Slavery in America: The Masters' Children and Other Mulattos


Figure 1.--Often the children are lost in historical accounts. This portrait brings the plight of children very much to life. This is a Civil War CDV portrait of Rosa, Charley, Rebecca. They were New Orleans slave children. The U,S. Navy had helped seize New Orleans from the Confedracy as a step in seizing control of the Mississippi River. These emancipated children are wrapped in a huge American flags with the title underneath "Our Protector". Certainly a very dramatic scene. The CDV was one of a series of portraits done at the time to raise money in the North for emancipated slave children. A clearer image of the children is available. Click on the image to learn more about the children. On the back is printed: "No. 9, Entered according to act of Congress in the year 1864 by S. Tackaberry, in the Clerk's Office of the U.S. for the Southern District of New York. The net proceeds from the sale of these Photographs will be devoted to the education of colored people in the department of the Gulf, now under the command of Maj. Gen. Banks. Chas Paxson, Photographer, NY."

In many cases slaves were the sons and daughters and other relatives of their masters. A child born to a slave was legally a slave even if the father was a freeman. The relationships varied as slave girls could be the object of the older children of their oners or brothers and cousins. Or non-family whites in contact with the slaves, such as an overseer could be involved. Often slaves were rented out and this provided other opportunities for non-family liasons. Thus slaves could be the children, grand, children or uncles of their slaves as well as unrelated whites. These relationships were most likely to occur with house hold slaves as they were most in contact with their mmasters and his family. Some fathers sent their slave off-spring north to live as free persons. Many did not. One of the many almost inpondrable aspects of the American slave system is how many fathers condemned their own children to a live of bondage. Over time as a result of this dynamic there developed the situation where light-skinned individuals, some looking like whites were slaves. State slave codes varies, but basically any one of even 1/16 African blood was considered black and thus could legally be enslaved. A good example is te three children here, Rosa, Charley, Rebecca (figure 1). They obviously had white relatives over more than one generation. Unfortunately we have no additional information about the children. One complicating factor about children like the ones here is that during the ante-bellum era many were cared for in the homes of heir father, often under relatibvely genteel slavery. After the Civil War, however, they were an object of acute embarassment for the families involved. They were thus sent north or forced to leave their homes if alittle older. Because of the enbarassment involved and the desire of the children to disappear into the white population, very few accounts exist describng their experiences. These children are often forgotten in historical discussions. The dealer selling the CDV portrait here wrote, "These children do not appear to be black, so question is raised as to why they are considered slave children."

Slave Childern Fathered by Whites

In many cases slaves were the sons and daughters and other relatives of their masters. A child born to a slave was legally a slave even if the father was a freeman. The relationships varied as slave girls could be the object of the older children of their oners or brothers and cousins. Or non-family whites in contact with the slaves, such as an overseer could be involved. Often slaves were rented out and this provided other opportunities for non-family liasons. Thus slaves could be the children, grand, children or uncles of their slaves as well as unrelated whites. These relationships were most likely to occur with house hold slaves as they were most in contact with their masters and his family. And the house slaves were most likely to be light complexioned which to mny white men would have made them especially desirable. There are quite a number of accounts over time confirming that slave owners forced themselves upon slave women to varying degrees. A good example is a Presbeteryan minister who had both white and black congregations describes preaching to slaves, including individuals who had red hair and blue eyes. He insists that a third of his parisioners were just as white as he was. We suspect that he was probably exagerating, but his account confirms the existence practice of inter-racial relations and the existence of white slaves. [Aughey] Many but all of these accounts appeared during and after the War. While slave owners had virtuallu unlimited authority over his slave women. It would not be correct to say that there were no constraints. Some authors have attempted to play down the extent of inter-racial encounters. One author writes, "Some people seem to assume that, just because the law allowed owners to ravish slave girls, it had to be going on all over the place. This ignores the other forces (social, moral, religious, economic) that were involved. For instance, the seduction of the wife or daughter of a slave would undermine the plantation's discipline, which the planters worked hard to maintain. It would also undermine the planter's reputation both in the slave quarters, in his own home, and in the whole white community." These factors are all relevant, but so is human nature. And with white men in virtually absolute authority over black women, there was no way to prevent sexual encounters. I am not sure about actual statistics on this. One historiab reports that at the time of the Civil War there were about 0.4 million mullato children out of a slave population of about 3.9 million. [Franklin, p. 205.] Unfortunately the author does not cite the source of this data. That would be over 10 percent. While there are no obviously no statistics on this, the proof of what happened is clearly observable in physical appearance. Perhaps historian using the assessing the DNA evidence will be able to assess this.

Treatment of White-Fathered Slave Children

The treatment of white-fathered slave children varied significantky. Some fathers exhibited considerable affection toward their slave children. There wwere many instances of fathers emancipating their slave off-spring and sending them north for an education and to live as free persons. This was especially true of the boys. It was less common for the girls because in the 1860s girls were not generally sent away from home to fend for themselves. Many slave owners, howver, showed neither affection or attachment to their slave children. Some felt no feeling of familiar bonds what so ever. One of the many almost inponderable aspects of the American slave system is how many fathers condemned their own children to a life of bondage. Some times this involved "genteel" slavery such as becoming house servants. But this also was not always the case. A factor concerning these slave children were the wives. Not all but many wives were deeply embarassed or even offended by the obvious evidence of their husband's behavior. Thus many of the children were sent away to remove the evidence. Some as we mentined were freed and sent north. Others were simply sold to a life of slavery under a different non-family master, out of sight from the father and his wife. It is difficult to assess the relative importance of the different alternatives. I do not know of an author who has attempted to quantify this.

Light-Complexioned Slave Children

Over time a population of light-compleectined slaves developed. House slaves tended to ne lighter-complectioned than field slaves as they were often fathered by the slave master or other whites. And light-comlectioned slaves often one to marry other light-complectioned individuals. As a result of this dynamic there developed the situation where some light-skinned individuals looking almost like whites. Thus you had the appearance of some white slaves. A Southern diarist writes at the onset of the Civil War, ""Like the patriarchs of old our men live all in one house with their wives and their concubines, and the mulattoes one sees in every family exactly resemble the white children--and every lady tells you who is the father of all the mulatto children in everybody's household, but those in her own she seems to think drop from the clouds, or pretends so to think." [Chesnut, March 1861.] A good example of these white children is the three children here, Rosa, Charley, Rebecca (figure 1). They obviously had white relatives over more than one generation. These children are often forgotten in historical discussions. The dealer selling the CDV portrait here wrote, "These children do not appear to be black, so question is raised as to why they are considered slave children." We have a clearer image of the same three children. This was an issue addressed by Mark Twain in his short story, "Pudd'nhead Wilson".

Southern Slave Codes

I had thought that the governing rule was that any one of even 1/16 African blood was considered black and thus could legally be enslaved. But this was not the case. I believe that this fraction came from Southern legal codes following the Civil War. As segregation developed in the South, a way of legally defining race had to be developed. The slave codes passed by the different states before the Civil War differed from this definition. A way of legally defining slavey was needed as the institution developed in America. The English colonists that originally came to America did not bring slvery with them. As a result, it became necessary to pass new laws to provide a legal foundation. The governing rule in the slave codes, especially the ones passed by the southern states was, "partus sequitur ventrem". This was a legal dictum of ancient origins which based the social status of the child on that of the mother rather than the father. While it is true that slavery as it developed in America was based on importing Africans, the legal foundation in the slave codes employed "partus sequitur ventrem" rather than race. This meant that appearance was not the legal basis for either enslavement or empancipation. It was all based on the legal status of the mother. Thus an individual with a minisule amount of African ancestry could be a slave. There are a few exceptions to this in the legal principle in the judicial record in the north, but in the South the principle was enshrined in the slave codes and held up in the courts. I don't believe a case, however, ever reached the UnitedStates Supreme Court. The principle was first adopted by the sate of Virginia (1662). [Hening, p. 170.] Virginia was the first and the most important southern colony/state and thus this legal action set the precedent throughout the South. None other than Thomas Jefferson discussed this principle in "What Constitutes a Mulatto?" [Jefferson, pp. 1022-23]

Prices

The physical appearance of slaves affected the prices for which they could be sold. There are numerous historical references to this. White girls that were pretty commanded a premium price. As most of the slave dealers and individuals who purchased slaves were men, the reason for this premium seems patently obvious. As one individual at the time commented, white skin did not mean that the individuals could do more work. And it is unlikely that awhite woman would want aparticularly beautiful white slave in her household that would draw the attemtion of her men folk. I am less sure as to how a white appearance affected the value of male slaves.

Individual Historical Accounts

Unfortunately we do not have a lot of information about the children. One complicating factor about children like the ones here is that during the ante-bellum era, many were cared for in the homes of their father, often under relatively genteel slavery. After the Civil War, however, they were an object of acute embarassment for the families involved. They were thus sent north or forced to leave their homes if alittle older. Because of the enbarassment involved and the desire of the children to disappear into the white population, very few accounts exist describing their experiences. We have found a few accounts during the Civil War. What is rarely available is information about their adult lives, especially those who were freed as they wanted to escape the stigma of race and slavery and met into the white population. Thus the individual accounts we have found are about their childhood.

CDV Fund Raising Series

This is a Civil War CDV portrait of Rosa, Charley, Rebecca. They were New Orleans slave children. The U,S. Navy had helped seize New Orleans from the Confedracy as a step in seizing control of the Mississippi River. These emancipated children are wrapped in a huge American flags with the title underneath "Our Protector". Certainly a very dramatic scene. The CDV was one of a series of portraits done at the time to raise money in the North for emancipated slave children. On the back is printed: "No. 9, Entered according to act of Congress in the year 1864 by S. Tackaberry, in the Clerk's Office of the U.S. for the Southern District of New York. The net proceeds from the sale of these Photographs will be devoted to the education of colored people in the department of the Gulf, now under the command of Maj. Gen. Banks. Chas Paxson, Photographer, NY." We hve noted other CDVs like this, but without the flag, all coming from New Orleans. THis was the first large southern city to fall to the Federal Government. Notably the photographer seems to have chosen white-looking children. The idea of needy children was a powerful pull, the idea of white slave children would have had a powerful impact on the northern public.

Fighting the Civil War

One author suggests that the Civil War is in part explained because white workers felt threatened by southern slavery, especially black slavery. He writes, "When one truly understands that the politics of slavery had no regard for color, it becomes clear that free laborers in the North and others fought to abolish slavery, not out of altruism, but in order to insure freedom for themselves and their loved ones. Slavery black or white answers a major question that has puzzled historians of the American Civil War as to why Northern whites would fight to free blacks they believed to be an inferior race. Slavery black or white also begs the question as to whether or not the Civil War would have occurred if the existence of white slaves had not brought home to Northern citizens the great danger that slavery posed to their free society. The authors do not claim that white slavery was the only cause of the Civil War, but it was certainly an important cause which has been overlooked in academic literature." [Tenzer and Powell] I am not at all convinced of this. I do not think that in the 1850s that most whites knew much about Southern slavery. (Just as in the 1950s few northern whites knew much about Southern segregation.) I doubt if many Northern whites were even aware of white slavery in the South. Abolitionist writing and drawings focused almost entirely on African slavery. Nor do I think opposition to slavery explains the Civil War. It does explain why the South succeeded, but not why the North fought. There were abolitionists in the North which supported the War, but the principle reason Northeners enlisted was the preservation of the Union. No one understood this more than President Lincoln who at first stressed the preservation of the Union to the virtual exclusion of the slave issue. This solidified northern support for the War helped keep the the border states in the Union. Only in late 1862 did the President issue the Emancipation Proclamation.

Sources

Aughey, John H. Tupelo (Chicago: Rhodes & McClure Publishing Co., 1905). Reverend lived and ministered in the South for 11 years. Reverend John H. Aughey Aughey lived in the South for 11 years. He was greatly offended by white slave masters taking advantage of slave women. Thus his account must be viewed wih some skepticism, especially the extent to which it occurred.

Chestnut, Mary Boykin. Mary Chesnut's diary is an especially important piece. Abolitionists did not have to exagerate to paint a frugtening picture of slavery, but you are not entirely sure about Abolitionist accounts. Mary Chesnut was no abolitionist who sought to paint a dark picture of the South. Quite the contrary, she was a Southern aristocrat. Her husband was U.S. Senstor James Chesnut, Jr. (South Carolina). The diary she kept is a wonderful resource on life in the Confederacy during the Civil War. Notably this passage was editued when Chesnut's diary was first punlished in 906 to avoid offending Southern sensibilities.

Franklin, John Hope. From Slavery to Freeedom: A History of Negro Americans (Vintage: New York, 1967), 686p.

Hening, William Waller. ed., he Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia (N.Y., 1810-1823), Vol. II.

Jefferson, Thomas. "What Constitutes a Mulatto?" in The Complete Jefferson, ed. Saul K. Padover (N.Y., 1943). This essay is not included in many collections of Jefferson's works.

Tenzer, Lawrence and A.D. Powell. "White Slavery, Maternal Descent, And The Politics Of Slavery In The Antebellum United States," The Multiracial Activist (July 1, 2004).






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Created: 3:24 AM 5/7/2007
Last updated: 7:12 AM 11/20/2007