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Dangerous Liaisons

White Women, Black Men: Illicit Sex in the Nineteenth-Century South

by Martha Hodes
Yale University Press, 388 pp., $30.00

Getting at the truth of such subjects as fornication, rape, bastardy, adultery, divorce, and domestic violence is difficult enough in any case. But when they are mixed with constantly changing attitudes about race, class, freedom, slavery, servitude, and male authority and honor, especially in times of civil war, invasion, defeat, and slave emancipation, and accompany the politics and violence of white supremacy, the search for “truth” often seems hopeless. This may explain why historians have tended to avoid such subjects and the frustration they involve.1

Martha Hodes, a historian at New York University, is courageous but not reckless in undertaking one of the few studies that have been made of the sexual relations between white women and black men in the South. She seems quite aware that she is entering “difficult interpretive terrain” and that serious risks are unavoidable. Her extensive researches turn up “shards and bones” or “laconic responses to frightening questions” as the only evidence in some cases. She makes frequent use of sworn legal testimony about adultery, with an awareness that lies under oath are still lies—along with confessions in secret diaries, the findings of congressional investigations, and the private correspondence between officials of high national rank. References to sex between a white woman and a black man were usually “brief and elusive, sometimes only a single line in a legal ledger.” She adds that “some who commanded my sympathy turned out to be liars.”

The strategy Professor Hodes uses is, for one thing, to select “cases for which there existed a considerable body of evidence,” and follow them with several “less well documented scenarios.” In addition she tries to “refrain from smoothing over the inconsistencies” and the “incoherence” of the evidence. Another precaution is her frequent resort, as she puts it, to “the language of speculation, even uncertainty,” with such words as “presumably,” “possibly,” and “perhaps.” I counted the use of “perhaps” eight times in as many efforts to explain one event.

I do not mean to suggest tedium but rather credibility. Professor Hodes does not pretend to have exhausted her subject or to be devoid of biases of her own. She unfortunately feels obliged to omit South Carolina and Louisiana from her study because of the “intermediate class between ‘black’ and ‘white,”’ recognized especially in Charleston and New Orleans, that would “introduce further complexities.” She invites others to complete her unfinished work and modestly describes it as “inquiring and exploratory rather than definitive and conclusive.”

The title of the book suggests limitation of the subject to illicit sex in one century, but fortunately that is not the case. The first example offered of a white woman with a black mate is that of an indentured servant of the third Lord Baltimore in Maryland called Irish Nell and a black slave named Charles, who belonged to a planter at whose plantation Baltimore boarded. They were married in 1681 by a Catholic priest at a wedding attended by Maryland planter families who wished the couple well. Seventeenth-century planters around the Chesapeake found white servants indentured for four to seven years of servitude a better bargain than black slaves, though by the end of the seventeenth century they were combining the two classes in their work force. White servants and black slaves were assigned much the same kind of work, their lives were “closely intertwined in the colonial Chesapeake,” and distinctions of race were of less significance than they later became.

Early Maryland lawmakers used the phrase “Negroes and other slaves” in their statutes. A law of 1664, however, declared that free women who married slaves would themselves be enslaved during the lifetime of their husbands and that the children of the union would be slaves for life. The law might have served one or perhaps all of three purposes: first to discourage black access to white women, second to discourage white women from such marriages, and third to ensure that a couple’s master could claim their children as his property. None of these deterred Irish Nell, who was warned against marrying Charles by Lord Baltimore but nevertheless married him and bore him three or four children.

No legal question regarding either this union or the status of Nell and her children came to court until nearly a century later. Then her enslaved grandchildren and next her great-grandchildren began petitioning for their freedom on the ground that they were descendants of a free white woman. Late-eighteenth-century courts had to decide whether ancestor Nell was slave or free. Their contradictory decisions were complicated by changes in white opinion and white laws, and by continuing claims by their owners that the plaintiffs were their property. A Maryland law of 1681, the year Nell married Charles, had released any “freeborn English or white woman” who married a slave from servitude and also any children she bore. That made slavery racial and a child’s status determined by that of its mother, which was the reverse of English law at the time. The new law only went into effect one month after Nell’s marriage but before her first child was born. That was enough to keep three courts busy for years a century later. Finally a great-granddaughter won her freedom and it was affirmed after her master lost his appeal in 1787.

White wives of black men were far from the only source of “mulattoes.” A white Virginian observed in 1757 that “the country swarms with mulatto bastards,” descendants of a “black father or mother.” In fact, most mulattoes had white fathers who were either slave owners or in a position to impose themselves on women slaves. But children of a black slave mother were the property of her owner whoever the father.2 It was only the mulatto children of white mothers who were the cause of problems for a white society that had turned slavery into a racial institution. The most common resort of a white woman who found herself pregnant by a slave was to charge him with rape. To produce a bastard was officially a crime for a woman, but did not carry the penalty of death, as did rape.

Polly Lane came of a poor white family in North Carolina and “hired out” as servant to a slave owner. Local whites became aware of a liaison between Polly and Jim, a black slave of her employer, but regarded it with a measure of toleration. (Hodes is careful to distinguish between “tolerance” and “toleration.”) When, in 1825, Polly accused Jim of raping her when they met one night in the woods, however, white people took her side and raised money to prosecute Jim. On trial he pleaded innocent, but in spite of conflicting testimony he was convicted, sentenced to death, and imprisoned.

Two months after the trial Polly began to look pregnant, so much so as to suggest that her pregnancy had begun months before the rape charge. She had sworn at the trial that she was not pregnant. Whites then became upset and petitioned the governor to spare Jim’s life. The governor granted a reprieve of six months in order that “time might solve the doubt.” As time passed “Polly’s guilt and Jim’s innocence began to win out.” But when faced with arrest for bastardy as her time approached she fled and hid until delivery. The child was, however, found to be “black,” and Jim’s life was spared. Because the case is fraught with so many “complexities and ambiguities,” because we have few words of testimony either from Polly or Jim and the evidence on both sides is so partisan and contradictory, Hodes seems justified in declining to say which bore the greater share of guilt, plaintiff or defendant. She writes,

‌The rape charge raises the possibility that Polly had tried to end her relationship with Jim sometime before that night in the woods, and therefore that her accusation was truthful, though her testimony that she and Jim had never had sex before would not have been true. This seems to be the only scenario in which Polly emerges as anything more than a cruel-hearted young woman, and yet such a scenario is not without layers of its own. Might Polly have tried to break off the relationship once she ascertained that she was pregnant so that she could subsequently accuse Jim of rape? Sex may have been consensual sometimes, but not all the time; sometimes Jim may have forced Polly, and at other times Polly may have wielded her power as a white woman to coerce Jim, as was not unknown in the antebellum South.

Such liaisons were not anomalies in the Southern states, but unless they resulted in pregnancy and childbirth they rarely left a trace in the public record. White communities could put up with liaisons of the kind without outcry when they were not flaunted, or when the offenders lived within the black community. Then, too, evidence for liaisons of the more well-to-do white women could be more easily concealed than those of poor women such as Polly. Not only was resort to abortion and concealment of infanticide more feasible, but family influences over opinion, courts, and officials could be brought to bear. The resulting divorce suits, of course, could not be kept out of the public record. Hodes cites instances of four divorces in Virginia and two in North Carolina granted to white husbands whose wives bore mulatto children. (She found no instance of a white wife whose husband begot “mulattoes” being granted a divorce.)

Of course the birth of any child of color to a white woman was a transgression of the rules of racial hierarchy and patriarchy as well as of moral standards. But it was the free child of African ancestry who was the deeper cause of white concern, because such children, as Hodes puts it in one case, “gave the lie to the infallibility of the Southern social structure.” Still, the justice and forbearance often accorded black defendants in trials for rape would be unthinkable in post- bellum years. This treatment cannot be attributed entirely to humanitarian attitudes, for property rights were also involved. When a convicted slave was executed or imprisoned, his owner was deprived of valuable property. Numerous cases overtly, and many more implicitly, suggest the influence of this fact upon courts as well as public opinion. But economic motives do not explain the suits of adultery with black men brought by white husbands against their wives.

Should a husband choose to remain silent about his grievance, local whites, according to Hodes, would normally confine their reaction to gossip devoid of outrage, even when they were well aware of the liaison. A white husband who accused his wife of adultery with a black man was usually granted a divorce, provided authorities were persuaded that the wife was more at fault than the husband. When the husband was given to abusive treatment and violence against the wife who took a black lover (especially if the wife was well-to-do), he was, Hodes writes, regularly denied a divorce. This was the case even in Virginia, where laws prohibited sex between white women and black men.

  1. 1

    Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (W.W. Norton, 1975), treats the subject in the seventeenth century, pp. 293-337; James H. Johnson, Race Relations in Virginia and Miscegenation in the South, 1776-1860 (University of Massachusetts Press, 1970), treats some aspects in passing; and Joel Williamson, New People: Miscegenation and Mulattoes in the United States (Free Press, 1980), stresses the last two centuries.

  2. 2

    As Williamson puts it in New People, “White people were enslaving themselves, as it were, in the form of their children and their children’s children. While black slavery increased in numbers only 19.8 percent in the decade [of the 1850s], mulatto slavery rose by an astounding 66.9 percent”(p. 63).

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