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.
Hodes cites nine such cases in various states, including some in which the wife had more than one black lover, as well as “colored” children. Some adulterous white women with black lovers were openly defiant: “There were those who talked back, professed love for black men, and leveled more severe counteraccusations….” A white wife, newborn colored babe in arms, is quoted by a visitor as deploring a moral double standard and declaring in her husband’s presence that “she saw no more harm in a white woman’s having a black child than in a white man’s having one, though the latter was more frequent.” On the part of local white people, “neither indignity nor outrage are detectable in the documents” of these cases, according to Hodes. Whatever they may have, in fact, thought, it might be added.
The father of one of the adulterous white wives’ children in Piedmont Virginia in 1824 was called “a remarkable white slave,” and his owner described him as being “as white as any white men generally are.” The children of such a “white slave” by a free white woman would thus in all probability be white and also free. Such mixtures, as Hodes observes, not only confused categories of race based on color, but also the status of both slavery and freedom based upon race.
Hodes is surely justified in stressing “the multilayered ambiguities” that are inherent in the confusions of cases she cites. One of them was a rape case that arose in 1850 in Alabama, where the law stipulated that every “slave, free negro, or mulatto” convicted of raping a white woman was to be executed. The defendant’s life was spared by a judge who accepted the contention of counsel for the accused that “a mulatto is to be known, not solely by color, kinky hair, or slight admixture of negro blood…but by reputation, by his reception into society, and by the exercise of certain privileges.” The defendant, the son of a white woman and a “mulatto” man, was let off. The judge’s opinion was that the law did not require him “to pursue the line of descendants, so long as there is a drop of negro blood remaining.” He thereby renounced a definition that was to become in the postbellum South virtually universal—the ominous “one-drop rule.”
Civil War, emancipation, and Reconstruction brought drastic changes in Southern racial attitudes and policies, including those concerned with liaisons between white women and black men. Black freedmen inspired both fear and brutal behavior on the part of white men. The word “miscegenation” was coined in the election of 1864 by Northern Democrats, who used it to denounce Lincoln Republicans as advocates of interracial sex. Issues previously left to custom, gossip, and personal anguish in local communities and courts suddenly became prominent in national party politics. During the war Democratic politicians introduced the specter of white women victims of black soldiers and freedmen into congressional debates. White abolitionists collected sensational stories about the racial promiscuity of Southern white women, stories that Hodes urges readers to approach with caution. Southern whites reciprocated with stories about Northern missionaries and teachers seeking black lovers in the South.
Among the losses of the Lost Cause were not only slave property and racial hierarchy but patriarchal authority—not only control over family and property but, for a time, monopoly of political power. And along with the gains of emancipation, the freedmen suffered losses in personal security that had, paradoxically, been provided by slavery. No longer property of great value, the freedman lost the protection of an owner and such limited toleration as white communities and courts were willing to accord his liaisons with white women. If he had brothers or children of mixed blood they became more vulnerable. Offended masters could be cruel and brutal but rarely as fierce and murderous as enraged white mobs. The discipline of slavery was soon replaced by that of terrorism.
The declared purpose of the main terrorist organization, the Ku Klux Klan, was the protection of “white womanhood.” The huge war casualties limited the number of available white partners for women, giving rise to new fears of sex between white women and black men. Still, instances of liaisons and even marriages between races continued in some parts of the South. The deeper purposes of the Klan were political. They included restoration of patriarchal authority and power, racial hierarchy, and white supremacy. White men of all classes became Klan members, but leadership was usually assigned to those of the upper class and the well-to-do, including war heroes. The Klan’s tactics included whipping, torture, castration, and murder carried out at night by members in disguise. In an investigation of Klan violence in 1870, a joint committee of Congress found, Hodes writes,
…that those in greatest danger of attack were black men—and their families—who defied white efforts to retain racial hierarchy. This included men who were voters, political leaders, labor activists, those who displayed economic independence, and those who crossed boundaries of the color line in acts that ranged from talking back to sex with a white woman….
Because both sympathizers and enemies commonly relayed second- hand accounts, it is impossible to separate fabricated accusations from observed transgressions and to distinguish false admissions given under threat or torture from truthful confessions. Yet what comes through consistently in the testimony is how white anxiety over sexual liaisons between black men and white women was linked to both party politics and successful crops. Indeed, black victims and witnesses alike made that connection, whether cautiously or candidly, in their testimony before Congress.
The horrors of Reconstruction were real enough, but they were largely the work of the Klan rather than the carpetbaggers. Two examples from the numerous instances Hodes describes should be sufficient. In one the black man accused of cohabitation with a white woman had his penis nailed to a block of wood upon which a sharp knife was placed. Then the lightwood piled around him was set afire. He escaped burning alive by the only means provided. In another case a black man accused of raping a white girl was tied to a stake and burned to death in daytime before a crowd of about a thousand people.
Though dedicated to the protection of “white womanhood,” Klansmen inflicted violent punishment upon women of both races accused of sexual transgressions, black women by assault and rape, white women of the lower class by whipping and sexual mutilation. Accusations of political as well as sexual transgressions were made against women as well as men. Sex, politics, and the assertion of “manhood” became conflated during this period, and Hodes describes a society in which political life became infused with sexual obsession. Klan violence in early Reconstruction occurred in parts of the South where sex between white women and black men had not produced such violence before the war.
Klan assaults were largely replaced in the 1880s and later by lynchings carried out by mobs in daytime and without disguise, the spectacle attended by whites of all classes. “In the last decades of the century,” Hodes writes, “whites accused black men of rape more than at any time before or since, and black men could be lynched for all manner of objectionable behavior toward white women.” A black minister warned his listeners in 1892: “If one of our men look at a white woman very hard and she complains he is lynched for it.” Notices of lynchings were printed in local papers, and extra cars added to trains for spectators from miles around, sometimes thousands of them. Schoolchildren might get a day off to attend the lynching.
The spectacle could include castration, skinning, roasting, hanging, and shooting. Souvenirs for purchasers might include fingers, toes, teeth and bones, even genitals of the victim, as well as picture postcards of the event. Newspapers published detailed accounts, including the coroner’s report of the cause of death as being “at the hands of persons unknown.”
White dissent, when there was any, was chiefly mute, but a few blacks spoke out boldly until they were silenced. Ida B. Wells, a black writer and editor in Memphis, became the foremost anti-lynching activist in the country. She published her findings about hundreds of lynchings in her own paper and in a black-owned paper in New York. She reported numerous consensual unions of white women and black men, six in Memphis alone, and denounced “the old thread bare lie” of rape to justify lynchings. The presses in Memphis, of which she was part owner, were burned down by a white mob. She never returned to the city after that, but continued her crusade while working for a black-owned newspaper in New York. A few years earlier Jesse C. Duke, a black Republican leader, denounced a brutal lynching for alleged rape in his weekly paper, the Montgomery Herald. Threatened with lynching himself, he fled the city, but the presses that printed his paper were owned by a white man and were spared.
Alexander Manly, editor of a black newspaper in Wilmington, North Carolina, was not so fortunate. On the eve of the election of 1898 Manly challenged the inflammatory declaration of Rebecca Latimer Felton, a former Georgia slave owner turned lecturer, that if it took lynching “to protect woman’s dearest possession from the ravening human beasts—then I say ‘lynch’; a thousand times a week if necessary.” Manly replied that it was “no worse for a black man to be intimate with a white woman than for a white man to be intimate with a colored woman.” He elaborated by pointing out that some lynching victims had white fathers and were “sufficiently attractive for white girls of culture and refinement to fall in love with them, as is well known to all.”
Manly’s editorial, which was printed three months before the election of 1898, set off an explosion that could not have been better timed for the purposes of North Carolina Democrats who were determined to stop at nothing to overthrow the “fusion” regime of Republicans and Populists that had driven them from power for four years. Manly was protected from lynching by the efforts of the black police officers of Wilmington, but he felt impelled to print mollifying qualifications of what he had written. Rebecca Felton, on the other hand, predicted that the cause of lynching “will grow and increase with every election.”
Using this and another explosion over race in Chapel Hill as well as statewide corruption and violence, Democrats regained control of the state legislature but not the city of Wilmington. Immediately after the election, however, a mob led by a prominent white citizen burned down Manly’s press. He escaped, but the mob, joined by an infantry company mobilized for the Spanish-American War, hunted down black leaders, killed some, and drove thousands of other black citizens from their homes and property, which was seized or destroyed by whites. Before it was over between ten and twenty black bodies lay in the streets. The chief leader of the attack on the press then settled into the mayor’s office.
Hodes’s searching study of sexual politics confirms and extends the findings of earlier scholars that white supremacy, in all its legal and institutional manifestations, became more rigid and punitive at the end of the century than at any other time since the Civil War. There had been prior laws and customs of racial segregation, but not until the 1890s was white supremacy so widely extended by law, custom, or force as to deprive blacks (and so-called blacks) of their rights in virtually all the public aspects of their lives. And not until 1896, in Plessy v. Ferguson, did the Supreme Court of the United States declare such deprivations to be constitutional and codify the one-drop rule into law. Many black men had been kept away from the polls by various means ever since they were constitutionally enfranchised during Reconstruction. But not until the 1890s were state laws disfranchising blacks held to be constitutional by federal court decision. It was in that decade also that the number and depravity and horror of lynchings reached extremes unequaled before.3
In her careful account of a great many historical episodes, Professor Hodes might have provided a few more details and comparisons. She is right to say that the number of lynchings reached its peak in 1892. But her correlation of race and politics would have gained if she had pointed out that in that same year the Populist movement, with its claims on behalf of poor Southern farmers, also reached its peak. So did both the efforts of white unions of mine workers to gain black members and their struggle to abolish the leasing of convict labor to private mining companies. Hodes says that white Northern ideas about race and sex were “no more straightforward than white Southern ideas”; but some readers need to be reminded that white supremacy doctrines were not limited to the continent of North America, and have flourished in numerous regions and varied guises overseas, including a highly comparable example in South Africa. But for all that, we are now most fortunate in having Professor Hodes’s very original, revealing, and important book on a neglected subject. It deserves a close and respectful reading, and many readers.
February 19, 1998
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. ↩
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). ↩
The full significance of this decade in one state is made clear by Glenda E. Gilmore, Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896-1920 (University of North Carolina Press, 1996). ↩