AFR 329: Women & Slavery in the Black Atlantic – Course Collaboration, Mariah Alvarado

After multiple class sessions introducing our archival and manuscript collections and oral history best practices, students in Dr. Nneka Dennie’s Spring 2019 AFR 329: Women & Slavery in the Black Atlantic course produced a documentary using oral histories created throughout the semester. These materials will be donated to the Archives.

In addition to this main project, students were tasked with identifying primary sources from local archives, historic sites, and/or repositories that shed light on the lived experiences of enslaved women or women enslavers. The following series of blog posts are authored by these students upon the completion of this archival research process and serve as reflective pieces.

Thank you for your submissions-and a wonderful semester of fruitful collaborations!

“Primary Source Analysis”

written by Mariah Alvarado

In her letters, Ann L. Bowen writes to her husband, who was away fighting for the Confederacy in the Civil War and informs him about various aspects of his plantation. She tells him about taking the sugarcane to the mill, as well as her plans for the apples and rice at “the old place.”

Screenshot of Letter: Ann L. Bowen to Henry H. Bowen, Oct. 21, 1864. Found in the North Carolina Digital Collections.
Letter: Ann L. Bowen to Henry H. Bowen, Oct. 21, 1864. Found in the North Carolina Digital Collections.

Similar to Mrs. Bowen, Ann Wall Lowrie Alexander looked after her husband’s plantation while he was away. Her husband, John Brevard Alexander, was a Charlotte-based plantation owner and physician who was traveling during the times of these letters, 1861 to 1863, with the 37th regiment of the Confederate Army. In John’s 1861 letter to Ann, he tells her he has heard about two recent runaway enslaved men from his plantation and instructs her to tell someone named Billy, most likely an overseer, to give them each “50 lashes.” He warns Ann not to insult Billy in fear of him leaving and reminds her that she needs Billy on the plantation to handle the enslaved while he is away. In his 1863 letter, John instructs Ann to handle his local affairs in Charlotte. He also informs her that while traveling he met enslavers from other counties who were getting higher prices for their field workers. So, he instructs her to sell one of the enslaved for a higher price and decide whether to “invest the money in the land or cheaper negroes.”

These letters are testaments to the many roles white women had in maintaining the system of slavery. More often than not, white women who lived during this time were portrayed as innocent bystanders to the atrocities of slavery. They were painted as delicate, vulnerable, and in constant need of protection by white men. However, these letters demonstrate that white women, especially during the Civil War, made day to day decisions about crops and the enslaved, suggesting that they played significant roles in maintaining the slave system.

Although these letters highlight that white women were more involved in slavery than history perceives, they also shed light on white men’s power over their plantations even when they were not present. Ann Bowen’s letter to her husband shows that although she is the one currently making the decisions on the plantation, she is still not the most powerful. She must inform her husband about her decisions because ultimately, the final decision is his as the man and owner of the plantation and the enslaved. Similarly, John’s letters to his wife suggest he still had a hands-on role with the punishment of the enslaved and the goings-on of the plantation. Overall, John and Henry’s involvement with their plantations, despite their physical absence, highlights the position of wealthy white men as the most powerful during this era in history. They not only had complete control over the enslaved but over white women as well.

Bibliography

Bowen, Ann L. Letter: Ann L. Bowen to Henry H. Bowen, Oct. 26, 1864. Special presentation. From the North Carolina Digital Collections. Medium. http://digital.ncdcr.gov/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15012coll8/id/1846/rec/14 (accessed April 3, 2019).

John B. Alexander Papers, 1855-1911,
http://digitalcollections.uncc.edu/cdm/landingpage/collection/p16033coll6.

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