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What degree of choice did chattel slaves in the United States of America1have over their sexual autonomy?
Was this codified in any law?
1. Assuming scope is the USA, given the source of the Roots TV series, stated by the OP.
The short answer is: None at all.
According to the "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl" by Harriet Jacobs:
Female Slaves and the Law
Southern rape laws embodied race-based double standards. In the antebellum period, black men accused of rape were punished with death. White men could rape or sexually abuse female slaves without fear of punishment. Children, free women, indentured servants, and black men also endured similar treatment from their masters, or even their masters' children or relatives. While free or white women could charge their perpetrators with rape, slave women had no legal recourse. Their bodies technically belonged to their owners by law. The sexual abuse of slaves was partially rooted in a patriarchal Southern culture which treated all women, black and white, as property or chattel.
Beginning in 1662, Southern colonies adopted into law the principle of partus sequitur ventrem, by which children of slave women took the status of their mothers, regardless of the father's identity. This was a departure from English common law as it applied to English subjects, which held that children took their father's status. Some slave owner fathers freed their children, but many did not. The law relieved men of the responsibility of supporting their children, and confined the "secret" of miscegenation to the slave quarters.
The belief in racial "purity" drove Southern culture's vehement prohibition of sexual relations between white women and black men, but this same culture essentially protected sexual relations between white men and black women. The result was numerous mixed-race children. The children of white fathers and slave mothers were mixed-race slaves whose appearance was generally classified as mulatto (this term at first meant a person with white and black parents, but grew to encompass any apparently mixed-race person).
Many mixed-race families dated back to colonial Virginia, in which white women, generally indentured servants, produced children with men of African descent, both slave and free. Because of the mother's status, those children were born free and often married other free people of color.
Slave breeding refers to those practices of slave ownership that aimed to influence the reproduction of slaves in order to increase the profit and wealth of slaveholders. Such breeding was in part motivated by the 1808 federal ban on the importation of slaves, and in light of western competition in cotton production. Slave breeding involved coerced sexual relations between male and female slaves, sexual relations between master and slave with the intention to produce slave children, and favoring female slaves who produced a relatively large number of children.
Under slavery, slaveholders owned, controlled, and sold entire families of slaves. Slave owners might decide to sell families or family members for profit, as punishment, or to pay debts. Slaveholders also gave slaves away to grown children or other family members as wedding settlements. They considered slave children ready to work and leave home once they were 12-14 years old.
Concubines and Sexual Slaves
Some female slaves called "fancy maids" were sold at auction into concubinage or prostitution, which was termed the "fancy trade. " Concubine slaves were the only class of female slaves who sold for higher prices than skilled male slaves.
In the early years of the Louisiana colony, French men took wives and mistresses from among the slaves. They often freed their mixed-race children and sometimes the mistresses themselves. A considerable class of free people of color developed in and around New Orleans and Mobile. By the late 1700s, New Orleans had a relatively formalized system of plaçage among Creoles of color, which continued under Spanish rule. Mothers negotiated settlements or dowries for their daughters to be mistresses to white men. The men sometimes paid for the education of their children, especially their sons, whom they sometimes sent to France for schooling and military service.
Relationship of Skin Color to Treatment
In many households, the slave treatment with the slave's skin color. Darker-skinned slaves worked in the fields, while lighter-skinned slaves worked as house servants and had comparatively better clothing, food, and housing. Sometimes, as in President Thomas Jefferson's household, planters used mixed-race slaves as house servants or favored artisans because they were their own children or the children of relatives. Six of Jefferson's later household slaves were the grown children of his father-in-law John Wayles and Wayles' mistress Betty Hemings. Jefferson's wife Martha inherited them along with Betty Hemings and other slaves a year after her marriage to Jefferson, following the death of her father. At that time, some of the Hemings-Wayles children were very young; Sally Hemings, who many believe to have later become Jefferson's mistress after the death of his wife, was an infant at the time of Martha's inheritance. They were trained as skilled domestic servants and occupied the top of the slave hierarchy at Monticello.
The Slave Codes were individualized to each State, but none that I could find referenced sexual autonomy, or even directly concerned themselves with sex of any kind. They were more concerned with the ownership rights and responsibilities and controlling the possibility of insurrection or rebellion by slaves against the White Establishment.
Where sexual (abuse) was codified was in the unequal laws as written for things such as rape. The rape laws, however, were actually much worse in the Southern states, than you might imagine. Slaves were the property of their owners. Period. This way of thinking, more or less, translated into any White man could do as he pleased with any slaves.
Any slave found guilty of arson, rape of a white woman, or conspiracy to rebel was put to death. However, since the slave woman was chattel, a white man who raped her was guilty only of a trespass on the master's property. Rape was common on the plantation, and very few cases were ever reported.
Slave Life and Slave Codes
When it came down to the brass tacks, though, any White man could take a slave by force and never face charges of rape. It simply wasn't. Any White woman could (and would) charge a black rapist as such. In fact, a Southern White Belle, with a Negro lover even of long time, if found out in a way sure to embarrass, would simply accuse the slave of rape and the man would be put to death.
The sticky wicket, however, was that no White Southern Gentleman could (or would) be charged with rape of any woman, of any race or slave status. Were a White man to sexually assault a White woman, he wouldn't be convicted (or even charged) with rape. He might be made to pay (whether monetarily, or by perhaps a forced marriage or out of hide) by the relatives of the woman involved and only if they were well connected. If a sharecropper's daughter were taken sexually by a Gentleman, no one would even take notice. Definitely no actual charges would be filed or accepted, for no crime had been committed.
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For nineteen-year-old Celia, a slave on a Missouri farm, five years of being repeatedly raped by her middle-aged owner was enough. On the night of June 23, 1855, she would later tell a reporter, "the Devil got into me" and Celia fatally clubbed her master as he approached her in her cabin. The murder trial of the slave Celia, coming at a time when the controversy over the issue of slavery reached new heights, raised fundamental questions about the rights of slaves to fight back against the worst of slavery's abuses.
Around 1820, Robert Newsom and his family left Virginia and headed west, finally settling land along the Middle River in southern Callaway County, Missouri. By 1850 (according to the census), Newsom owned eight-hundred acres of land and livestock that included horses, milk cows, beef cattle, hogs, sheep, and two oxen. Like the majority of Callaway County farmers, Newsom also owned slaves-- five male slaves as of 1850.
During the summer of 1850, Newsom purchased from a slave owner in neighboring Audrain County a sixth slave, a fourteen-year-old girl named Celia. Shortly after returning with Celia to his farm, Newsom raped her. For female slaves, rape was an "ever present threat" and, far too often, a reality. Over the next five years, Newsom would make countless treks to Celia's slave cabin, located in a grove of fruit trees some distance from his main house, and demand sex from the teenager he considered his concubine. Celia gave birth to two children between 1851 and 1855, the second being the son of Robert Newsom.
Sometime before 1855, a real lover, another one of Newsom's slaves named George, entered Celia's life. On several occasions, George "stayed" at Celia's cabin, although whether for a few hours or an entire night is unknown. In late winter, either February or early March, of 1855, Celia again became pregnant. The pregnancy affected George, and caused him to insist that Celia put an end to the pattern of sexual exploitation by Newsom that continued to that time. George informed Celia that "he would have nothing more to do with her if she did not quit the old man" [trial testimony of Jefferson Jones].
Celia approached Newsom's daughters, Virginia and Mary, asking their help in getting Newsom "to quit forcing her while she was sick." It is not clear whether either of the Newsom daughters made any attempt to intervene on Celia's behalf, but it is known that the sexual assaults continued. In desperation, Celia begged Newsom to leave her alone, at least through her pregnancy, but the slave owner was unreceptive to her pleas.
On June 23, 1855, Newsom told Celia "he was coming to her cabin that night." Around 10 P.M., Newsom left his bedroom and walked the fifty yards to Celia's brick cabin. When Newsom told Celia it was time for sex, she retreated to a corner of the cabin. He advanced toward her. Celia then grabbed a stick placed there earlier in the day. Celia raised the stick, "about as large as the upper part of a Windsor chair, but not so long," and struck her master hard over the head. Newsom groaned and "sunk down on a stool or towards the floor." Celia clubbed Newsom over the head a second time, killing him [testimony of Jefferson Jones] .
After making sure "he was dead," Celia spent an hour or so pondering her next step. Finally she decided to burn Newsom's body in her fireplace. She went outside to gather staves and used them to build a raging fire. Then she dragged the corpse over to the fireplace and pushed it into the flames. She kept the fire going through the night. In the early morning, she gathered up bone fragments from the ashes and smashed them against the hearth stones, then threw the particles back into the fireplace. A few larger pieces of bone she put "under the hearth, and under the floor between a sleeper and the fireplace." Shortly before daybreak, Celia carried some of the ashes out into the yard and then went to bed.
In the morning, as Newsom's family was growing concerned about Robert's disappearance, Celia enlisted the help of Newsom's grandson, Coffee Waynescot, in shoveling ashes out of her fireplace and into a bucket. Coffee testified later he decided to help when the slave said "she would give me two dozen walnuts if I would carry the ashes out I said good lick." Following Celia's instruction, Coffee distributed the remains of his grandfather along a path leading to the stables.
Investigation and Inquest
On the morning of the 24th, Virginia Newsom searched for her father in along nearby creek banks and coves, fearing he might have drowned. By mid-morning, the search party grew to include several neighbors and Newsom's son, Harry. After fruitless hours of searching, suspicion began to turn to George, who--it was thought--might have been motivated to kill Newsom out of jealousy. William Powell, owner both of slaves and an adjoining 160-acre farm, questioned George. George denied any knowledge of what might have happened to Newsom, but then added--suspiciously--"it was not worth while to hunt for him any where except close to the house." Faced with, most likely, severe threats, George eventually provided an additional damning bit of information. He told Powell "he believed the last walking [Newsom] had done was along the path, pointing to the path leading from the house to the Negro cabin." George's comment immediately led investigators to the conclusion that Newsom had been killed in Celia's cabin.
When a search of Celia's cabin failed to turn up Newsom's body, Powell and the others located Celia doing her regular duties in the kitchen of the Newsom home. Powell falsely claimed that George had told the search party that "she knew where her master was," hoping this approach might prompt a quick confession from Celia. Instead, Celia denied any knowledge of her master's fate. Faced with escalating threats, including the threat of having her children taken away from her, Celia continued to insist on her innocence. (She undoubtedly understood that confessing to the murder of her master would be an even more serious threat to her relationship with her children.) Eventually, however, Celia admitted that Newsom had indeed visited her cabin seeking sex the previous night. She insisted that Newsom never entered her cabin, but rather that she struck him as he leaned inside the window and "he fell back outside and she saw nothing more of him." Finally, after refusing "for some time to tell anything more," Celia promised to tell more if Powell would "send two men [Newsom's two sons] out of the room." When Harry and David left, Celia confessed to the murder of Robert Newsom.
Following Celia's confession, the search party located Newsom's ashes along the path to the stables. They also gathered bits of bones from Celia's fireplace, larger bone fragments from under the hearth stone, and Newsom's burnt buckle, buttons, and blackened pocketknife. The collected items were placed in a box for display during the inquest that was to come.
Acting on an affidavit filed by David Newsom, the case of State of Missouri v Celia, a Slave commenced. Two justices of the peace, six local residents comprising an inquest jury, and three summoned witnesses all assembled at the Newsom residence on the morning of June 25. William Powell testified first, providing the jurors with an account of his interrogation of Celia the day before. Twelve-year-old Coffee Waynescot told jurors of Celia's request that he distribute what turned out to be his grandfather's ashes along the path. The third and last witness was Celia, who reaffirmed that she killed Newsom, but insisted that "she did not intend to kill him when she struck him, but only wanted to hurt him." The inquest jury quickly determined that probable cause existed that Celia feloniously and willfully murdered Robert Newsom, and the slave girl was ordered taken to the Callaway County jail in Fulton, nine miles to the north of the Newsom farm.
Doubts as to whether Celia could have pulled off her crime without help lingered, and Callaway County Sheriff William Snell allowed two men, Jefferson Jones and Thomas Shoatman, to conduct further questioning of Celia in her jail cell. Celia added some additional detail to her original story, describing the history of rape and sexual exploitation that began soon after her arrival on the Newsom farm, but she
continued to deny that George played any role in Newsom's death or the disposal of his body.
Celia's trial came at a time of heightened tensions over the issue of slavery. In 1854, Congress had passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and allowed settlers in those territories to decide for themselves whether to permit slavery within their boundaries. Northern opposition to the new law led to the establishment of the Republican Party and to campaigns by both pro-slavery and anti-slavery groups to influence the outcomes of elections in Kansas. Some prominent Missouri figures, such as
U. S. Senator David Atchinson and University of Missouri President James Shannon, encouraged their slave-state residents to counter the efforts of abolitionists who were moving to Kansas in the hope of keeping it slave-free. Proslavery mobs of Missourians attacked both Free-Soil voters in Kansans and threatened fellow Missourians who dared to criticize their bullying tactics. By the summer of 1855, Missouri was awash with proslavery rhetoric and increasingly active vigilante groups organized to ensure Kansas would enter the Union as a slave state. On October 6, three days before the start of Celia's trial, John Brown arrived in a Kansas that contained two state legislatures, one supporting Kansas's admission as a free state and one enacting slave laws. On Missouri's western border, the possibility of civil war seemed real.
The political implications of Celia's trial could not have escaped Circuit Court Judge William Hall. Certainly, he knew, proslavery Missourians expected Celia to hang. Hall's choice as Celia's defense attorney, John Jameson, was a safe one. Jameson's reputation as a competent, genial member of the bar and his lack of involvement in the heated slavery debates (despite being a slave owner himself) ensured that his selection would not be seriously contested. Jameson could provide the defendant with satisfactory--but not too satisfactory--representation. In addition, Hall appointed two young lawyers, Isaac Boulware and Nathan Kouns, to assist Jameson in his defense.
Celia's jurors, of course, were all male. They ranged in age from thirty-four to seventy-five and, with one exception, were married with children. All were farmers. Several were slave owners.
The prosecution's first witness, Jefferson Jones, described his conversation with Celia in the Callaway County jail. He told jurors Celia's account of the murder and how she had disposed of the body. On cross-examination, Jameson questioned Jones about what Celia had said about the sexual nature of her relationship to the deceased. Jones testified that he had "heard" Newsom raped her soon after her purchase from an Audrain County farmer--and that Celia told him that Newsom had continued to demand sex in the five years that followed. Jones also acknowledged that Celia had told him that she "did not intend to kill" Newsom, "only to hurt him."
Virginia Waynescot, Newsom's eldest daughter, testified next. She described the search for her father on direct examination, testifying, "I hunted on all of the paths and walks and every place for him," including "caves and along the creeks," but "I found no trace of him." Virginia faced questioning on cross-examination concerning Celia's possible motive for the killing. She admitted that Celia became pregnant ("took sick") in February "and had been sick ever since"-- too sick even to cook for the Newsom.
After Coffee Waynescot described for jurors his unknowing dumping of his grandfather's ashes, William Powell took the stand. Jameson cross-examined Powell vigorously, gaining admissions from the search party leader that he had threatened Celia with the loss of her children and with hanging to obtain her confession. Powell also testified that Celia had complained that Newsom repeatedly demanded sex and that the slave girl had approached other Newsom family members in a vain attempt to stop the rapes. Powell also admitted that Celia told him that her attack on Newsom came from desperation and that she only intended to injure, not kill, her master. After Powell's testimony, the prosecution called two doctors who identified the bone fragments found in Celia's cabin as those from an adult human. Following the doctors' testimony, the state rested its case.
Dr. James Martin, a Fulton physician, testified first for the defense. (Celia, as a slave, was not called as a witness. Under the existing law in Missouri and most other states, a criminal defendant could not--under "the interested party rule"--testify.) Jameson posed for Martin questions designed to suggest that Celia was incapable of committing the alleged crime without the aid of another person. The defense attorney asked whether a human body could be so completely destroyed in a simple fireplace in a span of only six or so hours, but the question met with a prosecution objection, which Judge Hall sustained. Jameson tried rephrasing the question a couple of different ways (e.g., "What, in your opinion as a scientific physician, would be the time required to destroy an adult human body?"), but fared no better with the objections and was forced to abandon that line of questioning.
The second and last defense witness, Thomas Shoatman, testified that, during her jail house interview, Celia had said that after she struck Newsom the first time he "he threw his hand up to catch her." The judge, however, again sustained a prosecution objection to the testimony, and jurors were instructed to ignore the evidence that suggested the second and fatal blow came only after Celia was physically threatened. Satisfied, perhaps, that the jury had at least heard the reasons for Celia's desperate act, Jameson rested his case.
Judge Hall's jury instructions made an acquittal all but impossible. He rejected all nine proposed defense instructions that addressed the question of motive or degree of culpability. Among those thrown out were instructions that would have allowed the jury to return a "not guilty" verdict if the jury believed that Celia killed Newsom in an attempt to fight off his sexual advances. The defense, for example, proposed that the jury be told that they could acquit Celia on a self-defense theory if she believed she was "in imminent danger of forced sexual intercourse." Instead of suggesting any viable self-defense argument, Hall instructed jurors that "the defendant had no right to kill [Newsom] because he came into her cabin and was talking to her about having intercourse with her or anything else." Given the threat the defense's proposed instructions presented to established understandings concerning the very minimal rights of slaves, Hall's pro-prosecution instructions should have come as no surprise. Neither, it is likely, was anyone in the Callaway County courthouse surprised when, on October 10, the jury quickly convicted Celia of first-degree murder.
Celia's attorneys appeared again in court the next day to move for a new trial, based on Judge Hall's evidentiary rulings during the proceeding and his allegedly erroneous instructions. Judge Hall took twenty-four hours to consider the defense motion, then rejected it and sentenced Celia to be "hanged by the neck until dead on the sixteenth day of November 1855." The defense motion that it be allowed to appeal the judge's ruling to the Missouri Supreme Court was granted.
In jail awaiting her execution, Celia delivered a stillborn child. As the date for her execution approached, still no word had come from Jefferson City on her appeal filed in the Missouri Supreme Court. The possibility that she might be hanged before her appeal was decided seemed ever more real to Celia's defense team and whoever else she might count among her supporters. Something had to be done.
On November 11, five days before her scheduled date with the gallows, Celia and another inmate were removed from the Callaway County jail, either with the assistance or the knowledge of her defense lawyers. The defense team, in a letter to Supreme Court Justice Abiel Leonard written less than a month after her escape, noted that Celia "was taken out [of jail] by someone" and that they felt "more than ordinary interest in behalf of the girl Celia" owing to the circumstances of her act. Celia was returned to jail--by whom it is not known--in late November, only after her scheduled execution date had passed. Following her return, Judge Hall set a new execution date of December 21--a date, the defense hoped, that would give the Supreme Court time to issue its decision on their appeal.
The Supreme Court ruled against Celia in her appeal. In their December 14 order, the state justices said they "thought it proper to refuse the prayer of the petitioner," having found "no probable cause for her appeal." The stay of execution, the justices wrote, is "refused."
Slave codes were laws that were established in each state to define the status of slaves and the rights of their owners.
Explain the purpose of slave codes and how they were implemented throughout the United States
- Slaves codes were state laws established to determine the status of slaves and the rights of their owners.
- Slave codes placed harsh restrictions on slaves’ already limited freedoms, often in order to preempt rebellion or escape, and gave slave owners absolute power over their slaves.
- Each state’s slave codes varied to suit the law of that particular region.
- Some codes prohibited slaves from possessing weapons, leaving their owner’s plantations without permission, and lifting a hand against a white person, even in self defense.
- Slave Codes: Slave codes were laws in each U.S. state defining the status of slaves and the rights of their owners and giving slave owners absolute power over their slaves.
Slaves codes were state laws established to regulate the relationship between slave and owner as well as to legitimize the institution of slavery. They were used to determine the status of slaves and the rights of their owners. In practice, these codes placed harsh restrictions on slaves’ already limited freedoms and gave slave owners absolute power over their slaves.
African slaves working in seventeenth-century Virginia, by an unknown artist, 1670: Slaves were kept tightly in control through the establishment of slave codes, or laws dictating their status and rights.
Many provisions were designed to control slave populations and preempt rebellion. For example, slaves were prohibited from reading and writing, and owners were mandated to regularly search slave residences for suspicious activity. Some codes prohibited slaves from possessing weapons, leaving their owner’s plantations without permission, and lifting a hand against a white person, even in self defense. Occasionally slave codes provided slaves with legal protection in the event of a legal dispute, but only at the discretion of the slave’s owner.
It was common for slaves to be prohibited from carrying firearms or learning to read, but there were often important variations in slave codes across states. For example, in Alabama, slaves were not allowed to leave the owner’s premises without written consent, nor were they allowed to trade goods among themselves. In Virginia, slaves were not permitted to drink in public within one mile of their master or during public gatherings. In Ohio, an emancipated slave was prohibited from returning to the state in which he or she had been enslaved.
Slave codes in the Northern colonies were less harsh than slave codes in the Southern colonies, but contained many similar provisions. These included forbidding slaves from leaving the owner’s land, forbidding whites from selling alcohol to slaves, and specifying punishment for attempting to escape.
Sample Slave Codes
The slave codes of the tobacco colonies (Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina, and Virginia) were modeled on the Virginia code established in 1667. The 1682 Virginia code prohibited slaves from possessing weapons, leaving their owner’s plantations without permission, and lifting a hand against a white person, even in self-defense. In addition, a runaway slave refusing to surrender could be killed without penalty.
South Carolina established its slave code in 1712, with the following provisions:
- Slaves were forbidden to leave the owner’s property unless they obtained permission or were accompanied by a white person.
- Any slave attempting to run away and leave the colony received the death penalty.
- Any slave who evaded capture for 20 days or more was to be publicly whipped for the first offense to be branded with the letter “R” on the right cheek for the second offense to lose one ear if absent for 30 days for the third offense and to be castrated for the fourth offense.
- Owners refusing to abide by the slave code were fined and forfeited ownership of their slaves.
- Slave homes were searched every two weeks for weapons or stolen goods. Punishment for violations included loss of ears, branding, nose-slitting, and death.
- No slave was allowed to work for pay plant corn, peas, or rice keep hogs, cattle, or horses own or operate a boat or buy, sell, or wear clothes finer than “Negro cloth.”
South Carolina’s slave code was revised in 1739 by means of the Negro Act, which included the following amendments:
- No slave could be taught to write, work on Sunday, or work more than 15 hours per day in summer and 14 hours in the winter.
- Willful killing of a slave exacted a fine of 700 pounds, and “passion” killing, 350 pounds.
- The fine for concealing runaway slaves was 1,000 pounds and a prison sentence of up to one year.
- A fine of 100 pounds and six months in prison were imposed for employing any black or slave as a clerk, for selling or giving alcoholic beverages to slaves, and for teaching a slave to read and write.
- Freeing a slave was forbidden, except by deed, and after 1820, only by permission of the legislature.
Regulations for slaves in the District of Columbia, most of whom were servants for the government elite, were in effect until the 1850s. Compared to some Southern codes, the District of Columbia’s regulations were relatively moderate. Slaves were allowed to hire their services and live apart from their masters, and free blacks were even allowed to live in the city and operate schools. The code was often used by attorneys and clerks who referred to it when drafting contracts or briefs.
Following the Compromise of 1850, the sale of slaves was outlawed within Washington D.C., and slavery in the District of Columbia ended in 1862 with nearly 3,000 slaveholders being offered a compensation. The district’s official printed slave code was issued only a month beforehand.
My Body, My Choice: Why the Principle of Bodily Autonomy Can Unite the Left
September 13, 2017
A woman dressed as the Statue of Liberty participates in a reproductive rights rally in New York City. Right now, the principle of bodily autonomy is most often invoked in the fight for reproductive justice. (Reuters / Henny Ray Abrams)
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In the face of the constant terrors brought about by the misrule of President Donald Trump and his GOP enablers, how do we organize politically? Come up with a laundry list of laudable policies? Abandon identity politics (as if there are any politics that aren’t about some form of identity)? Micro-target the needs of specific communities? The diversity of the American left is where we find our strength, but it presents challenges to organizers and sloganeers alike.
As an advocate for disability rights, I’ve been seeking ways to link my core issues to those of other groups—people who prioritize reproductive justice, racial justice, decriminalization of narcotics, queer rights, antipoverty measures, and so much more. Each of us exists at specific intersections of needs and concerns. To win, we must find ways to unite our struggles without erasing our differences. One place they connect: the need to defend bodily autonomy.
“Bodily autonomy,” as an abstract philosophical principle, dates back at least to the ancient Greek philosophers. Over the centuries, legal scholars and political philosophers have thought hard about the relationship between rights and laws, the individual and the group, and the sovereign state and the autonomous individual. In American activist circles, bodily autonomy is most often invoked around the fight for reproductive rights. But what I haven’t seen is an effort to harness this principle in a way that binds our seemingly separate movements together.
Let’s start with the disability piece. I’m the father of a boy with Down syndrome. My concerns for him and for the extended disabled community include opposition to institutionalization, forced sterilization and other eugenic practices, involuntary surgery, mandatory drug regimes, denial of rights for disabled parents, protection for disabled children from violent caregivers and teachers, and lack of accommodations for non-typical bodies. In each case, these issues require a government that refrains from coercing disabled bodies and protects disabled bodies from private coercion. Bodily autonomy extends over these seemingly quite disparate issues.
We’re Failing Our Test Run for the Age of CRISPR
Reproductive rights has long been the most obvious place where we must empower each individual to exercise sovereignty over their bodies. Time and again, “pro-life” Democrats demand to be included within the party. Despite Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez’s flirtation with that faction, our response should be clear. Everyone is entitled to their beliefs and to develop practices based on those beliefs, but the government may not regulate anyone’s access to full reproductive choice. A woman exercises sovereignty over her body and that’s not subject to debate, whether we are talking about abortion, birth control, or stopping sexual violence.
Reproductive rights and disability rights are often seen as being in tension, but they don’t have to be. As recently argued by attorney and autistic activist Shain Neumeier, history shows us that allowing the government to exercise control over reproduction always goes badly for disabled people. This is most famously visible in the history of eugenic sterilization of disabled men and women in the United States, but continues in more subtle battles about whether disabled people should be allowed to have sex at all. Disability rights and reproductive rights find common ground over resisting governmental intrusion into individual reproductive decisions. The abstract principle of bodily autonomy unites rather than fragments.
Bodily autonomy can extend into other rights campaigns, protecting, for example, Americans who identify as LGBTQ. The principle supports the basic right of transgender people to access surgery, hormones, and other medical care without discrimination. Moreover, while we’ve largely decriminalized non-heterosexual sexual practice, far-right theocrats always loom, looking to find new ways to legally punish homosexuality. Vice President Mike Pence allegedly supported conversion therapy when was he running for Congress in 2000 (Pence has denied this). Bodily autonomy gives us yet another way to articulate our opposition to this barbaric practice.
In fact, the rights of children emerge as particularly important, beyond the troubling issue of conversion therapy. Female genital mutilation, for example, runs against the right to control one’s own body, as does pain-based corporal punishment in all contexts.
Concerned about mass incarceration and the war on drugs? The principle works here too. You have the right to put substances in your body so long as you do so in a way that does not endanger others. We’re also going to need to decriminalize sex work as part of our respect for bodily autonomy. To all the libertarians disappointed in Attorney General Jeff Sessions, welcome back to the Democratic Party.
Black lives do matter. The basic human-rights and racial-justice framing remains paramount. But if we organize around the principle that a body is sovereign to itself, we are required to push back at stop-and-frisk and to limit the use of lethal force by cops. Black bodies deserve autonomy equal to all others’.
When we prioritize rights over one’s body, we have to defend universal access to healthy food, safe housing, and clean air and water. We fight against sexual assault and torture, and defend the rights of prisoners (including disabled prisoners, an issue of special concern to me).
There’s no use in pretending that coalition building is easy. No principle, including bodily autonomy, should be adhered to absolutely, as we’re going to need compassion and flexibility in order to coalesce. We live entangled lives filled with conflicting rights and choices. At the far limits where we argue extreme cases, basic principles often break down (think free speech or pacifism, for example). But a commitment to bodily autonomy could emerge as a core tenet of today’s left-wing movements.
In this difficult time, the forces afraid of change will try to divide us. If each activist group is fixated only on one slice of policy, then we can be pushed to compete over the scraps of reform. That’s not a recipe for electoral victory, let alone for justice.
Principles reveal the places where seemingly divergent campaigns overlap. We can join together around the fight for bodily autonomy and support specific policy initiatives that might otherwise seem outside our area of activism. It’s vital for a person chiefly focused on disability rights to labor for decriminalization of narcotics. Those who want to legalize marijuana should also join the struggle for reproductive freedom. These specific agendas are, and always have been, part of the same battle.
The complex leverage of concubines
Among the most complicated “relationships” during slavery were the intimate ones between enslaved women and their white enslavers. “These relations ran the gamut from rape and sodomy to romance, from chance encounters to obsession, concubinage and even ‘marriage,’” notes Brenda E. Stevenson, a professor of history at University of California, Los Angeles.
For the most part, scholars refer to the enslaved women in these relationships as 𠇌oncubines.” Often described as attractive mixed-race women who planters saw as desirable, many worked in the domestic realm, wore finer clothing than most enslaved women and experienced their first sexual encounter as a result of this “relationship.” History has recorded the names of many such women forced to be concubines𠅊mong them, Sally Hemings and her mother Elizabeth Hemings, Corinna Omohundro, Elizabeth Ramsey and her daughter Louisa Picquet, Julia Dickson and Elizabeth Keckley. Some shared their experiences in narratives, while others’ stories appear in the autobiographies of relatives or were buried in the private papers of their enslavers.
In North Carolina, Harriet Jacobs became one white man&aposs concubine, hid in a tiny attic garret for seven years and fled to the north, all to avoid being sexually exploited by her enslaver and to keep her children out of slavery. She later published a book called Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, becoming a prominent abolitionist and one of the first people to publicly broach the topic of sexual harassment of enslaved women.
We cannot know whether or not these exchanges were consensual, but we do know that enslaved women were usually the property of the men who exploited them, and this fact alone complicates our interpretation of this history. It’s hard to ignore the power dynamic involved, the often-significant age gap, the sometimes-incestuous connections or the varying social status of all people involved in these 𠇌onnections.” It’s even difficult to find appropriate nouns to describe them: “unions” and “relationships” seem presumptuous while “interactions” and 𠇎xchanges” seem benign, given that many concubines were sexually abused.
But despite the inherent power imbalance, some enslaved women used these forced interactions to find a better space for themselves, or secure freedom for their offspring. Some might have entered (assuming they could go into these willingly) these “unions” in order to escape the auction block, the field or other work spaces. But could enslaved women 𠇎nter” such relationships? Did they have a choice? If they did, could they exercise it? What was their negotiation angle?
Foremost was their capacity to bring new lives𠅊nd laborers—into the world. In an economy where black bodies were commodities, childbearing women were crucial economic multipliers. If they reliably added to their enslaver’s net worth, perhaps they could earn small privileges for themselves and their family—such as time off to nurse newborns or care for sick children, or visit a family member at a nearby plantation. And concubines who bore children to their white enslavers could sometimes leverage those deeper familial connections to secure better situations for themselves and their offspring, such as relief from certain work assignments, the chance to be educated and eventually set free. However, enslaved women who tried to leverage this power, and these interactions, had varying degrees of success. And these strategies were not always premeditated, as many enslaved women dreaded the idea of motherhood and preferred not to bring children into a world of captivity.
Lisa Picquet haggled for months with an enslaver, trying to purchase her mother&aposs freedom. She eventually got the price dropped from $1,000 to $900.
12 Years a Slave Examines the Old South’s Heart of Darkness
The audience leaving the theater after a recent screening of 12 Years a Slave looked deeply shaken. When asked about their intense reaction to the film, some described feeling as though they had just experienced slavery. The movie felt believable, they reported, due not only to the caption indicating its basis in fact, but because the settings and characters looked authentic. Director Steve McQueen succeeded in connecting emotions to history, making viewers care about Solomon Northup's sudden descent into slavery.
Apologists may dismiss the gut-wrenching picture of human bondage drawn in 12 Years a Slave as over-the-top, Hollywood melodrama-arguing that master-slave relations were never as bad as the movie suggests-but McQueen has a convenient response: this is a movie based substantially on Solomon Northup's 1853 narrative, Twelve Years a Slave . At least two historians, Sue Eakin and Joseph Logsdon, have confirmed that Northup presented a remarkably accurate picture of antebellum slavery and plantation society near the Red River in Louisiana.
As indicated in both the book and movie, Solomon Northup lived as a free man with his wife and children in Saratoga Springs, New York. In 1841 two visitors tricked him into traveling to Washington, DC, to earn money in a circus. Once Northup was in the nation's capital, the men drugged him, marketed him as a slave, and earned several hundred dollars for their crime. Northup was shipped to the slave auctions of New Orleans and thereafter spent 12 years laboring in the cotton and sugar plantations of Louisiana until a white carpenter from Canada sent a communication to Northup's friends in New York. After some delay, help arrived. In 1853 Solomon Northup returned to his family as a free man.
With assistance from legal authorities, Northup endeavored to make his kidnappers pay for their crime. He failed to win convictions in a court of law, but succeeded in a broader sense. Twelve Years a Slave , written with assistance from David Wilson, a New York lawyer, became enormously popular, selling 30,000 copies. Twelve Years a Slave educated Americans about slave life in the Deep South and contributed to the growth of anti-slavery sentiment before the Civil War.
Steve McQueen's movie feels more like an unrelentingly hellish view of slavery than does Northup's book, which depicts the occasional opportunities slaves had for relief from the brutal plantation regimen-a few days during the Christmas holidays for rest, celebration, and good eating. Talented slaves could experience small degrees of liberty. On Sundays, Northup visited other locales, played his fiddle for whites at social events, and kept some of the earnings. Although McQueen portrays some of these activities, his two-hour movie cannot present the full range of observations that Northup offered in his 336-page narrative. McQueen's principal message concerns the horrors of slavery, both physical and psychological. The director cannot be faulted in this choice, for virtually all of the tragic scenes in his production are documented in Northup's book.
Much of the book and movie are devoted to the ten years that Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) lived and worked on the plantation of Edwin Epps, played by Michael Fassbender as a deranged sadist. In the book, Northup attributes much of Epps's violence to bouts with the bottle, but also provides enough evidence to give a director license to explore a more psychological interpretation. The movie shows Epps frequently using the whip or urging its use, a portrayal Northup's narrative supports: "It was rarely that a day passed by without one or more whippings." A "delinquent" slave who failed to bring in the requisite weight of cotton "was taken out, stripped, made to lie on the ground, face downwards, when he received a punishment proportional to the offense." McQueen dramatizes another disturbing aspect of Epps's behavior. Northup wrote about Epps's sexual exploitation of a talented slave woman, Patsey. "Her back bore the scars of a thousand stripes," wrote Northup, "because it had fallen her lot to be the slave of a licentious master and a jealous mistress."
The shortcoming in McQueen's depiction of slave life lies elsewhere. The movie's persistent focus fails to capture the small ways that slaves influenced their situations, managing to establish degrees of social and economic autonomy. Some discovered ways to negotiate relationships with masters and overseers on their own terms, and the slave community sustained its members during the harshest periods of Louisiana's cotton and sugar booms. Northup's book presents a more complex picture of slave life than does the movie, which concentrates sharply on themes of oppression and victimization.
Still, 12 Years a Slave offers many teachable moments for historians. Attention to details in the story can open opportunities for classroom discussion.
In the film's early scenes, Northup and other chattel are shipped from Washington, DC, to the market in New Orleans as part of the interstate slave trade that historian Ira Berlin has called the "Second Middle Passage." Those relocations created profound disruption in the lives of more than a million slaves. In the movie's scenes of a slave market in New Orleans, McQueen characterizes the slaves as helpless victims, never suggesting the degree of agency over their lives that some historians have argued slaves achieved. In Soul by Soul (1999), for instance, Walter Johnson shows the ways that slaves sometimes manipulated relationships in the marketplace, influencing potential buyers through facial expressions, body language, and responses to questions.
McQueen's movie gives a brief nod to Eugene D. Genovese's influential book Roll, Jordan, Roll (1974). Genovese argued that religion created an important survival mechanism for the slaves. Near the end of the film, Northup suffers emotional pain while members of the slave community sing the spiritual " Roll, Jordan, Roll. " Gradually, Northup finds comfort in the music's message and adds his robust voice to the singing.
In the book and in the movie, Northup's first master is a kindly man, who treated Northup and his other slaves relatively well. Yet, rather than diminish Northup's hunger for freedom, Master Ford's generosity stoked it. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave provided a memorable and similar commentary on this idea: "I will give Mr. Freeland the credit of being the best master I ever had, till I became my own master."
Historians have long asked why so many slaveless whites, victims too of a political and economic system that favored slaveholders, defended the "peculiar institution." McQueen's film suggests that poor whites felt elevated socially through their oppressive behavior toward blacks. Northup believed southern whites acted with excessive aggression in their relationships with each other because they had long been in the habit of beating slaves. Slavery fostered a culture of violence, a fact that historians have documented extensively.
Audiences may be curious about events that occurred after the film ends. Information about Northup's last years is incomplete. He purchased property with the $3,000 he earned from sales of his book and lived for several years with his wife and son in the home of his son-in-law. The date of Northup's death is not known. Samuel Bass, the Canadian carpenter who was instrumental in Northup's rescue, remained in Louisiana. Whites living near the plantation where Northup worked did not learn about Bass's role in Northup's freedom because Northup refused to reveal Bass's name to the press. Bass died in 1853 at the home of a free black woman.
In 1863, when Union troops invaded the region of Louisiana where Northup worked, a New York lieutenant recorded in a diary that his men were in the vicinity of "old Epp's plantation," a man "made famous by the circumstance of his owning Solomon Northup." Later, when Union troops pulled out, 4,000 of the region's slaves quickly chose freedom. They marched off with the Union army.
The unique character of Northup's narrative made his book an unusually attractive subject for cinematic development. Most of the popular slave narratives of the antebellum period describe an individual's escape from slavery to freedom. Northup's case involved the unusual trajectory of freedom to slavery. Audiences can easily relate to the protagonist's situation, since Northup is depicted early in the movie as a proud, hard-working family man. The setting is 1841, but viewers cannot miss the connections to middle-class life in our times. McQueen's drama follows Northup as he descends into the hell of slavery.
Hollywood has produced several history-based films about wars and famous people in recent years, but has largely overlooked the subject of American slavery. Now, with the screening of 12 Years a Slave , curiosity about slavery in the antebellum South has been refreshed. Commentators on radio and television have been discussing the veracity and relevance of the portrayals in McQueen's film. Several movie reviewers have suggested 12 Years a Slave could receive several Oscars. Interest in Solomon Northup's once-obscure book is now intense. Electronic and print copies of his 1853 narrative are selling briskly. In recent weeks executives at the History Channel have announced they will sponsor a remake of the famous 1977 television miniseries Roots . The popularity of 12 Years a Slave evidently influenced that decision. These reactions suggest that Steve McQueen's searing depiction has engaged the public's interest in a tragic chapter from American history.
Rise of the Democrats and the Advent of Jim Crow
In 1870, the conservative Democrats gained control of the North Carolina legislature and forced Superintendent Ashley out. His replacement, Alexander McIver, did not believe in integrated schools, nor did he seem to care about African American education in general. Democrats immediately adopted an amendment mandating segregated schools and enacted legislation that transferred public school funding from a state tax to a county tax, crushing the previous Republican system. 59 The efforts of white supremacy within the Democratic party were gaining steam.
School segregation was a topic of heated debate during the Constitutional Convention of 1875. White Republicans abandoned African American legislators in the state General Assembly, leaving them no choice but to acquiesce in order to preserve the rights they had. 60 White Republicans pushed instead for &ldquomutuality,&rdquo essentially arguing that African Americans should have control over their communities separate from whites. Mutuality later morphed into a Democratic argument for segregation. Voters ratified the new state constitution in 1876, legally mandating segregated schools. 61
In the early to mid-1880s, the education system in North Carolina remained ineffective for both African Americans and poor whites. Nearly half the state&rsquos population was illiterate. Racial and class conflict bred a general animosity towards education, especially publicly funded education. Whites, in particular, did not want their taxes to help fund black education, feeling, as the Greenville Eastern Reflector wrote in 1887, that educating blacks &ldquoruined a field hand.&rdquo 62 Sharecropping had, in effect, replaced slavery and guaranteed a reliable black labor force, but education could threaten everything.
Dayton Industrial School in Carthage, Moore County around 1880s.
In 1881, the federal government began offering aid to states that met certain requirements under the Blair Bill, which &ldquocalled for a direct appropriation from the national treasury, to be distributed to the states based on illiteracy.&rdquo 63 The Republican-controlled state senate championed a series of Blair&rsquos bills over the next decade, but the Democrat-controlled house blocked their efforts every time. While Democrats did support the idea of federal aid for education, they did not believe the federal government should place requirements on that aid, especially tax increases. 64
The most ardent supporters of federal aid for education were African American legislators and educators. For example, James E. O&rsquoHara, an African American state legislator, introduced companion legislation to the Blair Bill in 1886 that died in committee. African American educator and editor Charles N. Hunter convinced Blair himself to speak on the subject of education at the Negro Fair in Raleigh on November 11, 1886. In his speech Blair proclaimed that freedmen needed &ldquoland and education&rdquo and that &ldquothe first quality of a freeman is knowledge, for knowledge is power.&rdquo 65
Political debates over federal aid raged throughout the 1880s meanwhile, the state system of educational funding through taxes became highly unequal. In 1881, the General Assembly passed a bill providing property taxes from white landowners to fund white schools and from black landowners to fund black schools. Because whites made up the vast majority of landowners in North Carolina, this bill was a boon to white schools. For example, in 1886 in New Bern, per-pupil spending at the local public schools was $11 per white student, but $5 per black student. 66 Said the Democratic Raleigh News and Observer: &ldquoEach race should be responsible for the education of its children.&rdquo 67
Though segregation and Jim Crow continued to strengthen in the state, in 1886 the state Supreme Court found the 1881 tax law unconstitutional, citing the discrepancy in public education funding based upon race. 68 White backlash over this decision reverberated throughout the state, as shown when a local paper in New Bern said,
&ldquoA constitution that will not allow the white people to tax themselves for the benefit of their schools, after they have contributed liberally to negro schools, is not the constitution that the white people of North Carolina want.&rdquo 69
During the gubernatorial campaign of 1900, Charles B. Aycock tapped into the racism of white North Carolinians and used it to his political advantage. Aycock, a Democrat who had been lauded as the state&rsquos &ldquoeducation governor,&rdquo ran on a platform of black voter disenfranchisement and universal education. After his electoral triumph in 1900, Aycock and the Democrats soon etched obstacles to voting into the state constitution.
Charles Brantley Aycock, North Carolina governor 1901-1905.
Indeed, Aycock was no progressive southerner when it came to education his intentions were directly connected to suffrage and white supremacy. According to North Carolina&rsquos grandfather clause, all white males whose ancestors could vote in 1867 would be allowed to vote, whether they were literate or not. Most African Americans could not satisfy such criteria, since free blacks were banned from voting in North Carolina in 1835, while newly freedpeople did not gain the right to vote until 1868. Moreover, any white man who could read and write by 1908 would be able to vote thereafter, yet black men faced more difficult challenges to voting, such as the threat of white violence, even if they were literate. Thus, Aycock began advocating education for poor whites in order to ease illiterate whites&rsquo fears of disenfranchisement. 70
The Aycock administration also changed the tax code as it related to education funding, placing a higher tax burden on African Americans while disproportionately allocating funds towards white schools. James Y. Joyner, a staunch ally of Aycock and the North Carolina superintendent of public instruction from 1902 to 1919, traveled the state advising local districts on how to allocate education funds to favor whites. In one letter to a local superintendent, Joyner wrote: &ldquoIn most places it does not take more than one fourth as much to run the negro schools as it does to run the white schools for about the same number of children. The salaries paid to teachers are very probably much smaller&hellipif quietly managed, the negroes will give no trouble about it.&rdquo 71
James Y. Joyner.
The gap between black and white public education in North Carolina increased dramatically. From 1904 to 1920, annual spending per white school averaged $3,442 but only averaged $500 for black schools. School terms were longer in white majority counties that levied local taxes than in black majority counties. For example, in 1914 the average term for locally taxed white counties was 137 days, compared to 120 days in black counties. 72 Funds for rural black schools in North Carolina often went instead to rural white schools: Charles More, field organizer and inspector of rural schools in North Carolina at the time, wrote the State Department of Education that,
&ldquothousands of dollars earmarked for black education had actually been spent to build schools, hire additional teachers, or increase the school term for whites.&rdquo 73
Funding discrepancies created daunting obstacles for African American teachers and students. Most African American teachers were women because their lack of education, plus the opportunity to make more money in industrial and agricultural labor, steered many African American men away from the profession. Even educated black women had few professional options, so many became educators, despite significant challenges. Historian Valinda Littlefield found that African American teachers in North Carolina were paid an average of $20 less per month than white teachers, regardless of education or experience. Black teachers faced much larger classroom sizes and were given highly inadequate resources compared to white teachers. 74 According to one contemporaneous African American teacher in North Carolina, named Lola Solice,
&ldquo[T]he only supplies black teachers received from the county were a broom and a bucket [&hellip.] [T]extbooks for the black schools were rented by African American parents, and they were always second hand books from the white schools.&rdquo 75
Conditions were so poor that white northern philanthropists, pitched by Booker T. Washington and other black southern education leaders, began to send aid to southern black schools.
5 Creole Slave Revolt
The Creole was a slave ship headed for New Orleans with a &ldquocargo&rdquo of 135 slaves&mdashbut it would never make it to port, because there was a real-life Django on board. Madison Washington was the ship&rsquos cook and a man who&rsquod escaped from slavery once before. He&rsquod fled to Canada, but returned to Virginia to rescue his wife, Susan. Unfortunately, he was captured and sold, but he had every intention of finishing his mission. As the Creole sailed through the Atlantic, Washington began making escape plans with 18 other slaves.
On the night of the rebellion, the chief mate suspected that something was going on. He confronted Washington, but the cook fought back, sparking the revolt. The rest of the slaves rushed their captors, and in the struggle, one slave and one slave owner were killed, and the captain was wounded. The slaves were now in control of the ship, and unlike the captives aboard the Amistad, these guys were experts in slave law, sailing, and geography. They knew their best chance was to sail for the Bahamas, a British colony where slavery was illegal. They also knew about navigation so they weren&rsquot going to be fooled like the Amistad slaves. They ordered the crew to take them to the Bahamas or be thrown overboard. The sailors chose wisely.
When they arrived in the Bahamas, all the slaves were freed except for Washington and his 18 conspirators, who were tried for mutiny. Fortunately, they were found not guilty and released. While the incident led the American government to create the Negro Seaman Act of 1842, which made life harder for black sailors, the story had a happy ending for Madison Washington. In a cliche straight from a Hollywood movie, it turned out that, unbeknownst to Washington, his wife had been a slave aboard the Creole the entire time, and the two were finally reunited.
What degree of choice did slaves have over their sexual autonomy? - History
The Meaning of Freedom:
Black and White Responses to the End of Slavery
Confederate defeat and the end of slavery brought far-reaching changes in the lives of all Southerners. The destruction of slavery led inevitably to conflict between blacks seeking to breathe substantive meaning into their freedom by asserting their independence from white control, and whites seeking to retain as much as possible of the old order.
The meaning of freedom itself became a point of conflict in the Reconstruction South. Former slaves relished the opportunity to flaunt their liberation from the innumerable regulations of slavery.
Immediately after the Civil War, they sought to give meaning to freedom by reuniting families separated under slavery, establishing their own churches and schools, seeking economic autonomy, and demanding equal civil and political rights .
Slave Resistance and Uprisings
The Stono Rebellion
One notable uprising that became known as the Stono Rebellion took place in South Carolina in September of 1739. A literate slave named Jemmy led a large group of slaves in an armed insurrection against white colonists, killing several before militia stopped them. The militia suppressed the rebellion after a battle in which both slaves and militiamen were killed, and the remaining slaves were executed or sold to the West Indies.
Jemmy is believed to have been taken from the Kingdom of Kongo, an area where the Portuguese had introduced Catholicism. Other slaves in South Carolina may have had a similar background: Africa-born and familiar with whites. If so, this common background may have made it easier for Jemmy to communicate with the other slaves, enabling them to work together to resist their enslavement even though slaveholders labored to keep slaves from forging such communities.
In the wake of the Stono Rebellion, South Carolina passed a new slave code in 1740 called An Act for the Better Ordering and Governing of Negroes and Other Slaves in the Province—also known as the Negro Act of 1740. This law imposed new limits on slaves’ behavior, prohibiting slaves from assembling, growing their own food, learning to write, and traveling freely.
The New York Conspiracy Trials of 1741
Eighteenth-century New York City contained many different ethnic groups, and conflicts among them created strain. In addition, one in five New Yorkers was a slave, and tensions ran high between slaves and the free population, especially in the aftermath of the Stono Rebellion. These tensions burst forth in 1741.
That year, 13 fires broke out in the city, one of which reduced the colony’s Fort George to ashes. Ever fearful of an uprising among enslaved New Yorkers, the city’s whites spread rumors that the fires were part of a massive slave revolt in which slaves would murder whites, burn the city, and take over the colony. The Stono Rebellion was only a few years in the past, and throughout British America, fears of similar incidents were still fresh. Searching for solutions and convinced slaves were the principal danger, nervous British authorities interrogated almost 200 slaves and accused them of conspiracy. Rumors that Roman Catholics had joined the suspected conspiracy and planned to murder Protestant inhabitants of the city only added to the general hysteria. Very quickly, 200 people were arrested, including a large number of the city’s slave population.
After a quick series of trials at City Hall, known as the New York Conspiracy Trials of 1741, the government executed 17 New Yorkers. Thirteen black men were publicly burned at the stake, while the others (including four whites) were hanged. Seventy slaves were sold to the West Indies. Little evidence exists to prove that an elaborate conspiracy, like the one white New Yorkers imagined, actually existed. The events of 1741 in New York City illustrate the racial divide in British America, where panic among whites spurred great violence against and repression of the feared slave population. In the end, the Conspiracy Trials furthered white dominance and power over enslaved New Yorkers.
The New York Conspiracy Trials of 1741: In the wake of a series of fires throughout New York City, rumors of a slave revolt led authorities to convict and execute 30 people, including 13 black men who were publicly burned at the stake.