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.
One of the best ways to understand our ancestors’ lives better is to talk to them and ask them questions about how life was where they lived, worked, and played. I know, I know. You’re going to say, “How do I do that when so many of the ancestors I’m most interested in are deceased?” Well, the answer is: you have to rely, to the extent possible, on their descendants who are still alive. Interviewing relatives can yield jewels of information when people are willing and able to participate. I want to share an example of how a conversation with one of my family’s elders helped me to contextualize census records I had found previously and to follow her leads to round out our family history.
Recently, I called my maternal grandmother’s 83 year-old cousin, Mary (a pseudonym), a resident of southwest Louisiana, to find out what new insights she could provide about our family. I unexpectedly learned many details about a place (and its people) that was very special to her – her hometown, Grand Coteau, Louisiana. Grand Coteau is a town (some would call it a village, based on its population of 919 in 2018) that evolved out of the efforts of two nuns who, in 1821, established a convent and a girls’ school called the Academy of the Sacred Heart. It was solidified even further as a religious center in 1837 when the Jesuits established St. Charles College to educate lay people and, later, exclusively Jesuit priests. I didn’t know this before writing this article, but a Civil War battlewas fought there, too!
According to Cousin Mary, most black people, including her immediate family, lived in homes along the various “alleys” of Grand Coteau. However, Cousin Mary’s great-grandparents, Norbert Lewis (known by his children and grandchildren as Pop Venome) and his second wife Mary Hawkins Fuselier, called Marie Chris, lived on the main road (designated Main Street on the 1940 U.S. Census) going through Grand Coteau. These days, it is called Martin Luther King, Dr., but it was known colloquially as “Front Street” when Cousin Mary was growing up. Cousin Mary’s great-grandparents had lived on Front Street as long as she could remember, and she was born in 1937. Actually, prior to that, Pop Venome’s brother, John Lewis, had owned property in the vicinity of his house. According to the 1930 Census, John had worked as a woodchopper for St. Charles College. The Lawrence Martin family and Willie and Ella Lawrence family lived on one side of him; Henry Ivy, David Little, Rodney Key, and Frank Barry lived on the other side.
Research Tip: If you intend to interview or visit with a relative over family history, plan to have some questions already prepared or events/themes that you want to discuss, explore, verify, or clarify. Make sure that your questions are mostly open-ended in nature so that you can get as much information as possible. Open-ended questions are those that will require more than a “yes” or “no” answer: “Grandpa, have you lived in Baxley, Georgia your whole life?” versus “Grandpa, besides Baxley, what cities and states have you been to or lived in?”
By the time of the 1940 Census, some of the families in the neighborhood had come and gone, but there were still a few familiar faces. The Little, Lawrence, Key, Martin, and Ivy families still lived in the same area. John Lewis had died by 1937, but Pop Venome and Marie Chris had moved to an adjoining or nearby property. To Cousin Mary, it seemed that Pop Venome had more means than others in the area. He had a house with a large back yard and a “big, heavy, green” bath tub with feet. They didn’t use a galvanized tub like most people used because Marie Chris was a tall, big lady, and she couldn’t bathe well in them. Although in 1940, there was no occupation listed for him, Cousin Mary remembered that Pop Venome worked as a janitor. He would “fix bottles”, sweep, and clean both the Saloon (the only local bar on Front Street) and the Bakery Shop. Cousin Mary spent a lot of time with Pop Venome and Marie Chris. Sometimes she would stay at their house overnight, especially when her mother would walk from Grand Coteau to Sunset to take her teenaged daughters to school dances.
Cousin Mary recalled other blacks who lived on Front Street around 1947 when she was about 10 years old: Victor and Theresa “Therese” Esprit; Lawrence and Eva Martin, along with Ms. Eva’s niece, Cleona Miller; Alberta “Ms. Bertha” Key; Ella Lawrence; “Aunt Leez” Little, along with her son, Henry (“Mr. Toran”), and his wife (her maiden name was Eaglin). Some of the white families on Front Street were the Barry’s and the Miller’s. There were several businesses that operated on Front Street, too. These included the Bakery Shop (the building is still there); the Meche Store (Ms. Regina sold mostly material, but most of the old country stores sold a variety of products, including food); Morette Smith’s store (which sold groceries like sausage and rice in sacks, by weight); and, at the end of the road, Walter Barry’s Saloon. The Saloon was at the corner, and on the side of the saloon was the post office that Barry’s sister managed. According to Cousin Mary, the E. Petetin Store was a larger store that sat across the street from those businesses. Not too far away was the jail; people could talk with and deliver meals and other needed items to the inmates through the jail’s windows.
Research Tip: Some people have no trouble talking, but others may need a little encouragement.Start off the interview with small talk rather than jumping right into asking your questions. It might also be helpful to provide a photo, memento, or relevant document to help jog the person’s memory. Be patient; be comfortable with long pauses and silence; and follow your relative’s lead, even when it’s not necessarily the direction you want to pursue. You probably still will get valuable information!
Cousin Mary remembered Ms. Therese (Esprit) as a diminutive, brown-skinned, portly lady and mentioned that her grandchildren now live on the property where she had lived. Ms. Alberta Key’s house wasn’t as close to the front of the street as Pop Venome’s was; she and her sister Hazel lived “all the way to the fence.” Cousin Mary noticed that the Charlot family lived there in later years and surmised that, in marrying Ms. Ezola Key, Mr. Charlot may have bought the sisters’ interest in the land at a later date. Ms. Little (also known as Aunt Leez) was a tall, dark-skinned lady. She and the other black ladies in the community would wear long dresses, according to Cousin Mary. Ms. Little’s son (Mr. Toran) and his wife (Ms. Tah was described as a “little” woman) also lived with her; they had no children. On Sunday nights, since she didn’t know how to do hair, Marie Chris would send Cousin Mary to Ms. Tah, who would comb her hair (in five plaits) on Monday morning before she went to school. Ms. Tah would sit on the bed, and Cousin Mary would have to sit on a can. Cousin Mary also remembered a Ms. Deuce who “came up” with her mother and stayed at Aunt Leez’ house.
One of Pop Venome’s daughters, Nan Orelia, lived not too far away. Nan Orelia had mostly sons and lived on a farm in Blue Springs (possibly the town of Bellevue). One of Pop Venome’s sons, Voorhies (my great-grandfather), lived nearer to Grand Coteau in a town called Sunset. He would bring his children to Grand Coteau, and Cousin Mary would play hopscotch with them in the yard. As she got older, she spent more time with her cousins Bernice, Bernita, and Myrtle Mae Lewis (my grandmother) in Sunset. There were two community stores in that area – Willie Mills’ Store (near Sunset) and Chappy Mills’ Store near Blue Springs – that they could walk to in order to buy groceries. They also would go to dances in Bellevue that were hosted by the priests from Grand Coteau. In recalling the night before Myrtle Mae’s wedding, Cousin Mary said that she and her cousins traveled to Mathilda Henry’s house to get “all [Myrt’s] pretty, black hair” done. They took a lantern to make the trip because they knew they’d have “to pass on the headland/turnrow, [where] you’d park the buggy or the wagon and get some water.and you’d have to turn around where the grass and road met. ”
How fascinating it can be to reflect on the times that the grass and the road meet! Turning points are a common theme in my conversations with family members, and Cousin Mary and I discussed several of them as she shared the many memories of the place she called home for the early part of her long life. Talking with her really did give me an opportunity to see a community described in census and other records en vivo, so to speak. I expect to continue researching how the folks she described were connected, not just by Grand Coteau, but also by their family ties (i.e., marriage, ancestry). I hope I’ve inspired you to use the tools of interviewing and conversation to bring the names and places you find in genealogical records to life. You really can find some treasures!
“Mom, remember you said you were going to take us to a Juneteenth parade this year,” the kids reminded me. “Yes, I did say that,” I sighed out loud, but I thought to myself, “but, I had forgotten.” Not wanting to break any (more) promises, I combed through the 2019 area event calendars for something we could attend and enjoy. On our way to a celebration at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Center in Dallas, I began trying to recall all that I knew about our uniquely-Texas holiday. I had the general idea that Texas slaves learned that they were freed later than slaves in other places, but I wanted and needed to know more. There are numerous resources that thoroughly explain the history and significance of Juneteenth (see the references at the end of the page), and I continue to learn more about it every year.
Although we focus on its effective date of January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation was issued initially in 1862. It was supposed to serve as a warning of ominous potentialities and as a military strategy to force surrender and cripple the military support provided by the Confederacy’s slave workforce. The freedom offered to slaves was not a complete and universal one. Rather, it was
temporary. Under President Lincoln’s “war powers” authority, the Proclamation was an executive order applicable only for the duration of the Civil War, whose end was initiated on April 9, 1865 with General Lee’s surrender but only was officially recognized by President Andrew Johnson on August 20, 1866, after all Confederate armies had surrendered and all states had established federally compliant state governments. Notably, Texas was the last state to present a suitable solution for governing itself.
limited in scope. The Proclamation affected only the slaves in the areas of Virginia that later would comprise West Virginia; regions occupied by Union forces (including Tennessee and 13 parishes in lower Louisiana); and areas held by rebel Confederate states (except the border, slave states of Kentucky, Delaware, Maryland, and Missouri).
and not really enforceable. Nominally freed slaves could benefit from the Proclamation only if they escaped to Union territory or if they sought protection from the Union forces that entered rebel territory. In the case of Texas, although many of its inhabitants fought as Confederate soldiers, the land itself was insulated from the ravages of actual battles (except for the Battle of Palmito Ranch near Brownsville, Texas). Texas was either ignored or deemed unnavigable by the would-be harbingers of the news of freedom. Moreover, information about the Emancipation Proclamation likely was concealed by local and incoming slaveowners and/or was widely unknown or disbelieved because of the illiteracy of many of the slaves and a tendency to perceive the news as rumor.
In reflecting on the facts of the Emancipation Proclamation, I wanted to know how my Texas ancestors fared during those times. I remembered finding photos of my great-great-grandmother, “Grandma Annie.”
She grew up in Fayette County, Texas, but her father, John Rem, was born in North Carolina. I knew, based on the 1890 U.S. “Veterans Census”, that John Rem was a Civil War Veteran and had served as a Private in North Carolina’s Company K, Regiment 37, from August 1864 to August 1865. When I first saw that 1890 record, I wondered about the circumstances under which he joined the Union and how, when, and why he had settled in Texas. Thankfully, my cousin Sheron Bruno, Vice President of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society-Houston Chapter, had secured and shared with me John Rem’s pension file, and that offered a wealth of information about his life.
Regarding John Rem’s becoming a Union soldier, his plans may have started taking shape with the signing of the Second Confiscation Act. Enacted in the summer of 1862, the Second Confiscation Act enabled fit slaves who had escaped from rebel states to Union lines to be freed and allowed to enlist in the Union Army. John Rem must have heard this news and eventually escaped his slave owner, “young Richard Nobles”, to work for the “government” rafting logs under the alias “John T. Baptist”. Then, as a freed man under the protection of the Emancipation Proclamation, John Rem enlisted in New Bern, Craven County, North Carolina in the United States Colored Troops.
John stated that he had joined the Union as a member of the 14t h Heavy Artillery unit in early August 1864 and later was transferred to the Company K, 37th Regiment “Light Infantry”. Military records show that he enlisted on August 29, 1864; at the time, he was noted to be 18 years old and was described as 5’6” with dark hair, eyes, and complexion. He reported having served “mostly in Virginia and North Carolina”. According to the North Carolina GenWeb Military Project (Sheppard, 2009), Company K was organized by Lieutenant Withington and “joined the Regiment in November, at Chapin’s Farm, Virginia, where the Company remained during the winter, drilling and receiving military instructions until February 1865.” Apparently, the rest of the Regiment had moved on to North-East Station, Virginia, and Company K met the group there before marching with them to Raleigh, North Carolina, “against General Johnston, forming a junction at Mt. Olive, North Carolina, with General Sherman’s army.” After Johnston’s surrender, Company K, along with the rest of Regiment 37, traveled to Wilmington, North Carolina, in June; “in November, it was detailed to garrison Fort Macon, North Carolina, in connection with Company I.”
John Rem related that he did not serve in any battles and suffered from time to time from medical problems, including “debility” and rheumatism. He said that he had served under Captain Houston (actually, the Captain’s name was S.B. Huested), and he recalled that his 1st Sergeant was Sam Kensey (his actual name was Sanders Kinsey). He remembered at least a few of his fellow soldiers: Edmond John (also known as Edward Johns; appointed as sergeant in 1865 and later deserted); Littleton T. King (appointed 5th Corporal in 1866); and Hannibal Barnes (also known as Hannibal Bond; appointed as a corporal shortly before mustering out in September 1865).
While John Rem and his comrades were fighting to end slavery in the United States, literally for once and for all, Blacks in Texas, who technically had been freed in 1863, still had to wait a while to receive the news. About two and a half years after the effective date of the Emancipation Proclamation, on June 19, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger and over 1000 federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas in order to announce and enforce General Orders No. 3, which stated,
“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.“
G. Granger, Major General Commanding. F.W. Emory, Major and A.A. Gen
John Rem’s future wife in Texas, Elvira Davis, was just learning about her freedom. In fact, her first child, born around the second half of 1865 during “the first year of the freedom of the colored people here,” was welcomed into the world as a free person. The Freedman’s Bureau began to establish itself in Texas around September 1865, and around the same time, John was honorably discharged (September 12, 1865). He married Harriet Morris on November 04, 1865 in Craven County, North Carolina, but reportedly left her to make his way to Texas in August of 1866. This leads me to my second wonderment – how and why did John travel all the way to Texas?
To answer the questions surrounding John Rem’s move to Texas, I looked at some of the residents in the area where he would settle, Fayette County, Texas. My search led me to the only Rhem family located in the area. William Brock Rhem was born in Lenoir County, North Carolina but had lived in Onslow County, North Carolina (1850 Census) before relocating to Texas. He very well could have been an acquaintance of the Nobles family that had owned John Rem. In 1859, Rhem was murdered, and his wife, Sarah E. Rhem (nee Dunn), died in 1861. The 1860 U.S. Census Slave Schedule recorded among Sarah’s (referred to here as Sallie E. Rhem) property ten slaves ranging in age from six months old to 32 years old. However, by the time her estate was probated, only eight remained: 30 year-old Tom; 20 year-old Nice and 3 year-old Emma; 40 year-old Isaac and 5 year-old Reuben; and 35 year-old Polly, her 18-month old daughter Alice and 5 year-old James. Given this information, one reason that John Rem migrated to Texas so soon after his discharge from the military was, perhaps, to reunite with people for whom he felt some affection or with whom he shared familial bonds (i.e., the original Rhem family and/or the Rhem freedmen, respectively).
Research tip: Probate and succession records outline the estate of a deceased person and how it was administered. Often, these records will include a will and/or information about family members, what and how property was distributed (including the names of slaves), and who became the guardians of the decedent’s minor children, for example. Usually, you can find out if your ancestor (or a slaveowner) had a probate or succession record by contacting the County Clerk’s office in the county or parish where the person resided.
Touching how John Rem traveled to Texas, I found an interesting document. The Galveston, Texas division of the Freedmen’s Bureau published “Circular 24” in which transportation was guaranteed for freedmen who secured labor contracts for work across state borders. These freedmen had to meet certain conditions (i.e., they must have been deemed impoverished enough to require support from the Government or they must have lived in areas where there was “great destitution”). Their employment sponsors also had to satisfy certain conditions (e.g., the employers would have to transport them to the designated work location as well as provide comfortable living arrangements, reasonable wages, and rations). Although I did not find any related documents dated August 1866, I did find a “Contract for Labor” dated February 09, 1867, in which Natt Holman contracted to hire 11 people to work for one year on his plantation in Fayette County, Texas. As one of those laborers, John Rem agreed to a wage of $125. He married Elvira Davis on May 02, 1868 in that same county, where he would reside until he died on December 18, 1920.
So, that’s the story of John Rem, in terms of his role in the history of American slavery and its demise. In a way, John Rem represented opportunity. He seized the chance to create his own freedom. It was opportunity deferred for Texas slaves, who had received the news of their emancipation seemingly as an afterthought. Nevertheless, the order read on June 19, 1865 was a harbinger of a greater future, a light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak. Now, we commemorate that day as Juneteenth, for better or worse, for what it was – a new beginning for Blacks in Texas and beyond. The Lone Star State fittingly became the first to recognize Juneteenth as an official holiday on January 1, 1980. Most states have followed suit, recognizing it as a day of observance, if not a state holiday. What makes Juneteenth even more important to me this year is how it offers some insight into how my ancestors and yours may have been impacted.
Gates, Henry Louis. “What is Juneteenth?” The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross. Public Broadcasting Station. Retrieved from https://www.pbs.org/wnet/african-americans-many-rivers-to-cross/history/what-is-juneteenth/
King, Joyce. “How Juneteenth turned Texas’ shameful slave legacy into an international celebration of freedom.” The Dallas Morning News, June 2018. Retrieved from https://www.dallasnews.com/ opinion/commentary/2017/06/14/black-texans-turned-states-shameful-slave-legacy-international-celebration-freedom
Wikipedia contributors. “Emancipation Proclamation.” Wikipedia, The FreeEncyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 2 Jun. 2019. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title= Emancipation_ Proclamation&oldid=899900765
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 Bookstoreis 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?
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.
Jones-Rogers, S.E. (2019). They were her property: white women as slave owners in the American South. Yale University Press.
And I just stand and wring my hands and cry, Oh Lord!
Ed Ware (1920)
America is enraged by the killing of Minneapolis’ George Floyd and the racial problems that it has revealed. Opinions, protests, and riots abound, but regardless of the nature or motivation of one’s involvement, I think that most of us can relate to the sentiment expressed in the song composed by Ed Ware, one of the defendants in Arkansas’ 1919 Elaine Race Riot trial.
I don’t have anything new to offer in the way of my opinion of the George Floyd case itself, but I do think it’s interesting to view the riots from a genealogical perspective. That is, what is the history of group violence related to perceived racial injustice, and how is each iteration impacted by the preceding ones? For example, my stepmother recently discussed how a present-day activist’s speech reminded her of “Malcolm and Martin” and the movements that they led. Indeed, many have drawn comparisons between the civil unrest now and that of previous generations. You can read for yourself some of the examples of how people are thinking about events today, both supportive and critical.
The clearest, most similar episode of this kind of “civil unrest” in my recent memory (beside the Michael Brown-Ferguson, Missouri case just a few years ago) was the 1992 Rodney King-Los Angeles riots. But, did you know that there have been many more race riots that have spanned the history of our nation? I can think of just two off the top of my head – theCamp Logan Mutiny (1917) in Houston, Texas and the Opelousas Massacre (1868) in Louisiana. BlackPast, however, has compiled an extensive database of incidents of racially motivated, group violence in the United States. It provides a sort of genealogy of race riots in America over a 300-year period. As enlightening as the information is, it also gives the sense that these kinds of problems just won’t go away without a fundamental and pervasive change in the way we do things.
No matter how anyone feels or what anyone thinks about the news that has been dominating the headlines for the last two weeks, it’s not new. Americans have decried and fought over racial injustice for a long time, but human nature, with its propensity toward the vices of stealing, killing, and verbal aggression, has existed since even longer. Even the rioting and looting that have occurred in the wake of the protests over George Floyd’s death seem like novel events, but the feelings – the root of them – are as old as mankind is. The genealogy of racial conflict goes way back and across cultures and continents. In the family research that I’ve done, I’ve seen tragedies like these over and over again. And, no matter how many times I read about or witness it, it still is disheartening, to say the least.
My heart is overwhelmed with sorrow.
My eyes are melted down in tears;
But I have called to the God of Heaven,
And I know He always hears.”
Ed Ware (1920)
“Ring Leaders in Houston Mutiny Made Confession,” The Houston Post, 20 September 1917. Digital Images. http://www.newspapers.com, 2020.
“You live as long as you are remembered.” – Russian Proverb
Usually, summertime is jam-packed with the days of family. Mother’s Day has already passed, but Father’s Day and National Children’s Day are coming. July will spark with fireworks and barbecues for Independence Day and family reunions. In these summer days of 2020, when family is on our minds and unity is more important than ever, remembering the mothers, fathers, and extended family who made us possible is the perfect quarantine activity. In fact, that’s what I did this Mother’s Day. In the midst of reading my cards and hugging my babies, I spent the morning crying as I wrote a poem about my mother who died unexpectedly five years ago. In it, I expressed my gratitude for her and her sisters (my aunts have done a lot to love and support me over the years).
What I didn’t write about that was also coloring the emotion of the poem was the struggle that parenting presents and how each and every day I grapple with how to do my job better than I did yesterday. I wondered how my people lived these same struggles. What dilemmas did they face? What impacted their choices? What messes did they create, and how did they fix them? Given my African-American roots, I inevitably started thinking about the complexity of my family’s experiences.
It seems like the kind of appreciation inspired by the summer holidays could have been difficult to develop for families whose lives were disrupted by the practices characterizing slavery. Male and female slaves were not allowed to marry legally, but they did create formal unions and build relationships. Often, slaves were sold without any regard for maintaining a family’s physical and emotional bonds. These so-called husbands and wives frequently were separated, sometimes forever; fathers, then, might lose the opportunity to welcome an unborn child to the world. In cases where slaves were born of a process of breeding rather than out of the genuine love and desire to have family, an individual might not even know his parents’ names! The result today is that many descendants of enslaved people in the U.S. are unable to trace their family history to before 1870 (that’s when their ancestors names’ were first recorded in federal records). Thanks to the research collaboration with my genealogy colleague and cousin, Barbara Johnnie, I can trace some of my mother’s paternal, African ancestry prior to that time.
To tell you this family’s story, I’ll start by sharing a little about John H.H. Smith of Halifax, Virginia. While most of his family relocated to and died in Georgia, Smith settled in Louisiana. He married Celeste Savoie on June 16, 1812 in Opelousas, Louisiana, and, in less than a year, the couple invested in a new property. According to a Sale of Slaves recorded on February 15, 1813 in Opelousas, John H. H. Smith bought “a certain negro woman slave named Mary, aged about twenty years together with her child named Maria, an infant mulatto” from Thomas Williams for $510. Given that Celeste gave birth to a child just two weeks after the purchase (i.e., March 03, 1813; the child died the same day), the Smiths probably bought Marie to help Celeste with raising their growing family. John H.H. Smith then enlisted as a member of the 16 Regiment (Thompson’s) of the Louisiana Militia. After completing his military service, Smith returned to St. Landry Parish, Louisiana.
There is no record of any more slave purchases or acquisitions until 1828 when he purchased a 38 year-old “a negro woman [slave] named Jude” from the estate of Celeste’s mother. Yet, an 1818 property tax document shows that, in addition to 230 acres of land and over 42 animals, Smith had four slaves. In the 1820 Census, he had that same number of slaves, and we have more information about them: there were two females and one male under 14 years old and one female between 26 and 45 years old. In 1830, there was one male aged 10-24 years old, two females 10-24 years old, and two females 24-36 years old. In a document described later in this post, we find that these additional slaves (i.e., besides Marie, Maria, and Jude) were probably James and Adelaide. An 1825 baptismal record for documents an eight-year-old James who was the son of Marie and slave of John H.H. Smith. There is no such record for Adelaide, but she was undoubtedly the other young female slave. The only explanation for this increase in the number of Smith’s slaves is that Marie had begun a family of her own. By 1840, we see that one of the younger females referenced had started having children as well – Maria.
In fact, by 1846, Maria had borne at least 8 children. A document dated October 03, 1846 reveals that John H.H. Smith and his wife mortgaged “a tract of land being one hundred ninety-eight arpents and the following slaves: a negro named Maria aged about 35 with her eight children to-wit, Edmond, 15; Alfred, 13; Virginie, 12; Doralise, 10; Coralie, 7; Frank, 5; Caroline, 3; and Harrison, 14 months.” Not only does said Maria’s age correspond with that of the Maria purchased in 1813, but the baptism records of several of the children mentioned in the mortgage cite their mother as “Marie Doralise, the slave of John H.H. Smith.”
On March 4, 1848, a public auction was made to sell “all the property belonging to the estate in community between John H.H. Smith and his children, the issue of his marriage with said Celeste Savoie, his deceased wife (except the slaves Edmond and Adelaide)” When Celeste’s estate was settled in 1849, Maria’s family was mentioned again. A document dated January 19, 1849 shows that the auction resulted in the sale of the following slaves:
James [Marie’s son, Maria’s brother], a negro boy about 30 years sold to John W. Smith [Smith’s son] for $1050.
Alfred [Maria’s son], mulatto boy about 15 years sold to Onezime Guidry for $1,030
Virginie [Maria’s daughter], mulatto girl about 13 years sold to Alexis O. Guidry for $910
Doralie [Maria’s daughter], mulatto girl about 11 years sold to Joseph A. Guidry for $300; it was stipulated that she was “not guaranteed,” meaning that she had some sort of defect or weakness of character
Maria [Marie’s daughter], a mulatto woman about 35 years sold with her 4 children: Coralie, about 8 years; Frank, about 6 years; Caroline, about 4 years; and Harrison, about 2 years, to Leon Thibodeau [Smith’s son-in-law] for $1930.
Marie [the matriarch of the family], a negro woman about 56 years sold to Robert H. Smith [Smith’s oldest son] for $175
Judith [probably the “Jude” bought in 1828], a negro woman about 55 years sold to Eucher[sic] Lavergne for the sum of $50.
At this point, we see that Marie watched her family get dismantled before her very eyes. Her daughter Maria’s oldest three children were each sold to three members of the local community’s Guidry family. Maria was able to keep her 4 younger children in her custody at Leon Thibodeau’s house, but her oldest son, Edmond was retained by John H.H. Smith probably because his tendency toward fits reduced his resale value. Marie, herself, appears to have been sold away from not only Maria and her family, but also from her 2 (probable) other children, Adelaide and James. Adelaide stayed in the possession of John H.H. Smith until his death in 1854. At 40 years old, she was purchased by Joseph Smith for $780. As noted above, James was sold to another of Smith’s sons.
Most of the time, when enslaved people were separated from their families, they rarely saw each other again. Fortunately for Marie’s family, her children and grandchildren were purchased by familiar people – John H.H. Smith’s children and nearby neighbors from the same Louisiana community. Moreover, they obviously tried to stay in close contact and in remembrance of their history. One proof of this is that they memorialized each other in naming their children. Harrison, Doralise, Coralie, and Virginie are common names among the Barker descendants. There is not much information available about what happened to Marie, Adelaide, and Frank, but the rest left traces of their lives post-slavery in the historical record.
Maria appears to have had two more children after being sold to Leon Thibodeau: Julia, b. 1848 and Mary, b. 1854. Maria went on to legalize her marriage to the man often cited as her children’s father. One Marie Doralise Casey1 and Harrison Barker secured a marriage contract on October 30, 1869 and were married in the Catholic Church by Rev. Jacob G. Warner on March 02, 1870. John Ashley, F.G Robertson, and Frank Ricks were witnesses of the event. Harrison and Mariah were able to live together as free people for over a decade. They can be found in the 1880 Census living in the second ward of St. Landry Parish only three houses down from Maria’s former slave owners, Leon and Celeste Thibodeau. Several houses away lived their daughter Caroline and her family. A bit farther away but in the same ward, Virginie resided with her daughter Cora Evans and family, and Doralise lived with her husband Francis Glaude and family. By 1900, Harrison had died, and Maria was living with her daughter Doralise and her family2. Death records for Harrison and Mariah have not been found yet.
Edmond was sold to William Smith for $355 when John H.H. Smith died in 1854. Alfred died in 1852 shortly after he was sold to Onezime Guidry. Harrison began referring to himself by John and started a family with his wife. All of Maria’s daughters had children while they were enslaved without the benefit of slave or legal marriage, apparently. Many of the fathers of their children were white men in the local community. Virginie even had several children for her slaveowner, Alexis O. Guidry. There are legal records that show that Doralie, Coralie, and Julia married and built sizeable families after slavery ended. Doralise married Barney Moore in 1862 and appears to have had a relationship with one Francis “Frank” Glaude. Coralie married Don Louis Marks in 1886, and Julia married Frank Malbrough in 1869.
The goal of this article was to share the origins of my Barker family and encourage you to explore your own origins. Until family genealogists began discovering our ancestors in public and private records, we knew nothing about Marie and the foundation she set for the Barker family. Maria (Marie’s daughter) and her children had worked hard to preserve the bonds and keep the knowledge of family history within grasp, but the intimacy of their connections faded away after the first two or three generations post-slavery. People grew apart as the family grew larger over the course of 150 years, but, thankfully, that trend is starting to reverse as we remember our ancestors and reach out to those still living. I can’t explain it very well, but even knowing their names means something to me. I feel more anchored to them, more rooted in history. Knowing this precious little about some of my ancestors’ experiences helps me to emphathize with them…and to feel that they would be able to emphathize with me. BUT, this is not just about me and my family. You, too, can make connections between your past and present and with your living relatives. Remember them, and you may learn more than you expect.
1Interestingly, Maria’s surname on her children’s death certificates was listed variously as Casey and, alternately, Gascey and Jaskle; perhaps this was her father’s surname.
2In 1900, Maria is recorded to have been born in Louisiana; reportedly, her father was born in Georgia and mother in Tennessee. She reported that she had borne 8 of 12 children. In 1880, however, her parents’ birthplaces were listed as Virginia.
Last night, I finally paid attention to one of those commercials urging us to fill out the 2020 Census online. It reminded me of the genealogical significance that it holds. With most Americans on a prison-esque “lock-down” due to COVID-19, we find ourselves doing more of the things we love, binging, and/or being bored. Whatever is your case, maybe the census can offer you something different to do with your time until more states ease restrictions…How about genealogy research?
The United States Census is a tool that the federal government has used formally since 1790 to collect data about its inhabitants. A genealogical gold mine, the information collected includes certain details about characteristics such as race and ethnicity, property ownership, immigration status, relatives’ names and ages, level of educational attainment, and native language. The census has been conducted every 10 years, and except for the 1890 Census in which almost all records were destroyed by fire, data from 1790 all the way through 1940 are available to the public, 72 years after each enumeration year. That means that you can start learning how to find your ancestors in the census now.
Back in the day and before the popularity of online genealogy websites, genealogists’ primary resource was the library, and we used a tool called the soundex code to find our ancestors in the census records manually. Since you don’t live “back in the day”, are stuck at home, and probably can’t use your local library, you now can use the powerful search engines of ancestry.com and familysearch.org to help you begin your search. Ancestry.com charges a fee for viewing population census schedules, including the 1940 Census; however, if you have never had an account before, you should be able to take advantage of a free, 2-week trial before you commit to something long-term. Fortunately, if you can’t or don’t want to pay for an Ancestry.com membership, you can search all population census schedules from 1790 to 1930 plus Native American census rolls, the 1850 Slave and Mortality schedules, and the 1890 Veterans Schedule, for free on familysearch.org.
For me, the minimum requirement for starting a new census search is to answer the questions: 1) Who was s/he?; 2) Where was s/he?; and 3) Whose is s/he? In other words, one should know a person’s name and approximate age; place of residence; and the names of parents, siblings or other relatives with whom they lived. If I have this information, I can trust my initial findings more confidently. Even if I don’t have all of these details, there is still hope! Always, you can make some informed hypotheses about a given subject and save the possibilities for a time when you can refine your guesses with information you may gather later. For example, let’s say I want to know more about the titular character of a movie we watched recently – Harriet (Chase, Lundberg, & Howard, 2019). Who was she? Off the top of my head, I know she went by Harriet Tubman (though her given forename was Araminta or Minty…I have forgotten her previously used surname) and was probably born around the 1830’s (I think she was in her 30’s when she escaped from her slaveowner prior to the Civil War). Where was she? I believe Ms. Tubman lived in the northeast U.S., probably in Virginia, Maryland, or D.C. area, before moving to Canada for a while. Enslaved people who secured their freedom as a result of the Civil War did not appear named in the census records until 1870; Harriet found freedom before then, but since I’m not sure of the year she ran away, I will look for her first in 1870. I don’t remember any of her relatives’ names off the top of my head, but I remember from the movie that she worked for a family as a servant and collaborated with Black people in the area who had means and practiced trades.
I went to ancestry.com and entered the following criteria in the search fields: First and Middle Name (s) – Harriet; Last Name – Tubman; Place your ancestor might have lived – “Maryland” (I selected “Exact, to State and Adjacent States” from the drop-down menu)”; and Birth Year – 1830 (I chose +/- 10 years from the drop-down menu). After selecting the Show more options button, I entered the year “1870” on the field labeled Any Event to restrict the search results to just the 1870 Census. My search yielded 3 names: Harriet Ross, a black female born in 1820 and residing in Maryland; W.H. Tubman, a white male residing in Maryland; and H. Tubman, an Ireland-born male residing in Pennsylvania. After clicking on my best option, Ms. Harriet Ross, I discovered that she was a “domestic servant” of the John King family and that she was born in Maryland. On ancestry.com, Araminta Harriet Ross and Harriet Tubman are offered by editors as alternate names for the individual I found.
It seems like this is the person for whom I’m searching, but being the skeptic that I am, I never trust what I see at first sight. Thankfully, because there is abundant information about Harriet Tubman available, if I want to verify this person to be Harriet Tubman, I can look for her in other census schedules and search for known data about Harriet Tubman on google, wikipedia, or the good, old, library. I’m not going to do any of these right now, although it’s very tempting. For the sake of time, I will plan to read the biography adorning my bookshelf this summer and leave you with a resource that I hope will aid in your search of the census records for ancestors more easily during this summer of corona virus. If I haven’t been convincing enough to help you decide to explore the census today, try something even simpler to get yourself (or even the whole family) into the genealogy groove here and also here.
“1870 United States Federal Census,” database and digital images, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com: accessed 5 May 2020), search for Harriet Tubman, Year: 1870; Census Place: District 3, Calvert, Maryland; Roll: M593_581; Page: 113B. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com
Chase, D.M., Lundberg, D.T., & Howard, G.A. (Producers), & Lemmons, K. (Director). (2019). Harriet [Motion picture]. United States: Focus Features.