Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Just Finished Reading

The practice of slavery created many complications. Not the least of these were the children produced by relationships between slave owners and their female property. Certainly many of these associations were forced, as they were the creation of an unequal power relationship, but possibly others evolved into a more common law-type bond. Whatever the union between slave and owner, it is obvious that a number of these slaveholders felt an obligation to their mixed-race offspring, and sometimes toward the mothers, in that they sometimes left wills freeing and providing them with property or monetary gifts.

Fathers of Conscience: Mixed-Race Inheritance in the Antebellum South, by Dr. Bernie D. Jones, a law professor at Suffolk University who earned her PhD in history at the University of Virginia, explores a number of the court cases in which the wills of slaveowners who made provisions for their mixed-race children were contested, most often by the white members of the owners' families.

Jones explains that interracial relationships were tolerated in the Old South so long as they remained secret and hidden. When owners took measures to provide for their illegitimate children and their slave mothers is often when things got problematical. Judges often had to decide whether to respect the desires of the deceased owner or face a potentially hostile community who did not want free blacks in their neighborhoods. The author contends that judges that decided these cases normally described the men in these illicit relationships as three types; as "righteous fathers" who were attempting to right a wrong, "vulnerable old men" who had been duped or seduced by their slave women in order to receive favorable treatment, or "degraded creatures" who deserved no respect for destroying community norms.

I naturally found chapter three: "Justice and Mercy in the Kentucky Court of Appeals," especially interesting. The author found that in this upper-South border state judges were more willing to rule in favor of conveying the will as the owner had stipulated. Justice George Robertson, who was a focus of my post on March 4 about fugitive slaves, comes in for a thorough examination. It is interesting to see that Robertson was consistent in following the law, whether it was upholding a slaveowners last will and testament to provide for his mixed-race children or returning a fugitive slave. Seemingly, to him, the law was above both community pressure and humanitarian sentiment. Also intriguing was her finding that after 1850 Kentucky instituted more stringent manumission laws, which made it more difficult to free one's slaves via a will. Jones found that judicial leniency was not the case in the deeper South states. In examining South Carolina and Mississippi mixed-race inheritance cases, judges more often overruled the wills in the face of community demands to limit the free black population. The thinking in these states was that free blacks would become a criminal element, a burden on society and demoralize those blacks still held as slaves.

As a lead-in to her chapter on South Carolina, the author used a primary source quote from the citizens of Barnwell District who petitioned the state legislature and that I found fascinating. It was written in 1860 and stated, "We the undersigned citizens of the State of South Carolina, humbly petition your honourable body's [sic] to take into consideration the fact that white men in this community are frequently found living in open connection with negro and mulatto women, in a manner disreputable to the neighborhood in which they reside, setting a pernicious example to our youth, and assailing the institutions of slavery through the process of tolerated amalgamation. We therefore suggest to your Honorable bodies that you make it by enactment at this Session of the Legislature an indictable offense for any white man, resident in this State, to live in open connection with a negro or mulatto woman, as his wife, whether married or unmarried." It was these citizens' intention to defend racial slavery by limiting the opportunity of mixed-race children that could potentially become free people of color and property owners, and thus attain some measure of economic equality (or possibly superiority) to neighboring whites.

I think anyone interested in the master-slave dynamic in the antebellum South would find this book a very interesting read. On a scale of 1 to 5, I give Fathers of Conscience a 4.25.

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