Sexual Violence and the Enslaved
As it was elsewhere, sexual violence was a ubiquitous component of enslavement throughout the history of slavery in Virginia. Enslavers exercised almost complete control over the bodies of enslaved individuals and the conditions of their existence, providing themselves with numerous avenues for force and coercion in the intimate lives of the enslaved. The plantation culture itself, with its strict hierarchy of white male authority, emboldened enslavers to demean and dominate those over which they held power. And the law provided enslaved people with no protection from sexual violence. The rape of an enslaved woman was not a crime under most state laws. In George v. State, the Supreme Court of Mississippi ruled in 1859 that a Black enslaved man could not be convicted of raping an enslaved woman because it was only a crime to “commit a rape upon a white woman.”
Because of this absence of legal protection, historians lack an archive of legal cases to determine the extent of sexual violence against the enslaved and must rely on other evidence. For enslaved women in particular, slave narratives speak to the ubiquity and constant threat of sexual violence at the hands of enslavers, their family members, overseers, and others. As Harriet Jacobs wrote, “My master was, to my knowledge, the father of eleven slaves. But did the mothers dare to tell who was the father of their children? Did the other slaves dare to allude to it, except in whispers among themselves? No, indeed! They knew too well the terrible consequences” (Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, 1861). Reverend Ishrael Massie, who was born into slavery in Emporia, recalled that enslavers and overseers would “[s]end husbands out on de farm, milkin’ cows or cuttin’ wood. Den he gits in bed wid slave himself. Some women would fight and tussel. Others would be ’umble—feared of dat beatin’.”
Elizabeth Keckly, who was born into slavery in the Piedmont region of Virginia and taken by her enslavers to North Carolina, told in her narrative Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House (1868) of being repeatedly raped by the son of a wealthy plantation owner who lived nearby; eventually she gave birth to son that he fathered.
Indeed, the sons of enslavers often repeated the patterns of sexual exploitation they learned on the plantation. In 1826, two students at the University of Virginia raped a sixteen-year-old enslaved woman and later “stripped her naked and beat her” for giving them a venereal disease, as recounted by Alan Taylor in Thomas Jefferson’s Education (2019).
Women were not the only ones who faced sexual assault. Jacobs noted that in addition to raping enslaved women, enslavers did in some cases “exercise the same authority over the male slaves.” In an 1787 incident in Maryland, an enslaved man was sexually assaulted when he was forced at gunpoint by two white men to rape a free Black woman. As with enslaved women, fighting back was usually futile, as those who resisted would be whipped or sold to a plantation in the Lower South, separated from their families and consigned to a life of even harder labor. Nonetheless, some enslaved people did resist, self-emancipating, fighting back, or, in extreme cases, resorting to the murder of their abusers.
Western culture’s objectification and sexualizing of Black bodies contributed to the sexual vulnerability of enslaved men and women. Black women had long been depicted by early European travelers as especially fertile and hypersexual, a view that was carried over to enslaved women to justify sexual contact without consent. Both enslaved men and women endured violations of their bodies and a general lack of consideration for their privacy; they were scrutinized, groped, and objectified by enslavers. At slave auctions, Black women were sometimes paraded with their bodies exposed to advertise their potential to bear children. Stripping enslaved people to whip them was a common, sexualized humiliation added to corporal punishment. In addition, enslaved people often were provided with inadequateand this exposure contributed to their vulnerability. Traveling in eighteenth-century Virginia, François-Jean de Chastellux recorded seeing “young negroes from sixteen to twenty years old, with not an article of clothing, but a loose shirt, descending half way down their thighs, waiting at table.”
Reproductive Control and Coercion
Enslavers had a financial interest in enslaved peoples’ reproduction, as children born to enslaved women inherited their mothers’ enslaved status. This “natural increase,” as it was termed, enriched enslavers’ bottom lines. Nowhere was this more so than in Virginia and other states of the Upper South, where a large enslaved population, the ending of the transatlantic slave trade, and a declining agricultural sector combined to make it profitable for enslavers to sell their surplus slave labor to the booming cotton states of the Lower South. In 1832 during a debate over slavery in the House of Delegates, James H. Gholson of Brunswick County compared enslavers right to the “increase” of their enslaved women to that of “the owner of brood mares” and noted that this “increase consists of much of our wealth.” During the same debate, Thomas Jefferson Randolph noted that 8,500 enslaved people were exported annually from Virginia to the Deep South and said, “It is a practice and an increasing practice, in parts of Virginia, to rear slaves for market.”
Historians disagree about how systemic forced reproduction was, but it is clear from oral histories and other firsthand accounts that enslavers did engage in the practice. James Green, who was enslaved in Virginia, recalled that his master “chooses de wife for every man on de place. No one had no say as to who he was golin’ to get for a wife. All de weddin’ ceremony we had was with Moster’s finger pointin’ out who was whose wife.” Will Ann Rogers remembered that her mother, who had been enslaved in Virginia, told her that her owner “mated” slaves “like stock.” Sam Everett, enslaved in Virginia, recalled that “if there seemed to be any slight reluctance on the part of either of the unfortunate ones, ‘Big Jim’ would make them consummate this relationship in his presence.” He noted that this brought sadistic pleasure for the enslaver beyond the profits to be gained: “He enjoyed these orgies very much and often entertained his friends in this manner; quite often he and his guests would engage in these debaucheries, choosing for themselves the prettiest of the young women.”
Enslaved women were commonly referred to in terms that reduced them to their reproductive capacity. Massie recalled hearing enslaved women sold at the local slave auction being referred to as a “fine wench” or a “good breeder.” Similarly, some enslaved men with imposing physical builds were used as “stock men” to impregnant a number of women with no regard for family connections. One slave recounted being forced to reproduce with fifteen women and father dozens of children.
Many enslavers may have been content to let enslaved individuals make their own mate choices. But even then, there was still coercion at work. As an enslaved teenage girl reached adulthood, she would have been aware that settling on a partner of her choice relatively quickly was better than having the choice made for her and that women who failed to reproduce were devalued substantially and often sold away from their families. Enslavers encouraged enslaved women to bear children in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Many provided pregnant and nursing women with extra rations and reduced workloads. Some were known to make small presents to enslaved women when they had a baby. In 1792, a Virginia enslaver named B. Talbert promised an enslaved woman named Jenny that he would emancipate her and her sixth child if she would bear him five children, which, according to Deborah Gray White, he did in 1803.
Silas Omohundro’s Enslaved Concubine
Long-term relationships between enslavers and enslaved people occurred throughout the era of slavery. As historian Brenda Stevenson noted, these relationships “ran the gamut from rape and sodomy to romance, from chance encounters to obsessions, concubinage and even ‘marriage’.” Historians have argued about whether any of these relationships, even ones characterized by a degree of choice and tenderness, can be called consensual within the confines of slavery. “Although not all white male-black female relationships were exploitive,” argued Deborah Gray White, “most began that way, and most continued that way.” For many enslaved women, acquiescing to the sexual desires of their enslavers was the best among several bad options, including being physically punished until they relented or being sold off if they continued to refuse to submit. Some women made peace with their situation knowing it would result in better treatment, such as working in the house as a domestic servant, for themselves and their children. Harriet Jacobs entered into a long-term relationship with a neighboring white man to stave off the repeated advances of her despised enslaver. Some enslavers held out the reward of manumission for favored concubines and their children, although the death of the enslaver or the vagaries of the plantation economy could thwart such promises.
What is certain is that such relationships were extraordinarily common, as noted from contemporary recollections and from the high percentage of mixed-raced people in the antebellum South. As diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut recalled of the enslavers around her, “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.” As Brenda Stevenson notes, based on an analysis of the 1850 U.S. Census, Virginia had the largest number of mixed-race enslaved people of all the southern states, totaling 44,299, or just over 10 percent of the enslaved population.
Light-skinned enslaved women who were themselves the product of mixed-race couplings were particularly vulnerable to sexual predation. Light-skinned women could be caught up in the “fancy trade” catering to men who purchased these women as concubines and prostitutes, often selling for as much as skilled male laborers. Emily Russell, notes Stevenson, was an enslaved girl who was placed on the market for $1,800 in 1850 by the Alexandria-based slave-trading firm of Bruin and Hill, destined for sale as a prostitute in New Orleans.
White women also engaged in sexual relations with enslaved men. As with enslaved women, some light-skinned men often found themselves the particular target of such sexual exploitation. Richard Hinton, a white abolitionist, testified to the American Freedman’s Inquiry Commission that he had never encountered a light-skinned formerly enslaved man “who has not told me of instances where he has been compelled, either by his mistress, or by white women of the same class, to have connection with them.” As Thomas Buckley found in his analysis of divorce in antebellum Virginia, roughly 9 percent of Virginia’s divorce petitions from 1786 to 1851 were for interracial adultery, with twenty-three of those petitions coming from white men who complained about their wives’ relationships with Black men. Peter Neilson, traveling in Virginia in the 1820s, recorded that he had learned about a “planter’s daughter having fallen in love with one of her father’s slaves, had actually seduced him.”
The 1825 divorce case of Virginians Dorothea and Lewis Bourne illustrates white women’s agency in initiating intimacy with enslaved men. Neighbors and friends testified that Dorothea Bourne had long pursued a relationship with Edmond, a man enslaved by her neighbors the Richardsons. Judith Richardson testified that Bourne was often seen “lurking about her negroes houses” and others testified that they believed Bourne had several children by Edmond. Notably, these witnesses did not express shock, suggesting that such interactions were not uncommon.
Sexual exploitation was but one weapon used by enslavers to keep enslaved people subordinated and degraded. Enslavers benefited in many ways from the violations of Black men’s and women’s bodies, including through physical and emotional gratification, reaping the power of victimizers, and the monetary profits associated with the reproduction of the enslaved.