Writer and historian, Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers prove that vvhite women had a lot more to do with American slavery than most people realize…
There’s an image of the American white woman; she’s smart enough to breed and vote, but, too docile to lead and too fragile to harm. When it comes to American slavery, it’s simply assumed that white women were too oppressed, too busy managing their homes to be involved in the peculiar institution of slavery. From history books to political pundits, long and gone white men are solely held responsible for centuries of kidnapping, rape, and torture enslaved Africans were forced to endure. However, thanks to Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers, author of the 2019 hit, They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South, the truth is out. White women played a big part in the business of slavery. They owned, tortured, sold, and brutalized the bodies of enslaves Africans just like most white authoritarians.
By no means is They Were Her Property an easy read. Besides the dense, college text-style which the book is written — loaded with historical facts and notes, it’s a bitterly painful read. Nearly every page contains the story of an enslaved African who succumbed to circumstances at the control of their mistress.
Here are the five most relevant takeaways I got from reading They Were Her Property:
- Nothing and no one stopped white women from owning slaves. Not the white men they married, or the slaves who tried to escape, or even the law.
Jones-Rogers uses old court records and preserved wills of slave owners to prove that there were legal systems in place so white women could maintain ownership of enslaved Africans without disruption. The entire book is filled with accounts of white slave-owning women who went to extreme lengths to keep ownership of enslaved Africans, even post-war:
“One-way former slave-owning women held on to their former slaves was to keep them uninformed about their free status. This proved to be an easier task in some parts of the South than in others…”
During the war, white women went as far as stomping in Union soldier territory to retrieve the slaves that had been removed from their possession. These bold actions prove exactly how invested in slave ownership these women actually were.
2. Black women’s bodies being used (and discarded) to breastfeed for the white women wasn’t just ‘a thing’, it was big business.
“ … Unlike other barter exchanges, these white women did not ‘produce’ enslaved wet nurses through their own labor, but they did claim ownership of their bodies and the products of wet nurses’ labor-their breast milk. The narratives of enslaved people and slave-owning women’s personal letters and diaries attest to the existence of this informal market. And its informality has generally obscured it from historians’ view.”
Many of these Black mothers had lost their newborn or needed desperately to be with them to care for them, but, under the control of white slave-owning women, they’re bodies had one purpose and that was to serve them.
“ Historians long asserted, for instance, that Southern women used wet nurses only “as a last resort,” but the testimonies of formerly enslaved people — and advertisements from the 18th and 19th centuries — tell a different story. The practice appears to have been widespread. One woman recalled that her enslaved mother always gave birth at the same time as her mistress, so she would be available to nurse the white baby.” — The New York Times
3. Women tortured slaves like white men, broke up families like white men, and defied the emancipation proclamation, just like white men.
They Were Her Property is filled with many stories that document the brutality slave owners inflicted on enslaved Africans, however, the story of Henrietta King is one that won’t be forgotten.
King was only eight or nine when she had been accused by her mistress of stealing a piece of candy. King’s mistress decided that an adequate form of punishment would be to get her young white daughter to beat King with a switch for nearly an hour, while the mother placed King’s head behind the rocking chair, proceeding to rock back and forth until a young, brutalized King was near a coma. The result left the young enslaved girl severely mutilated, forced to ingest only liquid food through a straw because she’d lost her ability to chew.
While the story of Henrietta King is severe and devastating by equal measure, physical reprimand or starvation was not uncommon treatment from white slave-owning women in the antebellum south. From young slave owning girls who made enslaved children ‘kiss the whip’ they were beaten with, to forcing them to beat one another, white women were well trained in the torturing and barbaric treatment of Black bodies.
4. Owning slaves was the only wealth many white slave-owning women claimed. The abolishment of slavery left many former slave owners broke overnight, forced to depend on the kindness of… FORMER ENSLAVED PEOPLE!
“Sometimes life became so difficult for former slave-owning women that they were reduced to beggary among the people they had once owned. Two young women visited their father’s former slaves ‘pleading their poverty’ and begging for help. These freed people gave them ‘grits or potatoes… plates and spoons… and money.’ One enslaved women even ‘took the shoes from her own feet and gave them to her former mistresses.’”
It’s a hard truth to swallow, the idea that newly-freed Black people extended kindness and warmth to those who once held them captive, but it’s true.
5. Slave-owning women harbored resentment and disgust at having to treat Black people as human beings.
In post-war 1865, after President Andrew Johnson issued three proclamations which forced soldiers from the Confederate army to give all allegiance to America and abandon all confederate ideology. Many slavery-sympathizers appeared to agree with the United States, only to privately continue to support Confederate people and culture. Catherine Ann Edmonston, a white woman who proudly stood with Confederate soldiers said after the proclamations:
“Who considers it binding? No one. Not one person whom I have heard speak of it but laughs at and repudiates every obligation it imposes. It binds one no more than a promise at the pistols point to a highwayman!”
Slavery may have been over on paper, but white slave-owning women like Catherine Ann Edmonston had no intention of respecting Black bodies as anything other than property to be owned. Many white women would share this contempt for a litany of reasons, many of them financial. Some white women had inherited enslaved Africans at birth, making them wealthy before reaching adulthood. The end of slavery turned their prosperity into poverty, and for that, they blamed Black people.
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