because she refused the slaveholder’s sexual demands.84
Most enslaved women quickly learned that to resist these sexual demands meant some sort of harsh punishment. Still, the reactions of enslaved women who were pursued by slaveholding men for sexual favor varied substantially. Some committed suicide, while others murdered their assailants; many tried to escape or begged to be sold; and it is likely that they all suffered emotional scars throughout their lives. Some women became resigned to their status, while others came to appreciate the material benefits and promises of freedom that were sometimes proffered and received in exchange. However, the bulk of the evidence points to forms of resistance. Harriet Jacobs secreted herself in a small attic for years to avoid her master’s sexual demands.85 Sukie Abbott slapped her master and pushed his naked buttocks into a pot of boiling soap.86 The famous (or infamous) Celias—Celia Bryan of Florida and Celia Newsome of Missouri—never reconciled themselves to being sex slaves and resisted mightily. Both killed their masters and were tried and hanged for it.
Robert Newsome, of Calloway County, raped his slave girl Celia on the way back to his plantation immediately after he bought her. It was 1850, and Celia was fourteen years old; Newsome was sixty. Celia had just been torn from her family and friends in what was likely her first sale. Celia was to be the only black female on his farm for the duration of her stay, and Newsome built a separate house for her on his property, a short distance from his home. Over the next five years, he visited her regularly for sexual relations, which resulted in two children. When the opportunity arose to marry a bondman whom she loved, Celia acted forcefully to rid herself of Newsome. According to court testimony, Celia, who was then pregnant a third time (by Newsome or perhaps by her black lover), used her pregnancy to try to get Newsome to leave her alone, but he refused. Celia even asked his adult daughters to intervene on her behalf, and they also refused. The next time Newsome tried to rape Celia, she killed him, crushing his skull with a heavy stick. She then burned his body to hide evidence of the crime.87
No one knows when Celia Bryan, who lived and worked on a small plantation outside of Jacksonville, Florida, was first forced into concubinage. What is known is that her mother, Susan, had been the concubine of their master, Jacob Bryan, and Susan bore him at least six children. Celia was the oldest. Once Celia became an adolescent, Bryan began making sexual demands and when she refused, he promised Celia’s mother, his “retired” concubine, that he would free the entire family if Celia agreed to have sex with him regularly. Susan insisted that Celia comply. The girl purportedly bore her biological father four children. Then on December 7, 1847, Celia and her owner-father got into a fight while working a field together. Celia picked up a hoe and bludgeoned Jacob Bryan to death.88
Obviously, concubinage could be a tremendous burden physically and emotionally for enslaved women. For some, it was a matter of “Christian morality.” Many adolescent black girls, like Minnie Folkes, had been taught to be sexually chaste, to “let nobody bother yo’ principle; ’cause dat wuz all yo’ had,”—since at the time a woman’s sexual purity was as prized an asset among the enslaved as among the free. Older kin and even white mistresses instructed them to marry first, then commit to sexual relations. Louisa Picquet, for example, recalled that her mistress had taught her about proper Christian female behavior. She had explained to Louisa that sexual promiscuity—“to stay with any one without bein’ married”—was a sin. When Louisa’s master forced her into a concubinage relationship, she was tortured by her belief that she was committing a great sin. “I thought of what Mrs. Cook told me,” she noted, “and I thought, now I shall be committin’ adultery, and there’s no chance for me, and I’ll have to die and be lost.”89 There also was the heartfelt belief and desire of many to choose the man, or men, with whom they would share their bodies. “It seems less degrading to give one’s self, than to submit to compulsion,” Harriet Jacobs explained of her decision to become the concubine of Samuel Treadwell Sawyer, instead of her master James Norcom.90
Despite the abundance of evidence supporting the notion that large numbers of women resisted in any and every way that they could, not all of these relationships were physically coerced, just as not all “marriages” between bonded men and women were voluntary. Slave owners had many ways to gain control of, and manipulate, an enslaved woman’s sexual loyalties. These men approached them when they were young girls, naive, vulnerable, and certainly frightened. Others took advantage of enslaved girls who were without the advice and support of family and friends because they were in strange new surroundings. Some females were convinced by the material incentives offered, and particularly by the promise of emancipation for them, their children, and perhaps other family members.
The abundant evidence of sexual compliance comes from Louisiana, where the system of concubinage was institutionalized and was already at least a century old by the 1800s. According to Joan Martin, one of the leading historians of New Orleans plaçage, there were an estimated fifteen hundred placées in New Orleans alone in 1788.91 While these kinds of relationships were very likely financially beneficial to the women and their children, other forms of concubinage also could provide some limited benefit to the women. In 1842 Lewis Clarke pointed out that while enslaved women would cry, become depressed, and even suicidal as a result of particularly dehumanizing experiences of sexual abuse, such as gang rape, they responded more positively to slaveholding men interested in courtship and romance. At the same time, however, “they [knew] they must submit to their masters; besides, their masters, maybe, dress ’em up, and make ’em little presents, and give ’em more privileges, while the whim last.” Even Harriet Jacobs, the icon of resistance, was attracted to a man who romanced her and promised to help free their children.92
Some concubinage relationships obviously developed over time, and could even mimic a marriage in some significant ways such as emotional attachment; financial support; better food, clothing, and furnishings; and sometimes freedom for the woman and her children. James Norcom told Harriet Jacobs, “I would cherish you. I would make a lady of you.”93 Louisa Picquet’s “master” promised to emancipate her and their children and to bequeath to her his belongings.94 Andrew Moss of Georgia recalled that his grandmother had been his master’s concubine, and the couple had five children. “She was his house woman; dat’s what he call her,” Moss noted. “And when he died he willed her and all dem chillens a house, some land, and a little money.”95 At his death, Isaac Matthews freed his “negro wench Jen” and allowed her an annual allowance of thirty dollars.96 John Chesnut of Camden, South Carolina, the grandfather-in-law of diarist Mary Chesnut, freed two of his enslaved children and left instructions that they be educated. According to Chesnut’s will, Edward Burke was to be taught “some useful occupation” and emancipated at age twenty-one. His sister, Juliana, was “to be brought up as a mantua maker” or given some “useful occupation” as well, and to be free at age sixteen. Chesnut also bequeathed the eventual freedom of his “faithful woman and servant Sue,” along with a $30 annuity.97 Thomas Jefferson convinced Sally Hemings to return to a life of slavery in Virginia after he promised her that he would free their children. Although Madison Hemings’s testimony indicates that Jefferson never openly embraced his enslaved children, some slaveholding fathers did.98 When Margaret Fitzpatrick’s enslaved children confronted their white half brothers and sisters at their Louisiana plantation dollhouse, they were quick to set the record straight regarding the father whom the two sets of children shared: “He comes to see us near every day and fotches us clothes and things from town. He is our daddy and we call him daddy when he comes to our house to see our mama.”99
The unavailability of marriageable black or mixed-race men, particularly on small holdings where women outnumbered men, could also have served as a contributing factor in enslaved women’s compliance in relationships with slaveholding men. Some slave owners made certain that other white or black men stayed away from their concubines. Louisa Picquet, for example, recalled the story of a woman held in concubinage in Mobile, Alabama; even though her owner did not reside with her, he still demanded her exclusive sexual attention. When a bond-man began a false rumor that she was being visited by a specific enslaved man, the owner had both whipped brutally and sent the woman to be sold in the slave market in New Orleans.100 Some bondwomen, Picquet added, never had an opportunity to have a bondman for a husband because their masters “[had] them all the time.”101 When speaking of her concubinage relationship, the enslaved woman Ary noted that her “young master” had assumed that she would remain sexually exclusive to him. He had insisted in particular that she have nothing to do with “colored men” because they “weren’t good enough” for her.102 Some masters worried more about white male competitors than the enslaved men they owned and more easily controlled. Colonel Eden, for example, was so taken with his enslaved women that he refused to hire white overseers, and used black drivers instead. Jacob Manson, a former slave, recalled that “Col. Eden liked some of de nigger women too good to have any uder white man playin’ arou’ wid ’em.”103
One also cannot discount the impact that a combination of contemporary racial beliefs and attitudes and a desire to be a part of the “white” world could have had on a bonded woman’s feelings about entering into a concubinage relationship. Under such circumstances, it is possible some enslaved women may have more readily agreed to become concubines, or may have even desired white male sexual partners. Harriet Jacobs’s experiences are again instructive. Although she initially fell in love with a free man of color whom her owner would not allow her to marry, she became sexually involved with Samuel Sawyer. When describing her attraction to him, she explained: “So much attention from a superior person was, of course flattering; for human nature is the same in all. I also felt grateful for his sympathy, and encouraged by his kind words. It seemed to me a great thing to have such a friend. By degrees, a more tender feeling crept into my heart. He was an educated and eloquent gentleman.”104
AGED CONCUBINES AND THE COMMUNITY
The responses of other African Americans to women who served as their masters’ concubines were mixed and complicated. Clearly, slave testimony supports the assertion that most of these women had been forced into these relationships and that the shame, degradation, and abuse they experienced usually was not worth whatever payment they reaped, except perhaps emancipation. Because other enslaved people knew or were related to these girls and women, they understood their trials and often expressed great sympathy toward them. “A slave woman ain’t allowed to respect herself,” Lewis Clarke concluded bitterly after recalling the experiences of his mother, sister, and other enslaved women he knew who were ordered such sexual duties.105
Some, however, were less than comfortable embracing an enslaved woman who appeared to prefer the sexual attention of white, rather than African American, men. Even those who clearly were forced to have sexual relations with slave-holding men sometimes received a mixed reception, particularly if having such a relationship brought them obvious material reward, or inordinate power over other enslaved people. Slaveholding men sometimes made matters worse for these women when they disciplined those among their bond people who dared to expose, criticize, or oppose their concubinage relationships or their concubines. For example, one former bondman told the story of a wealthy slave owner in Kentucky who punished the enslaved women on his property who ridiculed his concubine for sleeping with him. The owner punished these women by forcing all of them to have sex with him. When they complained, he changed their status from that of domestic to field worker. Those who then complained of the hard labor were “tied up naked, and flogged, for disobeying orders.”106
The children of these relationships, in particular, were caught between the world of their enslaved mothers and their slave-owning fathers, sometimes finding no place to really belong. Life became even more difficult when they had to contend with the various factions of their two worlds that complicated even more their treatment and identity. Lizzie Williams, who had been enslaved on a cotton plantation located fifteen miles outside of Selma, Alabama, for example, remembered the triangulated identity of Emily, a mixed-race bondwoman who simultaneously lived among her mistress, her father, and the other slaves on the property. “Emily, she look like a white gal,” Lizzie noted. “She was treated just like she white. Her daddy was a white man.” Emily, who was related to her mistress, found it difficult living between the relative privilege her mistress allowed her, the complete invisibility to her father (Lizzie reported that “Her pappy pay no more attention to her dan to de rest of the niggers”), and the ridicule of the bond people. “But Emily had de saddest look on her yaller face,” Williams concluded, “‘cause de other niggers whisper about her pappy.”107
Mothers and other kin who were sensitive to the kinds of teasing, insults, and rough treatment that their children might receive at the hands of both blacks and whites, often would lie to their children about their paternity or teach them to avoid the issue when questioned about it. There was little solace, however, for many since the color of their skin and other features told much of the story. Dora Franks of Mississippi spoke openly of her painful experiences as the child of her master. Her mother, Harriet Brewer, had come from Virginia where she had been the concubine of her young master, George Brewer. Harriet never hid Dora’s paternity from the child. Although treated well by the Brewer family, her father largely ignored her, and she felt rejected by fellow bond people. “Lord, it’s been to my sorry many a time,” she noted, “’cause de chillen used to chase me round and holler at me, ‘Old yallow nigger.’ Dey didn’t treat me good, neither.” One day the cook violently slapped Dora, causing her nose to bleed because the child had asked her for a piece of white bread, “like the white folks eat.” When her father returned to the house, the cook was severely whipped and then sold. Still, Dora had to call her father “Marse George,” and he eventually married a local white woman, his longtime sweetheart, “Miss Martha Ann.” Dora prayed for freedom during the Civil War and left “Marse George’s” plantation after the war without telling anyone.108
Even those women who eventually were able to establish marriages or long-term relations with bondmen still found their mixed-race children at risk of being rejected by the new men in their lives. These stepchildren, after all, were a constant reminder to bondmen of the power white men held over their wives and their inability, as men, to protect them. Their frustration and anger sometimes surfaced as resentment and rejection of these youngsters. Lulu Wilson recalled, “[my] step-paw never did like me, but he was a fool for his own younguns.” Lulu also was treated badly by her owner’s wife but was never sold. Her master-father, however, did sell many of her step-siblings.109
Some concubinage relationships, such as that of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, endured until either person died. Wills, letters, and court documents reveal that some slaveholding men provided for the continued financial support of their concubines and the children born to those relationships. Some also freed them. These same documents, however, also betray a legacy of denial of support and freedom for most. Even those who promised to do so sometimes went back on their word and failed to follow up on all the necessary legal procedures and payments, or had heirs who refused to honor such bequests. Moreover, many concubines did not benefit from special support or privileges even when the men were still alive. The illegality of these relationships, and the low status of enslaved women, despite their color, meant that slaveholding men could abandon them and their children whenever they desired. Many elected to do so when they married, as did Dora Frank’s father.110 These women suffered the loss of home, and sometimes children, when they were sold, as did Elizabeth Ramsey and Winnifred Martin.111 Others, like Lulu Wilson’s mother, lost their children when the slaveholding man they served lost interest.112 Most, however, lived out their lives as other domestic servants with the distinction that, as they aged, their sexual duties declined.
Louisa Picquet was lucky. Her master died when she was in her early twenties. His brother, who was her true owner, honored the wishes of his deceased sibling and allowed Louisa and her two surviving children to move north with funds from the sale of their household effects. Louisa Williams, as she was then known, moved to Cincinnati. There, she met and married Henry Picquet, a mixed-race man from Georgia whose mother also had been a concubine. Louisa was determined to find her own mother, who had been sold with her brother to Texas, and she eventually did locate them. Louisa raised $900—largely through the sale of her autobiography and lectures about her life—to purchase and free her mother and brother.113 Few survived concubinage so well—with their children and themselves in freedom and able to have a life with family, friends, and a modicum of dignity.
This chapter is derived from a paper given at the Huntington Conference, “Legacies of Family, Labor and Reform: Women in the Atlantic World, 1600–1900,” March 18–19, 2011, San Marino, California.
1. Louisa Picquet and Hiram Mattison, Louisa Picquet, the Octoroon: Or Inside Views of Southern Domestic Life, electronic edition, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations; Reginald H. Pitts, “Louisa Picquet, c. 1829–1896,” Legacy 24, no. 2 (2007): 294–95.
2. Picquet and Mattison, Louisa Picquet, the Octoroon, 15.
3. Some of the females were examined to determine whether or not they were virgins. Louisa notes that she was stripped only to her shoulders because she was labeled “virtuous” by a potential buyer when she was inspected prior to being placed on the auction block. Picquet and Mattison, Louisa Picquet, the Octoroon, 16.
4. Picquet and Mattison, Louisa Picquet, the Octoroon, 15, 18; Pitts, “Louisa Picquet,” 294–95.
5. Primary sources and personal documents from the era of enslavement are rife with references to black sexual bondage in the Americas, including the United States. See, for example, Lewis and Marian Wright, eds., The Secret Diary of William Byrd of Westover, 1709–1712 (Richmond, Va.: Dietz Press, 1941); Picquet and Mattison, Louisa Picquet, the Octoroon; Trevor Burnard, Master, Tyranny, and Desire: Thomas Thistlewood and His Slaves in the Anglo-Jamaican World (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003); Richard and Sally Price, eds., Stedman’s Surinam: Life in Eighteenth-Century Slave Society; An Abridged Edition of the Narrative of a Five Years’ Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992); Shelly Eversley, ed., The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano: or, Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789; rpt., New York: Modern Library, 2004); Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (1781; rpt., Charleston, S.C.: NABU Press, 2010), 162.
6. Much has been written on the extralegal custom of plaçage, which reached its peak in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Atlantic world, particularly in those areas colonized by the French and Spanish, that “placed” beautiful young women of color in long-term sexual relationships with well-to-do white men. Males provided financial and material support for their “placées” and any children born of the union. The women provided sexual and emotional care as well as raised their children. See, for example, Joan M. Martin, “Plaçage and the Louisiana Gens de Couleur,” in Creole: The History and Legacy of Louisiana’s Free People of Color, ed. Sybil Kein (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000), 57–70; Sybil Kein, “One-Drop Rules: Self-Identity and the Women in the Trial of Toucoutou,” Louisiana Culture from the Colonial Period to Katrina, ed. John Lowe (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2008), 138–46.
7. Sexual relations in the early national and antebellum eras between slaver and enslaved are examined in a number of secondary texts, including Deborah Grey White, Ar’n’t I a Woman? Women and Plantation Slavery (New York: Norton Press, 1985), 27–61; Darlene Clark Hine, “Rape and the Inner Lives of Black Women in the Middle West,” Signs 14 (1989): 912–20; Helene Lecaudey, “Behind the Mask: Ex-Slave Women and Interracial Sexual Relations,” in Discovering the Women in Slavery, ed. Patricia Morton (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996), 260–77; Catherine Clinton and Michelle Gillespie, eds., The Devil’s Lane: Sex and Race in the Early South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997); Martha Hodes, White Women, Black Men: Illicit Sex in the Nineteenth Century South (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999); Joshua Rothman, Notorious in the Neighborhood: Sex and Families across the Color Line in Virginia, 1787–1861 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007).
8. James Mellon, ed., Bullwhip Days: The Slaves Remember, an Oral History (New York: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1988), 219–20.
9. Among free blacks, a majority were mixed race in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Mississippi, and the territory of Oregon. Mixed-race people were close to 50 percent of the free black populations in Illinois, Michigan, and South Carolina. Among the slave population, the largest numbers of mulattoes were found in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. Virginia had, by far, the largest number of mulatto slaves, numbering 44,299, or 10.3 percent, of its slave population. The nearby District of Columbia had one of the largest percentages of mixed-race people in its urban slave population—27.8 percent. Arkansas, Kentucky, and Texas all had slave populations that were more than 15 percent mulatto. J. D. B. DeBow, Seventh Census of the United States, 1850: Embracing a Statistical View of Each of the States and Territories, Arranged by Counties, Towns, Etc. (Washington, D.C.: Robert Armstrong, Public Printer, 1853), table 72, Black and Mulatto Population of the United States, 83.
10. Henry D. Spalding, Encyclopedia of Black Folklore and Humor (1972; rev. ed., Middle Village, N.Y.: Jonathan David Publishers, 1978), 239–41.
11. Charles L. Perdue Jr., Thomas E. Barden, and Robert K. Phillips, eds., Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews with Virginia Ex-Slaves (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1976), 232.
12. Paul Lovejoy has written on the use of young slave women as concubines in the Sokoto Caliphate. Paul E. Lovejoy, “Concubinage and the Status of Women Slaves in Early Colonial Northern Nigeria,” Journal of African History 29, no. 2 (1988): 245–46.
13. Martin Klein, for one, exposed the widespread use of African women as slaves, noting their experiences in the western Sudan (Senegal, Guinea, Mali). Martin Klein, Slavery and Colonial Rule in French West Africa, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 2–3.
14. Joseph C. Miller, “Women as Slaves and Owners of Slaves: Experiences from Africa, the Indian Ocean World, and the Early Atlantic,” in Women and Slavery, ed. Gwyn Campbell, Suzanne Miers, and Joseph C. Miller, vol. 1, Africa, the Indian Ocean World, and the Medieval North Atlantic (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2007), 11.
15. Cooper also notes, however, that “apparently” these slave women in eastern Africa had to consent to the relationship. Frederick Cooper, Plantation Slavery on the East Coast of Africa (Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1997), 195.
16. Lewis Clarke, Leaves from a Slave’s Journal of Life, ed. Lydia Maria Child, reprinted from Anti-Slavery Standard, October 20 and 27, 1842, 78–79, 83, accessed January 4, 2011 at Documenting the American South, http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/clarke/support1.html. Also see Lewis Clarke, Narrative of the Sufferings of Lewis Clarke during a Captivity of More than 25 Years (Boston, Mass.: E. H. Ela, 1845).
17. Elizabeth Keckley, Behind the Scenes or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House, ed. James Olney (1868; rpt., New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 38–39.
18. George P. Rawick, ed., The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography (West-port: Conn.: Greenwood, 1972), vol. 5, Texas Narratives, parts 3 and 4, 236–46.
19. Inventory of Adam Shover’s Estate, October 13, 1817, Shover Family Papers, Virginia State Library, Richmond; promissory note, Samuel DeButts, October 29, 1838, DeButts Family Papers, 1784–1962, Virginia Historical Society, Richmond; Benjamin Drew, ed., North-Side View of Slavery, the Refugee: or the Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada Related by Themselves with an Account of the History and Condition of the Colored Population of Upper Canada (Boston: John P. Jewett, 1856), 74; Charles Poland Jr., From Frontier to Suburbia (Maceline, Mo.: Heritage Books, 2006), 139.
20. Lawrence J. Kotlikoff, “The Structure of Slave Prices in New Orleans, 1804 to 1862,” Economic Inquiry 17, no. 4 (1979): 496–518.
21. Dorothy Sterling includes in her discussion of Emily Russell a quote from a letter sent by Bruin and Hill in 1850 in which they request $1,800 for Emily, described as “‘the finest-looking woman in the country.” Russell died on the way to New Orleans. Dorothy Sterling, ed., We Are Your Sisters: Black Women in the Nineteenth Century (New York: W. W. Norton, 1984), 48; advertisement of Davenport’s escaped slave woman Harriet Powell, accessed January 13, 2011, at “The Civil War and Central New York,” http://cnycivilwar.com/Erie%20Canal/eriecanal.html.
22. The first owner of the Edmondson girls sold them in 1848 because they had tried to escape. They were to be sold as prostitutes. Their father did raise the money to purchase them with the help of the Methodist Episcopal Church, North. James W. C. Pennington, The Fugitive Blacksmith; or, Events in the History of James W.C. Pennington, 3rd. ed. (1850; rpt., Westport, Conn.: Negro Universities Press, 1971), v; Perdue, Barden, and Phillips, eds., Weevils in the Wheat, 236.
23. Pennington, Fugitive Blacksmith, v, v–x.
24. Picquet and Mattison, Louisa Picquet, the Octoroon, 34–35. Elizabeth Ramsay was probably about forty-five years old at the time, well past the age of a prime worker, particularly a concubine. Horton indicated she was, however, still “as fine a washer, cook, and ironer as there is in the United States.”
25. William Forbes to George Carter, May 20, 1805, Carter Family Papers, Virginia State Library.
26. Annette Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (New York: W. W. Norton, 2008), 670.
27. Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, ed. Valerie Smith (1861; rpt., New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 44.
29. Rawick, ed., American Slave, North Carolina Narratives, vol. 15, part 2, 140.
30. Octavia Rogers Albert, The House of Bondage, or Charlotte Brooks and Other Slaves (1890; rpt., New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 120–21.
31. Ibid., 20.
32. Picquet and Mattison, Louisa Picquet, the Octoroon, 5, 8, 20.
33. John W. Blassingame, ed., Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews and Autobiographies (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977), 695–96.
34. Isaac Jefferson, “Life of Isaac Jefferson of Petersburg, Virginia, Blacksmith, containing a full and faithful account of Monticello and the family there, with notices of the many distinguished characters that visited there, with his Revolutionary experience and travels, adventures, observations and opinions, the whole taken down from his own words,” 3, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Small Library, University of Virginia.
35. Cynthia Kennedy-Haflett, “‘Moral Marriage’: A Mixed-Race Relationship in Nineteenth-Century Charleston, South Carolina,” South Carolina Historical Magazine 97, no. 3 (1996): 220–21.
36. Picquet and Mattison, Louisa Picquet, the Octoroon, 5.
37. Harriet Jacobs Fugitive Slave Advertisement Image Copy from American Beacon, July 4, 1835, North Carolina Division of Archives and History.
39. Blassingame, ed., Slave Testimony, 540.
40. Mellon, ed., Bullwhip Days, 122.
41. Ibid., 121.
42. Perdue, Barden, and Phillips, eds., Weevils in the Wheat, 301.
43. Henry Swint, ed., Dear Ones at Home: Letters from Contraband Camps (Nashville, Tenn.: Vanderbilt University Press, 1996), 55–56.
44. Gordon-Reed, Hemingses of Monticello, 11–13, 668–71.
45. Picquet and Mattison, Louisa Picquet, the Octoroon, 5.
47. Jean Fagan Yellin, Harriet Jacobs: A Life (New York: Basic Books, 2004), 27; “Sawyer, Samuel Tredwell, (1800–1865),” in Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1771–Present, accessed January 13, 2011, at Infoplease, http://www.infoplease.com/biography/us/congress/sawyer-samuel-tredwell.html.
49. Perdue, Barden, and Phillips, eds., Weevil in the Wheat, 117, 207.
50. Mellon, ed., Bullwhip Days, 220.
51. Picquet and Mattison, Louisa Picquet, the Octoroon, 18–23.
52. Blassingame, ed., Slave Testimony, 703–6.
54. Picquet and Mattison, Louisa Picquet, the Octoroon, 14.
55. Blassingame, ed., Slave Testimony, 703–6.
56. Mellon, ed., Bullwhip Days, 220.
57. Mary Boykin Chesnut, Mary Chesnut’s Civil War, ed. C. Vann Woodward (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 72.
58. Rawick, ed., American Slave, Georgia Narratives, vol. 13, part 1, 292.
59. Ibid., 295.
60. Mary Boykin Chesnut, A Diary from Dixie, as Written by Mary Boykin Chesnut, Wife of James Chesnut, Jr., United States Senator From South Carolina, 1859–1861, and Afterward an Aide to Jefferson Davis and a Brigadier-General in the Confederate Army, ed. Isabella D. Martin and Myrta Lockett Avary (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1905), electronic version, accessed August 15, 2011, at Documenting the American South, http://docsouth.unc.edu/southlit/chesnut/maryches.html.
61. Glenda Riley, “Legislative Divorce in Virginia, 1803–1850,” Journal of the Early Republic 11, no. 1 (1991): 57–58.
63. Dinitia Smith and Nicholas Wade, “DNA Test Finds Evidence of Jefferson Child by Slave,” New York Times, November 1, 1998, http://www.nytimes.com/1998/11/01/us/dna-test-finds-evidence-of-jefferson-child-by-slave.html, accessed November 10, 2010.
64. George Carter to Sophia Carter, June 20, 1816, Carter Family Papers, Virginia Historical Society.
65. Mellon, ed., Bullwhip Days, 220.
68. Norman Yetman, ed., Voices from Slavery: 100 Authentic Slave Narratives (Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, 2000), 327.
69. Picquet and Mattison, Louisa Picquet, the Octoroon, 6.
70. Mellon, ed., Bullwhip Days, 121.
73. Rawick, ed., American Slave, Georgia Narratives, vol. 13, part 2, 295; Helen T. Catterall and James J. Hayden, eds., Judicial Cases Concerning American Slavery and the Negro (Buffalo, N.Y.: William S. Hein, 1998), 3:243.
74. Yetman, ed., Voices from Slavery, 323.
75. Blassingame, ed., Slave Testimony, 157.
76. Mellon, ed., Bullwhip Days, 121.
77. Blassingame, ed., Slave Testimony, 540.
78. Author’s oral history interview of Emma Gerald Stevenson, conducted in Portsmouth, Virginia, November 20, 1985. Mrs. Stevenson was the paternal granddaughter of Henry Gerald. The story was passed orally via Mrs. Florence Gerald, daughter-in-law to Henry Gerald, Mullins, South Carolina.
79. Picquet and Mattison, Louis Picquet, the Octoroon, 12, 15.
80. Norcom threatened to both beat and kill Jacobs on numerous occasions. See, for example, Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, 50.
81. Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 162.
82. Blassingame, ed., Slave Testimony, 506–7.
84. Albert, House of Bondage, 20.
85. Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, 145–236.
86. WPA, “Slave Named Sukie.”
87. Melton A. McLaurin, Celia, a Slave (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991), 20–30.
88. “Celia’s Sad Fate.”
89. Picquet and Mattison, Louis Picquet, the Octoroon, 20, 22.
90. Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, 84–85.
91. Martin, “Plaçage and the Louisiana Gens de Couleur,” 58.
93. Ibid., 56.
94. Picquet and Mattison, Louisa Picquet, the Octoroon, 24.
95. Yetman, ed., Voices of Slavery, 232.
96. Isaac Matthews Will, MSS Will: Estate Record Book A, 106, S108093, South Carolina Will Transcripts, microcopy no. 9, South Carolina State Archives and Libraries, Columbia.
97. John Camden Will, MSS Will: Estate Record Book A1, 147, S108093, South Carolina Will Transcripts, microcopy no. 9, South Carolina State Archives and Libraries.
98. Blassingame, ed., Slave Testimony, 486.
99. Rawick, ed., American Slave, Texas Narratives, vol. 16, part 3, 236–46.
100. Picquet and Mattison, Louisa Picquet, the Octoroon, 9.
101. Ibid., 21.
102. Swint, ed., Dear Ones at Home, 56.
103. Mellon, ed., Bullwhip Days, 219–20.
104. Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, 84.
105. Blassingame, ed., Slave Testimony, 156.
107. Yetman, ed., Voices from Slavery, 317.
108. Ibid., 127.
109. Ibid., 323.
110. Ibid., 127.
111. Picquet and Mattison, Louisa Picquet, the Octoroon, 15; Blassingame, ed., Slave Testimony, 703–6.
112. Picquet and Mattison, Louisa Picquet, the Octoroon, 15.
113. Pitts, “Louisa Picquet,” 296–98.