Slavery in America: African-American Women and Girls


Figure 1.--

HBC has generally focused on the experiences of boys throughout history. Here we need to distress an especially troubling aspect od American slavery that affected girls and women. Any assessment of slavery in America is incomplete without facing up to this issue. There is no doubt that African American girls and women were routinely raped by slave owners and overseers. In the era where slavery was viewed as a benigh paternalistic institution, this simple fact was largely ignored. Actual historical evidence was not addressed and the very obvious existence of large numbers of light-skined African Americans simply ignored. Modern historians treat the subject more honestly, especially since the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings came to light. There were a range of relationships involved. Some slave masters brutally simply raped young African American girls using what ever violence was required. The assaults were obviously most commonly visited on teenage girls and young women. Then there was a range of approaches, including threats to the girl or women, to her family, or threats about punishments, added work, sale, or promises of freedom. Whether violence actually occurred or not, such threats to an individual without civil rights can not be considered anything but rape. Then there were relationships with actual emotional involvement. The Jefferson-Hemmings relationship is one such example. As so few Africa-Americans could read and write, there are few accounts of what slave girls and women experienced. There are, however, some accounts. Perhaps the most reviting is that of Hariet Jacobs. [Jacobs]

Importance

HBC has generally focused on the experiences of boys throughout history. Here we need to distress an especially troubling aspect od American slavery that affected girls and women. Any assessment of slavery in America is incomplete without facing up to this issue. There is no doubt that African American girls and women were routinely raped by slave owners and overseers. While distasteful, any real understanding of slkavery in America is incomplete without a through understanding of how slavery affected real men and women. The relationship between attractive girls and youngmen and their slave masters is one of the many waysn which slavery affected White and Black Americans before the Civil War.

Suppressed Subject

In the era where slavery was viewed as a benigh paternalistic institution, this simple fact was largely ignored. The subject was distasteful to the prudish morality of late 19th and early 20th century Americans. Actual historical evidence was not addressed and the very obvious existence of large numbers of light-skined African Americans simply ignored. The conclusions were obvious to any thinking person, so the subject was simplly not discussed as it did not fit in with the benigh nostalgic view of ante-bellum life that Southerners cultivated after the Civil War.

Salley Hemmings (c1763-1835)

Sally Hemings, who was first called Sarah, was the daughter of Elizabeth (Betty) Hemings and, allegedly, John Wayles, Thomas Jefferson's father-in-law. Thomas Jefferson inherited inherited Sally and her mother as part of the Wayles estate in 1774. The two by 1776 were living on Monticello. Sally as a child was probably a "nurse" to Jefferson's daughter Mary. Slave girls from 6-8 years of age were commonly used as childminders and assistants to head nurses on plantations. They might also be assigned as playmates for the white children. Jefferson's wife died in 1782. She asked him never to remarry, primarily so that their daughter Mary would never have a stepmother. Jefferson was appointed Ambassador to France in 1785. Once there he asked Mary to Join him, which she did in 1787, accompanied by Sally. At the time, Sally was 14 and Mary 8 years olsd. It was in Paris that the relationship between Jefferson and Sally is believed to have begun. Sally could have remained in Paris as a free person, but Jefferson promissed her that he would ensure that she lived in comfort on Monticello and free her children, if she returned. [Andrews] Modern tests appear to indicate that Jefferson fathered Sally's youngest son. Some had thought he fathered Thomas Woodson (1790- ), Sally's oldest son. He may have fathered her other children as well: Hariet I (1795- ), Beverly (1798- ), Hariet II (1801), Madison (1805- ), and Eston (1808- ). The science of DNA evidence is very complicated, but clearly there was an intimate relationship between Jefferson and Sally. This is a good example of the evils of the slave system. In this case the relationship was surely consentual, but Sally was a child and a slave and thus her consent in the relationship has to be viewed in terms of not only her age, but the slave system itself.

Modern Historians

Modern historians treat the subject more honestly, especially since the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings came to light. The shock of such a revered icon in American history being involved in an intimate relationship with a very young slave girl was so shocking that it hasargely brought the whole subject out of the closet.

Relationships

There were a range of relationships involved. Some slave masters brutally simply raped young African American girls using what ever violence was required. The assaults were obviously most commonly visited on teenage girls and young women. Then there was a range of approaches, including threats to the girl or women, to her family, or threats about punishments, added work, sale, or promises of freedom. Whether violence actually occurred or not, such threats to an individual without civil rights can not be considered anything but rape. Then there were relationships with actual emotional involvement. The Jefferson-Hemmings relationship is one such example. Other circumstances was initiating teenage white boys. Of course there were countless such relationshps between slave girls and their masters. Most were neither consentual or loving. In many cases violence was used. Not only ones this highlight the evils of the slavery, but it points out how extesively the lives of slaves and masters were intertwined.

The Masters' Children

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 basivally any one of even 1/16 Afro American heritage was considered black and thus could lefally be enslaved.

Hariet Jacobs (18??-97)

Very few Africa-American slaves could read and write, As a result there are few accounts of what slave girls and women experienced. There are, however, some accounts. Perhaps the most reviting is that of Hariet Jacobs. [Jacobs] This book was originally published under the pseudonym Linda Brent. The book was at first dismissed as a fabrication but is today widely considered factual. One historian has addressed the subject of Hariets life and book. [Yellin] Hariet known as Hatty grew up in North Carolina as a slave of the Flint (fictious name) family. She was taught to read and write and was promised her freedom. Hariet at age 13 was, however, willed to the 3-year old child of Dr. Flint. (One historian believes Flint to have been Dr. James Norcom, a morphine addict from Edenton, North Carolina.) [Yellin] Dr. Flint began to make sexual advances. A free African American proposed to Hatty and offered to buy her from Flint. He rejected the offer. Hatty describes Flint as "odious" anf to escape Flint's advances, Hatty brought off an affair with a white neigbor. (Describes as Sands in the book, he is believed to be Samuel Tredwell Sawyer.) They had two children (Joseph and Louisa). Sands promised to free them. but did not do so. When he married, his wife was enchanted by the "pretty negro children". Often such children were used as house servants and nursemaids which is apparently what she had in mind. Hatty then hid for 7 years in her grandmother's attic (1835-42). [Jacobs] The account reminds one of Anne Frank. So sensational was Hatty's account that she had trouble finding a publisher. Even Harriet Beacher Stowe who wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin would not help her. Hatty went on to found a free school for blacks after the Civil War.

Sources

Jacobs. Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself (1861). This book was originally published under the pseudonym Linda Brent. The book was at first dismissed as a fabrication but is today widely considered factual.

Yellin, Jean Fagan. Harriet Jacobs: A Life (Basic Civitas, 2004), 394p.








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Created: April 23, 2004
Last updated: 3:07 AM 5/7/2007