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.

they+were+her+property.jpg

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.



Why I'm Glad Underground on WGN was Cancelled

When the show premiered in 2016, I was apprehensive. Did we really need to delve into slavery? (That’s debatable to some) More importantly, would the show do slavery and those were enslaved justice? Two minutes into the pilot episode where Noah was on the run to the sound of Kanye West’s Black Skinhead, I was hooked. I became a ride-or-die Underground fan telling anyone and everyone about the show. I even went so far as to consider developing community discussions around the show.

This write up isn’t why I love the show BUT I’m glad WGN pulled the plug on it. To read up why I originally liked the show, check out my 2016 post on my old site.

1. Who? What? When? Where?

For most of Season 2’s run, I spent that time confused as hell. Where were we? The show spent a lot of time jumping around that it became difficult to keep track of characters and where they were. First, Cato was in Philadelphia and then Ohio? Or was he in Ohio all along? Not only that, the show compressed time for the sake of moving the plot along. It took the Macon 7 most of Season 1 to get to from Georgia to freedom, wherever that was. And yet, I am suppose to believe that Rosalee and Noah got from wherever they were to Georgia. Travel, even by train, wasn’t fast back in the late 1850s. Also, the show missed a golden opportunity to explain how two former slaves managed to make it there without any trouble. By compressing time, the show lost its realism.

2. Harriet Tubman

I love me some Aisha Hinds. The woman did the damn thing as Harriet Tubman. I’d love to see a biopic of Tubman with either Hinds or Violet Davis in the role. I mean, a girl can hope. Unlike the others, Tubman was a real person so having her interact with fictional people became a problem. I recently read Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom by Catherine Clinton. It painted an interesting look at this woman called Moses. For one thing, Tubman was acquainted with Frederick Douglas and William Still. Still resided and spent most of his abolitionist career in Philadelphia which had a substantial black population (and still does). Yet, in Season 1, we encounter Still in Ohio where he meets John Hawkes. Season 2 corrects this by placing him back in Philadelphia at Cato’s McMansion.

But, back to Tubman, when Harriet was not traveling she was in Canada with her family who she helped escape to freedom. She spent the spring and summer months, when days were longer and not conducive to running away at night, taking domestic jobs or speaking engagements to raise money for her next venture south. She liberated slaves in the fall and winter when the days got shorter. Not only that, she mostly traversed into Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. Going into the Deep South did happen but not as frequently. I say all this to say: how then could she link up with and spend so much time with the Sewing Circle which was based in Ohio?  

3. The lines of racism and prejudice got blurred as f**k

What made Season 1 so great is that it showed more shades of gray in terms of racism and slavery (see my original post). While there were abolitionists, there were some who harbored anti-black attitudes. That anti-blackness was pervasive. There were all sorts of justification ranging from religious to the physicality of black people which led most white people of that time to regard slavery as necessary and to the benefit of the black race. As such, they were regarded as “The Other.” That was my biggest problem with the Sewing Circle. They painted this kumbaya moment of racial harmony between all of the members, white, black, and mixed. I saw that as a golden opportunity the show missed to again delve into the mess that is racism and anti-blackness.

It was possible for a person to be an abolitionist and be anti-black. Hell we see that with some white allies of the Black Lives Matter movement. (Yeah, I said it!)

4. Cato. What the hell was Cato’s deal?

I wanted to say that to the writers. Cato’s storyline made no kind of sense. It took a friend to point out that Season 1 ended with Cato and that carriage full of money. Okay, so he had money. In the five month leap, he went to Britain and lived a lavish lifestyle.

How was this fool making money?

He bought art. Came back to the states. Set up a nice living in Philadelphia (I think? See #1). He serves as a benefactor to a play that makes fun of white people. He has bodyguards.

How. Was. This. Fool. Making. Money?

Then he loses it all on the same night as his abolitionist event in which Frederick Douglas and William Still were in attendance. No one heard the crazy loud shoot out at his house. No one. Not one person, fam?

Other odds and ends

  • Patty Cannon – A slave catcher in Underground. However, no one did a Google Search of that name. There was a real-life Patty Cannon who ran a gang and kidnapped black people and sold them into slavery. Thing is she died in 1829. Underground is set in 1857-1858.
  • Samuel – Why was I suppose to care about this man? I don’t even know you and all I see you doing is taking up valuable air time.

The Real MVP of Season 2

Ernestine. That was the only story line that I felt was still grounded in the history of the time and explored the psychological impacts of slavery on a black woman. Not only that, a black woman who used her gender to score favors and protect her children at any costs.

Ernestine.jpg