Book Review: They Where Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South

As a Black daughter of the South, I am encouraged by the recent scholarship being researched, written, and published by historians of color, especially Black female historians, as they pose different questions of the extant source material or dive into little regarded material. Shout out to my archivists, citizen-archivists, librarians, and volunteers for the work you do to preserve these materials.

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Dr. Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers’ book, They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South, is my second foray into this reimagined South. My first read was Dr. Daina Ramey Berry’s amazing book The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of the Nation.

Jones-Rogers postulates that contrary to prior historical study of the antebellum South, white women were active participants in slavery. What follows over the course of 205 pages is a multifaceted understanding of white women during this period (including postbellum) and in this region.

In a word, y’all, Jones-Rogers shakes the whole damn table, even for this daughter of the South. Drawing from court records, records of slave traders, personal papers, publications and WPA’s oral histories of formerly enslaved people, etc, she puts on display the source material hiding in plain sight but long dismissed or undermined by (white) historians, male or female.

She challenges readers to reckon with white women. Readers are confronted with multiple examples of how white women were deeply embedded in slavery from inheriting enslaved property, attending auctions to buy or sell enslaved people, to suing husbands, family members or slave traders to protect their rights. A common refrain of the time was their [white women] “sole and separate use” to manage their property how they saw fit. And, in most cases, as Jones-Rogers pointed out, they were successful.

The throughline I saw in all of this was the false assumptions of previous historians who allowed their own biases to shape, color, and flat out dismiss very real aspects of Southern culture and history. Jones-Rogers introduces these historians and their theories many of which are couched in patriarchal and paternalistic tones toward white women. In bringing their biases into the scholarship, they unknowingly (or knowingly?) minimized the harsh reality. In a slave society, these women were not unaware, unlearned, or exempt from it. They were often at the forefront as seen in Chapter 5 regarding the creation of a niche market for enslaved wet nurses. They shaped it and doled out the brutal punishments. (Aside: one story in particular made me shudder) Also, Jones-Rogers notes many white women owned less than ten enslaved people, likely one or two so these were not necessarily elite women living in grand mansions.

Why should we know this? Why should we re-engage with this history? Jones-Rogers offers up this statement:

If we acknowledge that white women stood to personally and directly benefit from the commodification and enslavement of African Americans we can better understand their participation in postwar white-supremacist movements and atrocities such as lynching - as well as their membership in organizations like the Ku Klux Klan. Southern white women’s roles in upholding and sustaining slavery form part of the much larger history of white supremacy and oppression. And through it all, they were not passive bystanders. They were co-conspirators.

As this book shows, these women were active participants, kind or brutal but most certainly owners. Active in the sale and destruction of enslaved families. Active in punishment. Active in engineering rape and sexual assault to ensure the continuation and profitability of their enslaved people. Active in ignoring the newfound freedom of their enslaved people with the Emancipation Proclamation. All the while spinning lies to tell themselves to justify their superiority over African and African American bodies.

Lies that are still being used today, I might add. Do white people know that when they pull these racial cards (“slavery was good for black people” and “white people were kind to their slaves” or “black people are lazy”) they are pulling on centuries old and well-documented fallacies that date to when white people actually owned people. They align themselves with the oppressors. I use to chock this up to white people being uneducated but now I see it for what it is: racial tradition that white people have passed down to absolve themselves of wrongdoing. Willfully sidestepping the generational trauma and genocide their ancestors inflicted, they presently inflict, or, equally as bad, remain indifferent to by seeing trauma unfold and do no more than virtual hand-wringing on these social media streets as if power to do something is outside of their grasp.

But, I digress.

In summation, READ this book. It will challenge your assumptions of white women during the antebellum and postbellum period, your understanding of Southern white marriages, and, honestly, break your heart all over again regarding the experience of enslaved African Americans in this country.