AFR 329: Women & Slavery in the Black Atlantic – Course Collaboration, Kaitlin Barkley

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 Kaitlin Barkley

Archives tell a story through its pictures, diary entries, posters, and assortment of documents. Each curated source, like a puzzle piece, placed together to create a portrait of the past… but often the picture is incomplete. Like a puzzle with missing pieces, the archives often miss important narratives from voices that were marginalized or oppressed at the time. Therefore, although the archives tell a story, the story comes full of biases and half-truths. As an audience knowing this, what do you do with these stories? How do you look at them without falling into its inevitable trap?

 

Saidiya Hartman in her article “Venus in Two Acts” suggests that the archives, especially those that curate materials on slavery, are inherently violent because of the ways they continue systems of power and oppression. The biggest example of this is the lack, and quite frankly erasure, of enslaved and free women’s voices in the archives. More times than not, there are endless piles of diaries, documents, and pictures of men of varying statuses, occupations and ages. And is compared to the few token materials archives have about women. This stark difference shows the importance placed of the lives and voices of men. Regardless, Hartman suggest that one solution to this inevitable trap is narratives found outside of the archives because they often help supplement the gaps within its archival stories especially about women. Additionally, simply understanding the gaps and limitation of the archives.

 

Hartman’s words stuck with me as I searched through the archives on slavery in North Carolina, curated by different institutions around the country. To be frank, I wasn’t surprised by how difficult it was even to find materials about the home lives of women. Even when using words that stereotypically denoted occupations and social position for women, I only found materials written or about men. Nevertheless, I found two sources that I thought paired well together because of their contrasting content.

 

The first source was a poster advertising the start of the Mecklenburg Female College. The poster was created by the college in 1867 illustrating the college’s main building, the cost per semester for amenities, and a short paragraph about the purpose and benefits of the college. In the paragraph, the college boasted about being a qualified and “devoted to female education”. This advertisement is contrasted by a correspondence I found between Mary Gibson and her brother Robert Gibson, a Davidson College Board of Trustee. In the letter, she writes to her brother asking him to make a confederate bond so that she can have access to her money in order to purchase two enslaved women.

 

Scanned page of handwritten text by Mary Gibson to her brother, Robert, on November 2, 1863. In the document, Mary complains about how the Civil War has made it difficult to find slave labor.

First of two pages written by Mary Gibson to her brother, Robert, on November 2, 1863.

 

Both documents are connected to the lives of white women in North Carolina during slavery. The first, about Mecklenburg Female College, is implicitly connected to slavery. It causes us, as an audience, to consider how these young women’s education is being paid for. The latter source, is explicitly connected to enslavement. Yet, both sources help establishes a fuller narrative about the impact of slavery on womanhood in North Carolina.

 

These two materials are only three years apart…I am left wondering in those three years how many other stories, tied to archival sources, remain undiscovered.



AFR 329: Women & Slavery in the Black Atlantic – Course Collaboration, Bry Reed

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!

“Examining The Politics of The Archive”

written by Bry Reed

There are a few things you prepare for when going on a Spring Break trip: the lines at the airport, the long flight, the sunshine. When going on a Spring Trip to Barbados, however, to study the legacies of women and slavery on the island, you prepare yourself for a few additional things. Beyond the sunshine, I prepared myself to delve deeply into the brilliance of Bajan archival history. Before leaving Barbados, I would start to question the politics of archives themselves as institutions for their role in accessing information.

Several students gather around a plaque in a large field marking the cemetery of enslaved persons in Barbados.
Students in the AFR 329 course visit the largest known cemetery of enslaved persons in Barbados. The enslaved woman at Newton Plantation who practiced “obeah” is buried, here.


In visiting The Barbados Museum and Historical Society, I quickly realized that archival work is not a small feat. It is an expansive task of displaying the depth, wealth, and expansiveness of history. All the while connecting materials to an abundance of lived experiences, lineages, and legacies. While detailing the religious history of enslaved Black communities alongside white enslavers, the museum featured a red and orange gemstone recovered from Newton Plantation. The museum’s description of this stone explains that it allegedly belonged to a powerful enslaved woman at Newton who practiced “obeah” (a word synonymous with hoodoo).

The large stone intrigued me for its archival value and religious significance. I admired the choice by the Barbados Museum and Historical Society to acquire and display the object in the core exhibit. It is important that we as scholars recognize that the choices on acquiring materials and displaying them happen intentionally. It takes money, work, and dedication to shape history.

The presence of the stone in the Bajan national archive adds a mark of institutional legitimacy often not afforded to African and Caribbean religious practices. These modes of religious expressions suffer severe demonization across the African Diaspora that renders them “illegitimate”. The choice to display the obeah stone publicly combats silencing in the archive that stems from anti-Blackness and ongoing colonization of academic spaces. More broadly, making space to explore the role of obeah via the archives creates avenues for Black feminist scholars, like myself, to draw broader connections across disciplines and borders.

It is my hope that scholars interrogate the politics of the archives they explore. Who is represented within them? Who is silenced? Who is put on display? In answering these questions, we reconcile with the larger questions about access, silence, and colonization within the institution of archives themselves.

AFR 329: Women & Slavery in the Black Atlantic – Course Collaboration, Uyen Nguyen

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!

“Enslaved Female Representation in Slave Advertisement During the Antebellum period (1784-1860)”

written by Uyen Nguyen

Slavery was the main economic and political force that shaped the culture and social life of North Carolina. The treatment of enslaved 1 people worsened due to the whites’ fear of abolition. Under increasing brutality and violence of Black Codes, many enslaved individuals in the South attempted to run away to the North with the hope to gain manumission. Enslavers suffered a massive economic loss when their slaves 2 ran away. In order to have their “property” returned, they hired slave catchers and disseminated advertisements rewarding individuals who could find their runaway slaves.

Screenshot of the homepage for the Introduction to the North Carolina Slave Runaway Advertisements database, "A brief history of slavery in North Carolina."
Introduction to the North Carolina Runaway Slave Advertisements database, “A brief history of slavery in North Carolina.” The organization of this database is led by UNCG and NC A&T University.

While enslaved women were less likely to run away than men due to familial commitments and geographic limitations, they were more likely to get caught because there were more advertisements reporting them as running away. Besides serving as a common tool to find their runaway slaves, 3 slave runaway advertisements were disseminated by white people as propaganda to further criminalize the resistance of enslaved people in means of legal and moral justifications. Furthermore, the representation of women in these ads perpetuated the inferiorization of enslaved women and their bodies.

In a runaway slave advertisement created by John McCord on the 23rd of August, 1838, an enslaved women named Lucy disappeared during her shift at another plantation. The ad 4 describes Lucy as “about 25 years of age, very black, and about five feet high and slender.” Like 5 features of other runaway slave advertisements, the color of this enslaved women, as well as her “immoral act,” were mentioned.

In the ad, her owner accuses her of stealing a cotton frock and taking the clothes with her during the escape. With the use of language such as “very black” and the inclusion of the enslaved women’s stealing, this ad further perpetuates the inferiority of enslaved women based on their skin color and how their enslavers have the legal and moral rights to have her returned. In another runaway ad, enslaver Samuel Sugg reported an enslaved woman named Sylvia on December 10, 1824, who escaped his plantation in Wake Forest, North Carolina.

She was 35 years old, and the ad describes her as “very black, low set and chunkey 6 made.” Sugg suspected that she was passing as a free woman and would reward any person that “will take her up and lodge her in jail.” Indeed, by giving any person a right to confine Sylvia, 7 her owner conveys that her runway act and passing as a free woman are against the law and should be punished with imprisonment. In addition, she was described as sneaky and “rather a 8 down look when spoken to, and a very palavering tongue.” In this ad, we can see Sylvia’s whole existence is constructed through her owner’s description, and her character and moral compass were assassinated with dehumanizing languages. Her skin color and attributes were the only things that seemed significant about her, as they conveyed her criminality and mischievous behaviors. In the big picture, this type of representation reinforces the inferiorization of Black women’s bodies and how their body “was regarded by much of American society as no more than biddable property.” 9

In these ads, white owners give the rights to anyone to use violence against their slaves because of their immoral act of running away. It was no longer an individual effort to find the enslaved, but it became a societal effort to reclaim the runway enslaved who were the “property” that belonged to white people. Through the language used to describe runaway slaves, we can see the hyper-criminalization in which enslaved resistance was propagandized as immoral and illegal. The enslaved female representation in these ads was racist and dehumanizing and reinforced the notion that enslaved women’s worth is solely based on their body. By describing runaway enslaved as inferiors and criminals, white owners concealed their violence and brutal acts, which were the reasons for the enslaved to run away, and framed themselves as the losing parties.

Bibliography

Boyd, B. P. “$20 Reward.” Charlotte Journal. March 5, 1840.

Camp, Stephanie M. H. Closer to Freedom : Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South. Gender and American Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004. 2004. Accessed April 19, 2019.

Sugg, Samuel. “Ran Away.” Raleigh Register and North Carolina Weekly Advertiser. May 27, 1825

Winer, Samantha. “A brief history of slave in North Carolina.” N.C. Runaway Slave Advertisement. Accessed April 19, 2019. http://libcdm1.uncg.edu/cdm/history/collection/RAS.

Footnotes

1 Samantha Winer, “A brief history of slave in North Carolina,” N.C. Runaway Slave Advertisement, accessed April 19,2019. http://libcdm1.uncg.edu/cdm/history/collection/RAS 2 Ibid. 3 Stephanie M. H. Camp, Closer to Freedom : Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South, Gender and American Culture, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004. 2004, Accessed April 19, 2019. 4 B. P. Boyd, “$20 Reward,” Charlotte Journal, March 5, 1840. 5 Ibid. 6 Samuel Sugg, “Ran Away,” Raleigh Register and North Carolina Weekly Advertiser, May 27, 1825 7 Ibid. 8 Ibid.

9 Stephanie M. H. Camp, Closer to Freedom : Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South, Gender and American Culture, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004. 2004, Accessed April 19, 2019.

AFR 329: Women & Slavery in the Black Atlantic – Course Collaboration, Salome Araya

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!

“Nancy Midgett v. Willoughby McBryde”

written by Salome Araya

In December 1855, Nancy Midgett, a white woman living in North Carolina, filed a case in the Supreme Court against William McBryde. Midgett appealed to the courts for full custody of her two children who were described as being “mulatto”, and “begotten by a negro father”. During this time, the law stated that only “legitimate children of free negroes” must serve an apprenticeship alongside their parents. However, the case with Midgett could not apply this law to the case because she was a white woman, who was claiming black children. This case exemplifies what motherhood and family structures served to the system of slavery during the late 1800s in North Carolina.

Screenshot of Court case NANCY MIDGETT v. WILLOUGHBY McBRYDE found in "Slavery, Abolition, and Justice."
Court case found in “Slavery, Abolition, and Justice,” made available through a library subscription with Adam Matthew: http://www.slavery.amdigital.co.uk/.

Agency in motherhood among white women differed tremendously compared to black women in slave societies. However, the barriers produced by a patriarchal system informed what mother’s roles looked like. According to Sarah Franklin, the patriarchy “illuminates the subordination of slave to slaveholder and the similarity of that subordination to the subordination of woman to man and child to adult” (2012, 2). Midgett appeals to the patriarchy, being an active participant in the institution of slavery. In this document, you will notice how Midgett used the reputation of her father to claim custody.

She “illuminated subordination” to her father to prove that she was still following the codes of slavery. This is significant because she did not use the law to try to argue that her children were “worthy” or “deserving” of freedom, despite that their mother was white. Whether or not she would continue to enslave her children is unclear, but it implies what Midgett could give as a mother. Being a mother to “mulatto” or light-skinned children, Midgett internalized slavery’s racism with the racialization of labor. Her children could not be trained to pass down the generational wealth of her family, thus they would have to continue to live as “apprentices” in her household.

Though this document emphasizes the differences in motherhood among white and black women, it also causes readers to question what motherhood looked like for Midgett after she won her case. How did she raise her children in her household? Who raised her children? Lastly, did her case appeal to white enslavers because she saw it as the only way to win? All of these questions reflect how understanding the history of primary sources does not occur in one instance. Using other court appeals and scholarly articles on motherhood and the roles of women in slavery can provide more context to Midgett’s story.

Bibliography:

Franklin, Sarah L. “Introduction: Patriarchy, Paternalism, and the Development of the Slave Society.” In Women and Slavery in Nineteenth-Century Colonial Cuba, 54:1–20. Boydell and Brewer, 2012. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7722/j.ctt1x71ph.5.

North Carolina Supreme Court. “Transcripts – Slavery, Abolition and Social Justice.” Accessed April 19, 2019. http://www.slavery.amdigital.co.uk/Contents/Transcript.aspx?imageid=252707&searchmode=true&hit=first&pi=1&previous=0&prevpos=197658&vpath=searchresults&doc=197658.

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.

AFR 329: Women & Slavery in the Black Atlantic – Course Collaboration, Lucy Walton

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!

“Education, Freedom and the Archives”

written by Lucy Walton

Even today, education is seen as a tool to upward-mobility, and often regarded as (though proven to not be) a great equalizer of people. This view of education is not new, though perceptions of who should have access to education have greatly shifted since the Civil Rights Movement. Although education in the United States remains inequitable today, one would be hard-pressed to find someone who was willing to say that every child did not have the right to go to school. However, in pre-emancipation United States the saying “knowledge is power” instilled a fear in enslavers that education would inevitably lead to enslaved persons’ revolts, runaways and manumissions. In the south, enslaved black people faced intense punishment for seeking education and laws explicitly banned literacy.

The interview of Lizzie Baker, a post-emancipation freed woman, touches a bit on this fear of education enslavers had. Baker herself was very young when emancipation happened, but she recounts stories that her parents told her about their enslavers specifically methods they used to oppress, dehumanize and punish their enslaved people. In the interview she discusses how hunters would try to catch enslaved people by tying ropes across roads to trip them. Then she directly moves into saying “marster and missus did not ‘low [allow] slaves to have a book in deir house. If dey caught a slave wid a book in dey house dey whipped ‘em. Dey were keerful not to let em’ learn reading or writing.” After this she changes topics again to talk about the selling of her siblings. Both the content, and the placement of this quote are telling.

First, it shows that enslavers made conscious efforts to keep enslaved people from learning valuable skills, indicating they were afraid of the consequences this would lead to. Second, as the story sits in between one about catching fugitives and one about family separation it connects the denial of education to other horrible forms of dehumanization that enslavers enacted upon enslaved. That education denial is placed on the same level as hunting, and family separate proves the importance of literacy and knowledge both to enslavers and enslaved.

Other sources in the archives show the empowerment of education, particularly for women. Many sources about freed black people in the area are connected to Latta University, a school set up by Reverend Morgan Latta for freed black people to get education. Rev. Latta’s choice to set up a school displays his belief (shared by many) that education would be the gateway to opportunity for those manumitted. Although black women were doubly oppessed by their race and gender, Latta’s school provided such opportunity for women who could become students, or even teachers.

One photograph found in The Archive for Documenting the American South shows Mrs. M. K. Smith and Dorothy Funderburk. Smith is labeled as a teacher, and Funderburk as a secretary. Both are wearing fine clothing, and the fact that they are photographed shows the importance of their position within their community. Historically, teachers and those connected to schools would be regarded as more upper class and would be highly respected for their role in passing on important skills like reading and writing. Investigating the role of Latta University and its connection to Mecklenburg county could be an important line of further research.

Screenshot of Photographs of Mrs. M.K. Smith and Dorothy Funderburk found through the Documenting the American South digitized archives.
Photographs of Mrs. M.K. Smith and Dorothy Funderburk found through the Documenting the American South digitized archives: https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/latta/ill13.html.

These sources and more within the archives, accessible to Davidson students, prove the power of education for enslaved people, both through the respect given to those involved in it, and by the lengths enslavers would go to stop it.  As an American historian I have studied the progression of educational equality in the United States from the creation (and continued importance) of HBCUs to the desegregation of schools in the decades after Brown v. Board (yes, it did take decades). That push began early in U.S history with the actions black people, both enslaved and freed, made to gain literacy and other forms of learning. This serves as a reminder that education, even within the academia, can be used as a tool for personal resistance.

AFR 329: Women & Slavery in the Black Atlantic – Course Collaboration, Lindsey Jarrell

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!

“Finding and Remembering: Black Women in the Archive”

written by Lindsey Jarrell

Studying Africana provides a deviation from other academic disciplines, it is a place where Blackness and Black experiences are centered, not a footnote on stories of white history and triumph. And yet, even in a discipline more soundly devoted to the lives and history of people of African descent throughout the diaspora, those scholars looking to study Black women still find themselves in a niche field.

Dr. Dennie’s Spring 2019 course Women and Slavery in the Black Atlantic allows students devoted to the study of Black women to spend a semester exploring different systems of slavery and the ways in which Black and white women lived and left records in those systems. Central to this course is our own exploration of the archives to attempt to find women’s voices and gain a deeper understanding of systems of enslavement in the Davidson and Charlotte areas.

The University of North Carolina at Charlotte has an extensive digital archive collection that is easily accessible to the public. In exploring these digitized records I was drawn to the extensive materials sorted as variations of “Family Papers”. Looking at the Patterson Family Papers, the collection which includes materials from 1761 to 1866, shows the family resided in northern Mecklenburg County where they owned a large plantation near Davidson. Within this collection are other notable Charlotte families who they conducted business with. Looking at the different documents one can see several bills of sale for the Black folx enslaved by the Pattersons and other families.

Screenshot of Digitized Patterson Family Papers found at UNC Charlotte.
Digitized Patterson Family Papers found at UNC Charlotte.

In 1825, 13 year-old Cheany was transferred from being the property of Elizabeth Potts to Edwin Potts. W.L. Davidson witnessed the sale which was for $400. In this document we can find evidence of a small fragment in the life or rather ownership of a young enslaved girl and the white woman who enslaved her. Later in the Patterson Family Papers the last will and testament of Elizabeth Potts can likewise be found. The document is signed and sealed November 30, 1859. Included in this document is which family members her enslaved were to be transferred to. None were freed. The names of the enslaved were not listed in the transcription and could not be  made out in the scan. One of the enslaved was to be sent to Potts’s niece indicating the continuance of female enslavers in the Potts family.

While fragmented these documents can give us insight into the lives of enslaved women as well as white women who participated in the enslavement of Black folx and the managing of plantations as wives, widows, or by themselves. It may take digging to find but by following bills of sale, fugitive slave ads, wills, and more we can find documentation of multiple parts of enslaved people’s lives.

Following the example of scholars like Marisa Fuentes, Saidiya Hartman, and so many more we can take these fragments and attempt to give both voice and acknowledgement to the Black women in the archives who so rarely are remembered or considered. Such work must be mindful to not replicate the trauma of enslaved lives or to be overzealous in making assumptions about lives whose details we will never truly know. But when does with respect and diligence this work aids in creating a fuller understanding of the past which has created the structures of oppression that continue to affect marginalized folx, particularly Black women, today.


AFR 329: Women & Slavery in the Black Atlantic – Course Collaboration, Laura Auberry

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!

“The Trial and Sentencing of Mass”

written by Laura Auberry

On Nov. 7th, 1826, the Tarboro Free Press included a short summary of a case tried in the Superior Court. The summary describes the case of a female slave named Mass, who had killed her master Mr. Mulford. In her trial, the only witness on the part of prosecution was a boy, who was the son of Mass. This source describes the boy’s testimony as being “very clear, and very positive.” Mass was found guilty by a jury and was executed on Friday the 27th.

This short source indicates much about the life of an enslaved woman in North Carolina. One of the most prominent abuses that occurred during the life of an enslaved woman was sexual abuse from her enslaver. In the case of Mass, the source does not contain an explicit indication of sexual abuse from Mr. Mulford (the enslaver). However, my questions about the case do indicate a high possibility of sexual abuse having occurred.

The first question I have about this source is how the killing of Mr. Mulford happened. I would consider the possibility that Mass poisoned Mr. Mulford, except the use of the word “killing” steers me away from that possibility. While enslaved women did sometimes poison their enslavers as a form of resistance, poisoning does seem to be an act that has to be premeditated, which would shift the word “killing” to “murdering.” Since the term used in this source is “killing,” it suggests that the death of Mr. Mulford was not premeditated. Though the source later describes the crime as “murder,” this can be attributed to the fact that in 1826, an enslaved black woman could not be raped in the eyes of the law.

Enslaved black women were seen as being promiscuous and as always welcoming sexual relations. Therefore, if black women could not be raped, then the court would not recognize self-defense against rape, causing the crime to only be listed as a murder, even though the source describes it as a “killing.” This reasoning leads me to believe that Mass acted in self-defense in the killing of Mr. Mulford. Mass would not be the only enslaved woman to resist sexual violence from her enslaver through self-defense.

Mass’s likely forced sexual relationship with Mr. Mulford also brings up another question about this source. Who was the son of Mass that testified against her? This source mentions that the son of Mass, was the only witness from the prosecution. This indicates that the killing occurred in the home of Mass, where she and her son likely lived together. There is also a possibility that due to the sexual relationship between Mr. Mulford and Mass, the son of Mass could also be the son of Mr. Mulford. While the source does not indicate a relationship, the boy certainly could have been an unacknowledged son. It is difficult to imagine what this boy faced when he most likely saw the death of his father and perhaps, repeated assaults on his mother.

Screenshot of Tarboro Free Press newspaper landing page on DigitalNC.org.
Tarboro Free Press newspaper landing page on DigitalNC.org.

When reading this source, one wonders if this testimony was forced, and what sort of relationship existed between the mother and son. This source also suggests that the son was the only witness “on the part of the prosecution.” This distinction indicates that there were perhaps more witnesses on the part of Mass’s defense. Personally, I wonder, whether Mass received a defense, and what arguments were made against the prosecution. Perhaps the defense did try to argue that Mass was defending herself and called up witnesses to talk on the sexual violence Mass suffered from Mr. Mulford, or Mass’s character. However, this source will not tell us that information. It only mentions Mass’s son, who told his testimony against his mother “very clear[ly] and positive[ly].”

Mass’s trial displays multiple conflicting thoughts about enslaved women. Enslaved individuals were thought of in 1826 as lacking intelligence, morals, and rational thought. Often the paternalistic attitude towards slavery labeled enslaved individuals as children, who needed the guiding hand of their enslaver. However, as this source indicates, when it came criminal punishment, Mass was considered rational enough to be guilty of killing her enslaver and paying for her crime. Her son was also considered intelligent enough to give a clear testimony and be the only witness of the crime. This contradiction was one of many that existed within the institution of slavery.

Source:

Wil. Rec. Tarboro Free Press. Nov. 7th, 1826. North Carolina Newspapers. Accessed April 19th, 2019. http://newspapers.digitalnc.org/lccn/sn92073983/1826-11-07/ed-1/seq-3/.

AFR 329: Women & Slavery in the Black Atlantic – Course Collaboration, Idalina Pina

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: The Choices of Freedom”

written by Idalina Pina

In the two cases presented before the General Assembly Session in Martin County in 1861, two freed-women sought to bind themselves to slavery. In the first case, the petitioner, Eliza Hassell, is described as a free-woman of color, who requested to acquiesce her freedom to Shepard R. Spruill, a character she describes as a “kind master.” Hassell, as explained by the Court, claims that her conditions under the entitlement of Spruill would change for the better. The petition does not further clarify her previous conditions but does insinuate that a life of slavery would be a better option for Hassell. Similarly, in the second petition introduced to the court the same year, Kissah Trueblood, described also as a freed woman of color, makes the same plea. Her petition follows a similar sentiment as the previous one: Trueblood sought to bind herself to Dr. Ritter to better her circumstances. The script of this petition, however, reveals more about Trueblood and her reasonings, describing her previous life under the “apprenticeship” of other owners as exceeding her current state of “destitute” as a free woman.

Screenshot of the North Carolina Digital Collections page showing the General Assembly Session Records: Eliza Hassell Petition, Jan. 22, 1861.
General Assembly Session Records: Eliza Hassell Petition, Jan. 22, 1861. The document can be viewed on the North Carolina Digital Collections website, shown above.

Both of these cases reveal a couple of interest characteristics of slavery in the mid-19th century. On the one hand, free woman consciously made the choice to bind themselves to perpetual servitude, some under the impression that a slavery would be a better outcome. This rationalization, unfortunately, was not rash; in the South, particularly in North Carolina as seen with these two cases, living conditions for free people of color were not reliable. This quality of life made freed people vulnerable to circumstances such as presented in the cases above. Both Hassell and Trueblood are described as free woman of “color,” a particular characterization by the Court that reveals more about the particular situation of these two women. Although the petition includes that Trueblood was born a free person, it does not mention Hassell’s previous position.

Their “position” in a slave society as freed women is pertinent in understanding some of these cases. As analyzed by numerous authors throughout this course, freed women held different positions in social structures which allowed some form of mobility. Both of these women were at some point free, but because freedom could not provide a means of living for them, slavery became the better choice. This “choice of freedom” is not accessible for others.

The description these women utilize for these men can expose more of the underlying conditions that lead them to make this choice; however, these women could also be using this language to further their agency, which in this case, is binding themselves to slavery because it betters their living situation. In both of these case, the women are presented to have chosen a life of slavery instead of freedom. However, their voices are not heard through the paper, but rather the intentions of the writer are what one can extrapolate from this petition; therefore, making it difficult to deduce their motives.

Works Cited:

General Assembly Session Records: Eliza Hassell Petition, Jan. 22, 1861. http://digital.ncdcr.gov/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15012coll8/id/2218/rec/19 .

General Assembly Session Records: Kissah Trueblood Petition, Jan. 3, 1861. http://digital.ncdcr.gov/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15012coll8/id/2215/rec/20.

http://digital.ncdcr.gov/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15012coll8/id/2215/rec/20

AFR 329: Women & Slavery in the Black Atlantic – Course Collaboration, Gabrielle Thomas

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!

“Dialectics in the Archive”

written by Gabrielle Thomas

Hegel’s slave/master dialectic deals with two individuals, the slave and the master, that mutually recognize and define each other in status and in being. More so, these groups represent opposing sides of inequality and extremes. This dialectic is present in slavery and has been applied to slave narratives such as Fredrick Douglas. For example, Marissa Fuentes, in Dispossessed Lives, points us towards the dialectic of racialized gender or the “Mistress/Slave Dialectic.” However, other dialectics also functioned during slavery. Hilary Beckles introduces the dialectic relationship between white prosperity and black purgatory within the slave society or white prosperity/black purgatory dialectic in his work The First Black Slave Society.

These dialectics were hardened and institutionalized through slave codes and laws throughout the Caribbean and the United States. In the archival collection, “Documenting the American South,” in the University of North Carolina library, I found one distinct sources that showcase two dialectics: the master/slave dialectic and the white prosperity/black purgatory dialectic.

The first source is a government document from 1831 entitled, “Slaves and Free Persons of Color. An Act Concerning Slaves and Free Persons of Color,” and demonstrates ways in which the slave/master dialectic stayed in place. North Carolina’s use of slaves and its participation in the slave trade has been well documented. In 1715, the first laws for used to control slaves were made. North Carolina, at the time, worked as a slave society. This meant that their socioeconomic formation was entirely dependent on slavery for all its operations, dominant ideology, defining functions, and sustainability. These laws were an instrument to maintain the slave society. This particular document laid out laws that controlled every aspect of the free and enslaved black persons.

Screenshot of the "Documenting the American South" landing page for "North Carolina Slaves and Free Persons of Color. An Act Concerning Slaves and Free Persons of Color."
Landing page for the referenced document, “North Carolina Slaves and Free Persons of Color. An Act Concerning Slaves and Free Persons of Color,” created by the North Carolina General Assembly in 1831. The item can be found through “Documenting the American South,” based out of UNC Chapel Hill.

For example, it controlled their labour, freedom, reproduction, and worth. All laws were meant to ensure that the master/slave dialectic was in place. Freed black persons were not allowed to migrate to North Carolina and if they were in North Carolina, they could not leave for more than ninety days. If a freed person broke any laws or codes of conduct they were subject to return to enslavement. Another law remained that if an enslaver wanted to free a person they enslaved, they would have to file a request to the court, give public notice of their intentions, and pay a bond. Any enslaved person found guilty of insurrection or conspiracy “shall be adjudged guilty of a felony and shall suffer death without benefit of clergy (p.5).” Any runaway enslaved persons caught would be hired out from the jails for the state’s profit. Runaways would also be “confined in any jail for the space of twelve months, (pg. 3) otherwise.

The act also uses this as a way to deal with hiring illegally imported slaves. It also enumerated the reward system for slave catchers. The master was the white population and the slave was the black population. This remained true regardless of whether the black person was enslaved or free. Laws are one tool used to maintain this dialectic.

The second source is a newspaper article titled, “More Slavery at the South,” published in the Independent’s 74th issue January 25th, 1912 by an anonymous African American nurse. This source shows the white prosperity/black purgatory dialectic. This source was actually written by a reporter for The Independent. However, the piece is a transcribed interview with an anonymous African American woman. This nurse describes the sexual harassment that most African American nurses and house workers are forced to endure from male employers. She also speaks on the sexual bribery and coercion that occurred.

Snapshot of the landing page A Negro Nurse More Slavery at the South. Source: Documenting the American South, UNC Chapel Hill.
Landing page for A Negro Nurse More Slavery at the South. Source: Documenting the American South, UNC Chapel Hill.

For example, this source sheds light on how women were promised more and nicer clothes for sexual acts. Even though this article is written after emancipation it shows the afterlife or continuation of this dialectic into 1900s’.  The anonymous African American woman complains that she has suckled numerous white women’s children but has never gotten the respect of being called “Ms.” She complains of being looked at as a sex object for white men. She also complains of the dire living, eating, and health situations of the black persons in the South. She further complains of the unfair wages.

Throughout the piece she constantly compares the black living situation to the contrastingly better white living situation in the South. Reading this source illuminates how the theoretical conception of the dialectical relationship, white prosperity/black purgatory, exists in the South around 1900s.  

Works Cited:

North Carolina, Slaves and Free Persons of Color. An Act Concerning Slaves and Free Persons of Color. North Carolina: General Assembly, 1831.
https://docsouth.unc.edu/nc/slavesfree/summary.html

A Negro Nurse, More Slavery at the South. From The Independent, 72 (Jan. 25, 1912): 196-200. New York: Published for the proprietors, 1912.https://docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/negnurse/negnurse.html