Them Too: Rape during slavery and Jim Crow

While the entire notion of slavery in the Americas was built upon the belief that Europeans were superior in thought, spirituality and physicality to their African captives, with some Europeans going as far as to equate Africans with animals or consider them sub-human species, such did not prevent from the earliest time European men from raping African women forcibly while captured or being transported to the Americas, or for masters, overseers and the like to take sexual liberties with enslaved African women once in bondage.


In North America, as indentured servitude pre-dated actual chattel slavery, by the mid-1600’s, there were a number of free black men and women who had secured their freedom by paying off a debt or receiving manumission from their owners. Invariably, some of these free black men and women married or intermingled with lower class white men and women, thus the creation of laws throughout many colonies and eventually states that forbade interracial marriages. Some of these laws existed in one way or another until 1967–barely five years before I was born–when the United States Supreme Court in Loving vs. Virginia ruled Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional.

Despite these laws, the custom on many southern plantations during the Ante-Bellum period was one in which white men fathered sometimes dozens of children with enslaved black women to the chagrin of black “husbands.”


In some instances, masters took the liberty of educating their half-black offspring or setting them free upon their deaths. Many historians and sociologists argue that this preferential treatment among lighter skinned blacks, many of whom served their masters in the more comfortable jobs within the plantation or as coachmen and the like as opposed to the darker skinned blacks who toiled in the fields, was the root of a form of color/class enmity that in some form, exists to this very day albeit less prominently spoken about. Conversely, in other instances, masters sold off said mixed race offspring for profit and in that way, treated them no differently than their other human “property.”

This practice was not limited to obscure southern planters, either, as long before ABC’s hit drama “Scandal” chronicled the fictional love affair between lawyer Olivia Pope, who is black, and President Fitzgerald Grant, who is white, Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and Third President of the United States, maintained a relationship with his enslaved half-sister in law Sally Hemings.


For years it was rumored that Jefferson fathered a number of Hemings’s children and while denied by Jefferson’s heirs for almost two centuries, DNA testing during the 90’s proved that Hemings’s descendants shared DNA characteristics with Jefferson’s white descendants. Instead of conceding the point, however, some historians later argued that Hemings’s children were the offspring of an alleged relationship with Jefferson’s nephews–a modern-day slur that seeks to make a whore out of Jefferson’s documented paramour and loyal servant even after she had received manumission for herself and her children.

Similarly, Richard Mentor Johnson, who served as vice president during President Martin Van Buren’s one term (1837-41), provided real life scandalous gossip in both Washington, DC and his native Kentucky for his long time relationship with Julia Chinn, a slave of mixed heritage, and other black women during the height of the national debate over the morality of the “Peculiar Institution” of slavery.

Johnson, a soldier in the War of 1812 and a strong admirer of General Andrew Jackson, was a wealthy planter who was first elected to Congress 1806 and to the Senate in 1819. In 1832, Johnson was considered to serve as Jackson’s running mate for his second term, but Southern Democrats, aware that Johnson often referred to Julia Chinn–an enslaved woman–as his “wife,” left many to believe him unfit to serve as president. Unlike Thomas Jefferson, who kept his relationship with his enslaved half-sister in law Sally Hemings quiet, Johnson openly acknowledged Chinn, left her to run his plantation while he was in Washington and he openly lauded and provided for the two daughters that she bore, Imogene and Adaline, both of whom received excellent educations and were later married to white men.

Famed historian Dr. Henry Louis Gates recounts in his book “Life Upon These Shores” that at one Fourth of July celebration in Kentucky, Johnson escorted Chinn and his daughters on stage, a move that caused every white woman in the audience to leave in disgust.

When Chinn died of Cholera in 1833, Johnson began a similar relationship with another slave on his plantation, a move that ultimately led to bitter campaign attacks against him after he was tapped to run with Martin Van Buren in 1836. Van Buren won handily, but Johnson was forced to be selected by the US Senate under the provisions of the 12th Amendment after he failed to garner the requisite vote. While Johnson never served in office again after 1841, he remained a public figure until his death in 1850.

Later, as the US, bitterly divided over the issue of slavery, moved steadily toward Civil War in the late 1850’s, during the famous senate debates between Republican Abraham Lincoln and Democrat Stephen Douglas in 1858, Douglas often chided the Lincoln for desiring a society in which race mixing would openly take place, a charge that Lincoln drew laughter and applause by reminding Douglas that the then deceased Johnson had been his close personal friend. Lincoln’s rebuttal not only drew laughter and applause, but reminded the audience about the sheer hypocrisy of the issue of slavery as far as romantic and sexual liaisons were concerned between white men and enslaved black women.

Still, well into the 20th and even the 21st Century, while black males who were accused of raping white women often were lynched or sentenced to death in state courts, white men accused of raping black women, like what happened to the recently deceased Recey Taylor in Alabama in the 1940s, were rarely held to account–let alone executed for their crimes. Lest we forget…