They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South
I made it through another chapter of the book They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South. In Chapter 1, “Mistresses in the Making”, Jones-Rogers presents an overview of the developmental process by which a southern girl became an adult mistress (i.e., a slaveowner, a female master). She posits that, over the course of their young lives, girls learned how to manage and discipline slaves by observing their slave-owning parents’ behaviors, paying attention to their parents’ direct teaching, reading literature aimed at socializing teenagers (e.g., the Rose Bud newspaper), and by being exposed to and participating in social conventions associated with slavery.
From infancy, daughters witnessed how their parents treated, sold, and traded slaves. They were allowed to name their slaves and to discipline them, at the encouragement and, at times, the insistence of their parents. Mistresses in waiting learned and were expected to teach the slaves over whom they were given responsibility how to be subservient. Families celebrated important occasions such as birth and marriage by bestowing slaves as gifts. At estate meetings held after a relative’s death, girls participated in drawing ceremonies to determine which slaves would be distributed to whom. As Jones-Rogers (2019) states, “for those who were newly inducted into slaveowning communities, ‘the plantation was a school’ where they learned to be propertied women” (p. 4).
Designed precisely to prepare girls in the profession of slave ownership and management, training opportunities often involved witnessing and perpetrating the basest of human behavior. Truly, some of the acts narrated in this chapter evoked an indescribable sadness that I did not want to feel. One of the most jarring instances of violence the author described was when a mistress used a rocking chair to restrain a female slave girl while the mistress’ daughter whipped the slave. As a result of repeated rocking against her face during an hour-long period of torture, the slave was permanently disfigured (Jones-Rogers, 2019, p.11).
“Here, put yo han’ on my face—right here on dis lef’ cheek—dat’s what slave days was like. It made me so I been goin’ roun’ lookin’ like a false face.”Henrietta King (1940 as cited in Perdue, Barden, & Phillips, 1976)
Training opportunities also created the understanding that slaves (especially females) were assets – property to be leveraged to finance their wants and needs and long-term investments that could ensure their economic wealth (Jones-Rogers, 2019, pp. 18, 21). White women who were successful in managing their slave property learned that they could hold their own in a male-dominated world. They also believed in the psychological, social, and cultural meanings attached to the differences that existed between themselves and blacks. As the author states, “All around them, white girls found evidence of their difference from and superiority to enslaved people, as well as of the many privileges their whiteness brought them” (p. 16).
Reading this chapter made me think of my first semester in graduate school. At some point, we discussed a classic debate in models of development – to what extent do we change and grow because of biology or environment (i.e., “nature” or “nurture”), or an interaction between the two? Neither being a slaveowner or a slave was an inherent trait; babies didn’t come out labeled or behaving as either. The answer to the matter of slaveowner/slave identity couldn’t lie in the “nature” option. It must involve “nurture”, or the environment. In early America, most blacks were born into the condition of slavery, and many whites were born into the condition of owning slaves. People were influenced by their environment.
Today, we struggle with the negative consequences that hundreds of years of slavery produced – economic disparities, intercultural resentment, and complex trauma, among other things. We detest slavery’s concomitant evils like racism and entitlement, disrupted families and histories, and broken spirits. We protest the long-term impact of slavery and tear down the relics of its past, but how much of what we blame people like presidents, military officers, and certain whites for doing when they were alive is hard-wired v. learned? If it is a pernicious problem that is innate, how can it be overcome? If it is due to generational, family, and sociocultural factors, how long will it take to expunge? What space can we make for contextualizing people within the historical frameworks in which they operated? What room is there for acknowledging the past and at the same time moving toward a future of reconciliation and resilience? These are questions that I hope we can consider as we continue reading this book and perhaps answer one day.
Jones-Rogers, S.E. (2019). They were her property: white women as slave owners in the American South. Yale University Press.
Perdue, C.L., Barden, T.E., & Phillips, R.K. (Eds.). Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews with Virginia Ex-Slaves (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1976), 190–192. Retrieved from https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/_Henrietta_King_an_excerpt_from_ Weevils _i _the_Wheat_1976