Like the patriarchs of old our men live all in one house with their wives and their concubines, and the mulattoes one
sees in every family exactly resemble the white children--and every lady tells you who is the father of all the mulatto
children in everybody's household, but those in her own she seems to think drop from the clouds, or pretends so to think.
Regardless of the legal criteria established for being a white person, it is a fact that many white people remained
enslaved under the partus rule. A most telling observation is that of Mary Boykin Chesnut, a South ern aristocrat and
wife of James Chesnut, Jr., U. S. Senator from South Carolina. An entry in her diary for March, 1861 reads, "Like the
patriarchs of old our men live all in one house with their wives and their concubines, and the mulattoes one sees in every
family exactly resemble the white children--and every lady tells you who is the father of all the mulatto children in
everybody's household, but those in her own she seems to think drop from the clouds, or pretends so to think."
Particularly noteworthy is her choice of the word "exactly." Imagine how it must have been for plantation mistresses to
see day in and day out white slave children who looked the same as their own white children. Worth noting here is that
when Ben Ames Williams edited Chesnut's diary for publication in 1905, he changed the word "exactly" to the word
"partly."From the wording of the original quotation, one may infer that it was quite common in antebellum households
to have white children and white slave children who all looked like each other.
Other accounts of white slaves were published during or after the Civil War. Reverend John H. Aughey lived in the
South for eleven years and had both white and black congregations. He told of preaching to slaves, some with red hair
and blue eyes, a third of whom were just as white as he was. Dr. Alexander Milton Ross attended a slave auction in New
Orleans where many of the slaves were "much whiter" than the white people who were there. In Lexington, Kentucky,
Reverend Calvin Fairbank described a woman who was going to be sold at a slave auction as "one of the most beautiful
and exquisite young girls one could expect to find in freedom or slavery....being only one sixty-fourth African." After
the Union had won the Battle of New Bern, North Carolina in 1862, Major General Burnside assigned Vincent Coyler to
be superintendent of the poor. Coyler expressed disbelief at the complexions he saw. "The light color of many of the
refugees is a marked peculiarity of the colored people of Newbern. I have had men and women apply for work who were
so white that I could not believe they had a particle of negro blood in their veins."
The memoirs of Chesnut, Aughey, Ross, Fairbank, and Coyler were published during or after the Civil War. Many other
accounts were published all through the period before the Civil War in which travelers and visitors to the South made
note of the white slaves they saw on plantations and at slave auctions. Their expectation, of course, was to see slaves
who were black or brown. On seeing white slaves for the first time, they often expressed surprise at how white those
slaves really were. All of the accounts which follow were readily available to antebellum readers in the North.
John Ferdinand Dalziel Smyth was an Englishman who visited America during the early 1770s and had his memoirs
published in 1784. While in Maryland, he took notice of "female slaves, who are now become white by their mixture.
There are at this time numbers of beautiful girls, many of them as fair as any living, who are absolutely slaves in every
sense." Another eighteenth-century traveler was Jacques Pierre Brissot de Warville, a Frenchman who came to America
in 1788. While visiting a school for Negro children in Philadelphia, he saw "an octoroon, whom it was impossible to tell
from a white boy."
Dr. Jesse Torrey mused on his interesting first experience with white slavery. His book, published in 1817, contains the
following account: "While at a public house, in Fredericktown [Maryland], there came...a decently dressed white man,
of quite a light complexion, in company with one who was totally black. After they went away, the landlord observed
that the white man was a slave. I asked him, with some surprise, how that could be possible? To which he replied, that
he was a descendant, by female ancestry, of an African slave. He also stated, that not far from Fredericktown, there was
a slave estate, on which there were several white females of as fair and elegant appearance as white ladies in general,
held in legal bondage as slaves." Several years later, an English traveler in the South named Isaac Holmes spoke of the
promiscuous sexual intercourse white men had with slave women which ultimately produced white slaves. Holmes
made the observation but did not pass judgment. "To an Englishman, it may appear strange, that a white man, of any
feeling, should be willing to become the father of slaves; but he does not look through American spectacles; for in the
United States there are many, who, by education and association, are gentlemen, that are guilty of this shameful practice;
and the consequence is, that in some instances there are slaves who are perfectly white."
Captain Frederick Marryat was a British naval officer and novelist who traveled throughout the South in 1837 and 1838.
His account at Louisville, Kentucky, is noteworthy. "I saw a girl, about twelve years old, carrying a child; and, aware
that in a slave State the circumstance of white people hiring themselves out to service is almost unknown, I inquired of
her if she were a slave. To my astonishment, she replied in the affirmative. She was as fair as snow, and it was
impossible to detect any admixture of blood from her appearance." In another experience with white slavery, Marryat
came across an advertisement for a local runaway slave which read in part, "Said boy is in a manner white, would be
passed by and taken for a white man. His hair is long and straight, like that of a white person." Being a foreigner and
not understanding the concept of a "one drop" mulatto, Marryat commented, "The expression of, 'in a manner white,'
would imply that there was some shame felt in holding a white man in bondage." The expression in the ad was a
description, not a value judgment.
Reverend Francis Hawley of Connecticut resided in North and South Carolina for fourteen years. His thought-provoking account from 1839 offers this telling observation: "It is so common for the female slaves to have white children, that little or nothing is ever said about it. Very few inquiries are made as to who the father is."
That same year, Lydia Maria Child wrote,
"A Missouri newspaper proves that a white man may, without a mistake, be adjudged a slave. "A case of a slave sueing for his freedom, was tried a few days since in Lincoln county, of which the following is a brief statement of particulars: A youth of about ten years of age sued for his freedom on the ground that he was a free white person.... Upon his trial before the jury, he was examined by the jury and two learned physicians, all of whom concurred in the opinion that very little, if any, trace of negro blood could be discovered by any of the external appearances. All the physiological marks of distinction, which characterize the African descent, had disappeared. His skin was fair, his hair soft, straight, fine and white, his eyes blue, but rather disposed to the hazel-nut color; nose prominent, the lips small, his head round and well formed, forehead high and prominent, ears large, the tibia of the leg straight, and feet hollow. Notwithstanding these evidences of his claims, he was proved to be the descendant of a mulatto woman, and that his progenitors on the mother's side had been and still were slaves: consequently he was found to be a slave."
The narrative of the fugitive slave William W. Brown was published in 1847. Brown related how slaves in Hannibal, Missouri were boarded on a vessel bound for the New Orleans slave market. One among them was "a beautiful girl, apparently about twenty years of age, perfectly white, with straight light hair and blue eyes. But it was not the whiteness of her skin that created such a sensation among those who gazed upon her--it was her almost unparalleled beauty. She had been on the boat but a short time, before the attention of all the passengers, including the ladies, had been called to her, and the common topic of conversation was about the beautiful slave-girl."
Fredrika Bremer was a Swedish novelist and humanitarian who visited the United States from 1849 to 1851. During a trip to Georgia, she attended a slave market in Augusta and commented on a number of children she saw there. "Many of these children were fair mulattoes, and some of them very pretty. One young girl of twelve was so white, that I should have supposed her to belong to the white race; her features, too, were also those of the whites. The slave-keeper told us that the day before, another girl, still fairer and handsomer, had been sold for fifteen hundred dollars." Elsewhere she observed "a pretty little white boy of about seven years of age sitting among some tall negro girls. The child had light hair, the most lovely light brown eyes, and cheeks as red as roses; he was, nevertheless, the child of a slave mother, and was to be sold as a slave. His price was three hundred and fifty dollars." Also seen were "the so-called 'fancy girls,' for fancy purchasers. They were handsome fair mulattoes, some of them almost white girls." Traveling the United States about the same time as Bremer was an Englishman named Edward Sullivan. As a foreign visitor in the South, Sullivan
was uncomfortable with slavery not being based on color. "I have seen slaves, men and women, sold at New Orleans, who were very nearly as white as myself.... Although it is not actually worse to buy or sell a man or woman who is nearly white, than it is to sell one some shades darker, yet there is something in it more revolting to one's feelings."
Other accounts from the 1850s also tell of experiences at slave auctions. While in Richmond, an English barrister named Charles Richard Weld observed a woman and her two little children being offered for sale. The three were to be sold together. "She was a remarkably handsome mulatto," Weld wrote, "and her children were nearly, if not fully, as white as
the fairest Americans....but as no eloquence on the part of the auctioneer could raise them above 1100 dollars, the lot was withdrawn. I was informed the woman alone would have realised more than this amount, but there is a strong aversion against purchasing white children." (This aversion was not universal as illustrated by the Bremer account above
and others.) During his visit to New Orleans, Reverend Philo Tower attended a slave auction and observed a young woman who was "one of the most beautiful, I think, I ever saw, aged from sixteen to twenty. Though thinly and cheaply dressed, none could be insensible to her beauty. She was much whiter than many, nay, than most of the Anglo-Saxon
ladies; of medium size, well developed, beautiful black hair, black and sparkling eyes that pierced wherever they darted....rudely drawing the covering from her neck and shoulders, [the auctioneer] exhibited a bust as plump and purely white as the snow-tinged image of Venus." She was sold for two thousand dollars.
Charles Mackay, a Scottish journalist, visited a slave auction where he had the following memorable encounter:
"One man--who to my inexperienced eyes seemed as white as myself, and whom I at once put down in my own mind as an Irishman, of the purest quality of the county of Cork--got up from his seat as I passed, and asked me to buy him."
"I am a good gardener, your honour," said he, with an unmistakable brogue. "I am also a bit of a carpenter, and can look after the horses, and do any sort of odd job about the house."
"But you are joking," said I; "you are an Irishman?"
"My father was an Irishman," he said. At this moment the slave-dealer and owner of the depot came up. "Is there not a
mistake here?" I inquired. "This is a white man." "His mother was a nigger," he replied. "We have sometimes much whiter men for sale than he is. Look at his hair and lips. There is no mistake about him."
Mackay was a Scotsman who had experienced a virtually white, brogue-speaking Irishman as a slave. Feeling disgusted, he related that he "longed to get into the open air to breathe the purer atmosphere." A similar reaction to that of Mackay was had by a Mr. C. (identified only by this first initial) who visited a slave auction in Georgia with his friend, New England physician Charles G. Parsons. The following is their particularly eloquent and telling account:
"We saw a handbill in the bar-room in which forty-four female slaves were advertised for sale. Stepping out into the street, we found those girls sitting on the sidewalks. At the farther end of the row was a very beautiful girl, apparently perfectly white, and neatly dressed. The moment Mr. C. looked at her, he exclaimed, 'What do you think that white girl is
sitting there with those negroes for?' "
"I presume she is a slave, sir," said I.
"That can't be!" replied Mr. C.,-- "just look at her! Why I never saw a prettier girl in my life."
Now Mr. C. had heard that likely quadroons are held as slaves and sold in the market; but he had never believed that a young lady, so entirely American, so elegant in form and feature, so intellectual in appearance, with pure blue eyes, and the perfect red and white Caucassian complexion, was in the same degraded condition as the African girl....he was unprepared to believe it, when I said to him, "she is a slave, sir!"...Still incredulous, Mr. C. stepped up to the drover and asked, "Is that white girl a slave, sir?"
"That's not a white girl; she is a nigger, sir," replied the drover...
"What do you ask for her?" inquired Mr. C.
"I was offered 1800 dollars for her last night. I want 2000 for her."...
"Why can that white girl--"
"That isn't a white girl; that's a nigger, sir, I tell you," interrupted the drover, contemptuously. At the same time he
removed a woolen cap from her head, which exposed the light brown hair, and added, "you see her hair is waved."
This is regarded as evidence that African blood is mingled with the white. Mr. C. had now become excited, and he exclaimed-- "Well, then, can that white nigger do more work than one of your black niggers, that you ask so much more for her?"
"Oh no;" replied the drover,--and perceiving that Mr. C. did not comprehend the superior value of female beauty to physical ability in a slave, he added-- "but you know she is a high priced fancy girl."
"By heavens!" vociferated Mr. C., "'t is too bad!" and turning to me with his clinched hands raised towards the heavens, he added, "I will never say another word against the abolitionists, so long as God lets me live!"
With so many white slaves throughout the South, it is not surprising that curiosity would exist as to their ability to escape North and there pass into white society. Such an inquiry was made by Frederick Law Olmsted, a reporter for the New York Times who traveled extensively throughout the slave states. During a visit to a plantation in the spring of 1854, he recorded a dialogue he had with two overseers. One of them pointed out a slave while she was working in the
field and said,
"That one is pure white; you see her hair?" (It was straight and sandy.) ... It was not uncommon, he said, to see slaves so white that they could not be easily distinguished from pure-blooded whites....
"Now," said I, "if that girl should dress herself well, and run away, would she be suspected of being a slave? (I could see nothing myself by which to distinguish her, as she passed, from an ordinary poor white girl.)"
"Oh, yes; you might not know her if she got to the North, but any of us would know her."
"By her language and manners."
"But if she had been brought up as [a] house-servant?"
"Perhaps not in that case."
"The other thought there would be no difficulty; you could always see a slave girl quail when you looked in her eyes."
Olmsted also took note of white slaves in a group of people of color he saw in Richmond who were dressed in Sunday finery. "Nearly a fourth part seemed to me to have lost all African peculiarity of feature.... There was no indication of their belonging to a subject race, except that they invariably gave way to the white people they met."
As explained earlier, the term mulatto could be used to denote a person who looked white in appearance. The term quadroon (or quatroon), even though literally one who was three-fourths white, when used in New Orleans could mean the same thing. Visitors to that city commented on the virtual whiteness of many of the so-called quadroons. Isaac Holmes, an Englishman who traveled in America for four years, recollected that "although the term quatroon would infer a person of three-fourths white extraction, yet all between the colour of a mulatto and a white acquire in New Orleans this appellation. Some, indeed, are to all appearance perfectly white." George William Featherstonhaugh left from Maryland and toured throughout the slave states. He also saw the New Orleans quadroons. "A woman may be as fair as any European, and have no symptom of negro blood in her," Featherstonhaugh stated, "but if it can be proved that she has one drop of negro blood in her vein s, the laws do not permit her to contract a marriage with a white man; and as her children would be illegitimate, the men do not contract marriages with them." Reverend Philo Tower from New England wrote of "the life of a mulatto girl, or a quadroon, as they are called" with some having "clear, beautiful white skin, with rosy cheeks, making the very perfection of loveliness and beauty...forbidden by the rules of society to hold rank above the lowest, blackest slave." The actor George Vandenhoff said of the New Orleans quadroon, "Some of them showed no tinge of their descent at all; but could boast complexions--not blondes, certainly, but--of Anglo-American
whiteness. Yet, all these girls had in their blood the fatal taint of Afric's sun; though, in some, it was diluted, by admixture, to an infinitesimal point, that required the nicest eye to detect it--if, indeed, it could be detected at all."
Although the first-person eyewitness accounts of white slaves throughout the South have an element of redundancy running through them, it is imperative to keep in mind that they were all contained in books which were readily available to antebellum readers in the North. Travel accounts made for popular reading, and these books, many of them by famous writers of the day, were no doubt read to a great extent. White slaves as seen through the eyes of others brought the issue of white slavery to the awareness of many Northerners who would not have been conscious of it otherwise.
In addition to travel accounts of white slaves, newspaper advertisements for white runaway slaves made the issue of white slavery that much more real. Although originally appearing in newspapers in the South, they were also collected and published in abolitionist and other literature in the North, literature that was particularly geared toward people
interested in ending slavery. Lydia Maria Child published The Patriarchal Institution in 1860 in which she included four pages of advertisements for white runaway slaves (PLATE 1) William Jay proclaimed that "people at the North are
disposed to be incredulous when they hear of white slaves at the South; and yet a little reflection would convince them not only that there must be such slaves under the present system, but that in process of time a large proportion of the
slaves must be as white as their masters. Were there no other sources of information respecting the complexions of the southern slaves, the newspaper notices of runaways would most abundantly confirm our assertions." The advertisements cited by Jay include the words "white man,""white boy,""quite white," and "clear white." Reverend Charles Elliott included similar advertisements in his book, Sinfulness of American Slavery. During 1855 and 1856 the American Anti-Slavery Society published a series of pamphlets, one of which was entitled White Slavery in the United States. Three of its eight pages list newspaper notices for white runaway slaves. The Suppressed Book About Slavery! written by
George Washington Carleton in 1857 also contains many such advertisements.
White slavery was read about in the accounts of travelers who visited the South and in Southern newspaper advertisements for white runaway slaves. Another source of information concerning white slavery was articles in newspapers. A notable piece entitled "White Slaves," concerning a white woman and her two children who were offered for sale at a slave auction, appeared in 1821 in a Maryland newspaper, the Niles' Weekly Register. "This woman and
children were as white as any of our citizens, indeed we scarcely ever saw a child with a fairer or clearer complexion than the younger one....there was something so revolting to the feelings, at the sight of this woman and children...it brought to recollection so forcibly the morality of slave-holding states--that not a person was found to make an offer for them." Even though many in the South expressed an aversion to buying white slave children, the feeling was certainly not universal. In fact, for some, the pretense of a white mulatto child was unnecessary and children known to be completely white were bought and sold outright. William Chambers traveled in Kentucky and Virginia in 1853 and noted that "it is understood that numbers of purely Anglo-American children pass into slavery....many of them are
carried to the markets of the south, where a good price for them can be readily obtained." The "White Slaves" article is interesting from another standpoint because it questioned the partus rule. In referring to the white children no one wanted to purchase because of their white color, the article stated, "The legal maxim of par. seq. vent. has made them slaves for life, and the same maxim will make the offspring of these children slaves.Who can think of this and not shudder? Can there not be, ought there not to be, some limitation, some bounds fixed to this principle? We trust we shall not see a second attempt to sell them in this town." An editorial comment followed. "White is the fashion in the United
States, and surely some measure should be adopted to cause the color to be respected, seeing that we depend so much upon it!" What makes this article so unusual is that it was originally published in Kentucky and was reprinted in Maryland--both slave states. Of course, back in 1821 the organized abolitionist movement had yet to really be established and things were relatively calm between North and South. Such an editorial was no doubt dismissed as
harmless dissent. As tension mounted in the decades which followed, however, publishing an article which questioned
slavery being based on the partus rule, the immutable legal principle held universally throughout the South, would have
been unthinkable. The Chicago Daily Tribune, a popular newspaper, had an interesting article entitled "A White Slave"
in an 1856 issue. A white female slave had escaped from Missouri and was given refuge by two Germans in Illinois.
Slave catchers captured the girl and arrested the Germans despite their claim that they thought her to be free because she
was white. One German escaped, the other was jailed.Quoting from the Quincy Republican, the newspaper which first
reported the story, the Tribune declared, "You see the legitimate, the unavoidable fruits of the Slave system in our sister
State....Do you wish to incur for yourselves or your friends in the Territory the penalty of five years imprisonment in
the Penitentiary, for the extraordinary crime of being unable to distinguish between a white free woman and a white
Antislavery newspapers published and read in the North contained articles and accounts of white slavery gleaned from Southern newspapers as well as other references. One interesting item which consistently appeared during the mid and latter 1850s in the newspaper the Anti-Slavery Bugle was an advertisement display-ing a list of American Anti-Slavery Society pamphlets, each dealing with a particular aspect of the slavery issue. White Slavery in the United States (PLATE 2), the second title on this list, was concerned exclusively with the enslavement of white people in the South. The constant repetition of seeing the words "white slavery in the United States" week after week after week no doubt had a subliminal effect on readers. Items concerning white slaves and white slavery were often printed on the front page. A sampling of such articles includes "A White Girl Kidnapped and Sold as a Slave" which involved being lured to New Orleans under false pretenses; "White Woman Sold as a Slave" where Violet Ludlow was sold several times despite her legitimate claim that she was white; "A White Girl Nearly Sold Into Slavery" which related how an orphan named Madeline, "aged about nine years...a lovely girl, delicately formed, white as the purest of Circassian race," was to be sold at auction but was reprieved with the intention "that a Jury shall pass upon her blood." "The Sally Miller Case" told readers about how eleven jurors found the defendant to be a white German girl, "while one insisted on believing her to be a colored woman, a slave by birth, and rightfully the property of the demandants." An untitled piece related the story of how a young white boy was kidnapped and was about to be auctioned off when his father appeared on the scene, grabbed him, and exclaimed, "My child a slave? a slave? Have you dared to seize and sell a white child?"
There were other interesting accounts as well. An article entitled "Curious Case of White Slavery" appeared in the National Era, wherein a teenage girl with white parents was sold as a Negro slave by her father and was rescued by her mother. In speaking of Georgia where the event had occurred, the newspaper said, "This fact proves that white slavery in Georgia is not so uncommon that a case of it is likely to excite any remark....Slavery has no 'prejudice against color.' " Another piece was entitled "Woman, Apparently White, Surrendered to Slavery" and had to do with a woman named Pelasgie who was claimed as a fugitive slave even though she had been living as a free person for more than twelve years. In "An Arkansas White Girl Sold as a Slave," Alexina Morrison's lawyer argued that she "had not claimed her freedom because she had brown hair, or fair skin, or blue eyes, but because she had been born free, and was kidnapped." Likewise, in "White Slavery in Alabama," readers were told of a white girl from Georgia named Patience Hicks who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Three different accounts were presented in an article entitled "White Slavery." In the first, a seven-year-old white boy named Washington was placed in the care of a Negro woman when his mother became ill. He was subsequently kidnapped and sold into slavery. In the second, an aristocratic Virginia couple had an illegitimate love-child named Eliza who was placed in Negro quarters and raised there from infancy. She was subsequently sold as a slave. In the third, a white girl was purchased out of slavery for $400 and then freed.
Ellwood Harvey, a Pennsylvanian, attended a slave auction in Virginia with some friends and wrote of his visit in a letter which was printed in the Pennsylvania Freeman. The Anti-Slavery Bugle republished the letter, a part of which read, "A
white boy, about 12 years old, was placed upon the stand. His hair was brown and straight; his skin exactly the same hue as other white persons, and no discoverable trace of negro feature in his countenance. Some coarse and vulgar jests were passed on his color, and $5.00 was bid for him, but the auctioneer said 'that is not enough to begin on for such a likely young nigger!'--Several remarked they 'would not have him as a gift.' Some said a white nigger was more trouble than he was worth. One man said it was wrong to sell white people.... He was sold for about $250." Earlier in the letter, Harvey wrote that "my friends were not abolitionists before, and pitied my credulity when I told them the horrors of slavery; but one week in the Old Dominion has added two staunch adherents to our cause. I wish every proslavery man and woman in the North could witness one slave auction."
The preceding accounts of white slavery from the abolitionist press were only concerned with examples of white people being white slaves. As documented in the last two chapters, however, this issue became more and more of a threat to the white populace in the North as Southern power grew, and many publications, abolitionist and otherwise, which addressed white slavery started to include political commentaries as well. This additional aspect notwithstanding, the abolitionist press was a powerful force and had impact because of the size of the abolitionist movement. In 1838 James G. Birney who was the corresponding secretary of the American Anti-Slavery Society observed that the organization had 1,300 chapters with about 109,000 members. Henry Wilson, a politician and author who detailed the rise and fall of Southern political power, stated that in 1840 at the height of the abolitionist movement there were some 2,000 organizations with a membership of about 200,000. That of course was 200,000 formal members, those who paid dues and participated actively. Many others, perhaps in the many hundreds of thousands, were to various degrees empathetic to the abolitionist cause but did not formally join. Both formal and informal antislavery advocates read the abolitionist press. The abolitionist newspapers in which accounts of white slavery appeared were widely read.
If anyone had doubt about the existence of white slaves, the picture "EMANCIPATED SLAVES, WHITE AND COLORED" in an 1864 edition of Harper's Weekly would have been proof (Frontispiece). The article in Harper's was entitled "White and Colored Slaves." All of these slaves were set free by General Benjamin F. Butler in New Orleans and were attending a school for emancipated slaves when this picture was taken. The article went on to name and describe each individual. The descriptions of the white slaves were as follows: "Rebecca Huger is eleven years old.... To all appearance she is perfectly white. Her complexion, hair, and features show not the slightest trace of negro blood....Rosina Downs is not quite seven years old. She is a fair child, with blonde complexion and silky hair.... She has one sister as white as herself.... Charles Taylor is eight years old. His complexion is very fair, his hair light and silky....this white boy...has been twice sold as a slave.... These three children, to all appearance of unmixed white race, came to Philadelphia last December." Harper's Weekly was very popular, having a circulation of around 200,000 before the Civil War.
Another example involving white slavery made public had to do with the work of Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, who held mock slave auctions of light and white slaves at his church in Brooklyn, New York. The moneys raised were used to purchase their freedom. The choice of skin color was intentional, given that whites could more readily identify with slaves who were themselves white or approaching white. Such slaves also had appeal to those who were only concerned with the enslavement of white people and their plight. In 1848 the Edmonson sisters-- "two respectable young women of light complexion"--were sold at auction. Beecher's son and biographer recorded that "this case at the time attracted wide attention." A young girl named Pinky who was "too fair and beautiful a child for her own good" was auctioned off and also freed with the moneys raised. In 1856 another slave woman was rescued. Beecher's son had "a handful of photographs of children, white and beautiful, who had been set free...white-faced, flaxen-haired children born under the curse of slavery."
The art produced at any given time in any given culture reflects the reality of that particular time and place. The artist as part of that context is in effect a contemporary spokesperson. White slavery was on the mind of the public in the antebellum North, and this was reflected in the fictional literature of the period.
The Slave: or Memoirs of Archy Moore by Richard Hildreth was published in 1836 and holds the distinction of being the first antislavery novel. Archy is a white slave (PLATE 3) who tells his readers early on, "From my mother I inherited some imperceptible portion of African blood, and with it, the base and cursed condition of a slave." Later he laments, "I had found, by a bitter experience, that a slave, whether white or black, is still a slave; and that the master, heedless of his victim's complexion, handles the whip, with perfect impartiality." The novel was greatly enlarged and expanded in 1852 with the new title, The White Slave; or, Memoirs of a Fugitive.
Why was the character of Archy Moore depicted as a white slave? Why was the title changed from The Slave in 1836 to The White Slave in 1852? Art imitates life. Hildreth's choices were in accord with public concern over white slavery. White readers could readily identify with the trials and tribulations of a slave who was as white as they were. Before the first word in the book was read, the impression of the title alone enabled empathetic readers to emotionally experience the words, "The White Slave" (PLATE 4).
The character of Archy Moore as a white mulatto set the precedent for the heroes and heroines of antislavery novels that followed. Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe was published in 1852. Twenty thousand copies were sold in three weeks and around three hundred thousand by the end of the year. George Harris, a slave, is described as "a very light mulatto" who could "pass for a white man." E. Bruce Kirkham has analyzed the novel and called attention to Stowe's change in the description of Eliza from a mulatto to a quadroon. "The change is important because, whereas a mulatto is either a Negro with one white parent or merely a Negro with some white blood, the term 'quadroon' is applied only to a Negro with three white grandparents. Eliza's blood line and therefore, to some degree, her color, education, and social background are more clearly defined by 'quadroon' than 'mulatto'; she is made whiter." Avery O. Craven has studied antebellum culture and concluded that Uncle Tom's Cabin was successful because the "morally confused North had been supplied with concrete stereotypes with which to clarify and simplify its thinking." George Harris, Eliza, and their son Harry were indeed "concrete stereotypes" of light and white slaves. In the words of Harriet Beecher Stowe's contemporary, George Fitzhugh, a Southern writer about whom there is much said in Chapter 6, "To defend and justify mere negro slavery, and condemn other forms of slavery, is to give up expressly the whole cause of the South--for mulattoes, quadroons, and men with as white skins as any of us, may legally be, and in fact are, held in slavery in every State of the South. The abolitionists well know this, for almost the whole interest of Mrs. Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, arises from the fact, that a man and woman, with fair complexions, are held as slaves." Up through 1861 no less than seventeen novels utilized a stereotype known as the "tragic mulatto." The heroes and heroines featured in these novels had light or white complexions and found themselves in such "tragic" situations as the surprise discovery of slave status, death before dishonor, or being sold into slavery. William Bedford Clark has studied this genre and states that a white-looking woman was most often the "tragic mulatto" in such stories. This choice was absolutely intentional. "As students of this tradition note, the fact that the slave protagonist in such novels was to all appearances white and shared the characteristics of the typical white heroine of melodramatic romance helped address the arbitrary nature of racial distinctions in general and therefore short-circuited whatever racial biases the northern audience itself maintained." The
Octoroon, a very popular play scheduled to be performed at Ford's Theatre the night after Lincoln attended Our American Cousin there, shows that the "tragic mulatto" character had broad appeal and was not limited to novels. White readers and theatergoers were readily able to identify with white or nearly white characters and their oppression under slavery. This explains the reason they were utilized instead of characters with darker complexions.
There were two distinctly different ways of looking at white mulattoes--socially and physiologically. Socially, a white partus slave looked as white as any white person but was considered a black person because he or she had "one drop" of
black blood from a distant black female ancestor who was a slave. Such was the case when Mr. C. was told, "That's not a white girl; she is a nigger, sir." Physiologically speaking, however, white partus slaves were white people because all
traits of their remote black ancestry had disappeared. The North saw these white slaves as whites. The South saw these white slaves as blacks. An 1857 issue of the Chicago Daily Tribune commented on racial classification in the South. "The southern census takers, it is notorious, returned all persons as blacks who, were not more than half white. Those
who possessed straight hair and Anglo-Saxon features they set down as mulattoes, many of whom were as white-skinned
as their owners." The actual number of white mulatto slaves is unknowable because all shades from "one drop" to those
showing some discernible degree of black admixture were classed together as mulattoes without any distinction as to
Travelers who spoke of white slaves in the South, advertisements for white runaway slaves, newspaper articles about white slaves, and light and white heroes and heroines in "tragic mulatto" fiction all served to validate that
there were white people who were enslaved in the South. Disbelievers were shown, in the words of the newspaper article cited earlier, that "Slavery has no 'prejudice against color.'
Copyright © 2001 Lawrence R. Tenzer All rights reserved.