BookTalk Introduction…They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South

I used to really love reading as a child – mysteries, growing up stories, horror novels.  After high school, though, the academic readings required for my college classes seemed to zap away my interest in books. Now that I reflect on it a bit more, I think a bigger part of my disenchantment with reading came from not knowing how to transition from what piqued my interest as a kid to what I wanted or needed to develop as an adult.  Lately, I’ve been trying to develop my palate a little more – I read two books last year, and as minimal as that may sound, it was a major feat for me.

Recently, we went on a trip to Oklahoma City and had the opportunity to visit one of our favorite spots – a quaint bookstore near the mall.  Full Circle Bookstore is a quiet, somewhat quirky place where I can grab a seat at a unique-looking chair or the rungs of a ladder to reach a colorful cover overhead .  It’s a place that has a fresh vibe but with familiar and feel-good undertones…it has a home-like quality that makes out-of-towners like me settle in there for hours even when they really need to be somewhere else (I know what you’re thinking, and no, this post is not sponsored by the bookstore). This time, I went looking for a graduation gift and had hoped to find a book about the history of Jerusalem; instead, I settled for a gift card and walked out with a book that had me intrigued from the moment I could read its title.

The gem shining amidst the comparative riff-raff on the shelf was a book called They Were Her Property:  White Women as Slave Owners in the American South (Jones-Rogers, 2019).  The book is a reaction to what Jones says is a traditional view of white southern women as ignorant of the innermost workings of the institution of slavery.  In her introduction, Jones-Rogers (2019) states her plan to topple “a commonly held patriarchal view” with the argument that “slave-owning women not only witnessed the most brutal features of slavery, they took part in them, profited from them, and defended them” (p. ix).  She lays out some of the weaknesses in historians’ stance on slave-owning women in the south:

  • They have focused on single or widowed women.
  • They have not distinguished between married women who co-owned slaves but were not the primary managers of them and those who owned and managed slaves independently of their husbands.
  • When southern slave owners have been discussed, those who owned just a few slaves are largely neglected.
  • They have tended to focus on “women’s obligatory, rather than voluntary or self-initiated” activities pertaining to the people they owned (Jones-Rogers, p. xii).
  • They have failed to recognize women’s roles in the relationship between slavery and capitalism.
  • They have minimized the value of using ex-slaves’ narratives to learn about previous slaveowners.

Jones-Rogers seems to intend to debunk some of the traditional ideas about southern slavery by 

  • exploring the experiences of married, women “who owned enslaved people in their own right” (Jones-Rogers, p. xii);
  • explaining the great extent to which economic motivations served as the basis of these women’s ownership of slaves;
  • demonstrating that women’s slave-ownership served to increase their value to potential suitors and provided a source of wealth that helped men to establish themselves financially or further solidify their economic status; and
  • using ex-slaves’ narratives to depict women as equal in stature to men with regard to their slave-owning exploits, authority, and practices.

Jones-Rogers (2019) defines the central character of this book (i.e., the white, southern, female slave-owner) according to the Western European concept wherein a mistress was viewed as a woman who governed and exercised control over something or someone in her possession (p. xv).  She was the female version of a master, equal in power and authority; she possessed the skill and acumen to hold her own in a man’s world (in this case, slave ownership).  These so-called mistresses sued their husbands to make sure that their property remained under their control legally; they participated in the direct purchase and sale of slaves; and they oversaw the ins and outs of their slaves’ work activities and monitored their productivity. Essentially, some women were running the slave show more often and effectively than typically conceived.  

The reason this book appealed to me is because I am curious about the role of white women in my own family’s slave experience.  For example, Hypolite Chretien was an immensely wealthy planter in Saint Landry Parish, Louisiana where most of my maternal family originated.  When he died, his wife, Felicite, took over the management of their plantation.  I wonder how she viewed her role and how she executed it.  Around the same time frame in the same parish, Ned Rose bought my ancestor and his family on his wife’s behalf. Did Mrs. Rose manage the new property as her own, or was she simply the front woman for this transaction and substitute master only when her husband was indisposed?  

Chretien Point Plantation. From the Robert Tebbs Photograph Collection. Courtesy of Louisiana State Museum.

I hope I can find out the answers to these questions and more as I continue reading this book.  I’m sure I’ll be motivated to find out more about the women slave-owners with whom my family interacted long ago. This should be an interesting journey, and I hope you join me.  Start by finding your own copy of this book, and then share, in the comments below or on my Facebook page, your initial impressions about this post or the book’s Introduction.

References

Jones-Rogers, S.E. (2019). They were her property:  white women as slave owners in the American South. Yale University Press.

Tebbs, Robert (1926). Chretien Point Plantation. Retrieved from https://louisianadigitallibrary.org/ islandora/object/lsm-rtc%3A222

Published by GenealogyGriot

Tameka Miller is a genealogist, psychologist, and full-time homemaker and homeschool educator. She has been a genealogy researcher and family historian for over 20 years.

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