Virginia Luxuries and Moral Impossibilities

Few things in the entirety of the ugly history of slavery in the United States were more reliably memory-holed than the widespread, persistent sexual exploitation of enslaved people. The painting entitled “Virginian Luxuries” that leads our new entry on the Sexual Exploitation of the Enslaved was painted around 1825 in New England, so the predacious nature of many male enslavers clearly was well understood by many at the time. 

Twenty-three years earlier, in 1802, journalist James Thomson Callender surfaced the long-standing rumor that President Thomas Jefferson had taken an enslaved woman named Sally Hemings “as his concubine” and had fathered several children with her. “There is not an individual in the neighbourhood of Charlottesville who does not believe this story,” Callender wrote. Such relationships were not uncommon. Hemings’ half-sister Mary Hemings had a relationship with a Charlottesville merchant named Thomas Bell, by whom she had two children. At her request, Mary Hemings was eventually sold to Bell.

The mixed-race children who were evidence of these relationships were common throughout the slaveholding south but especially in Virginia. Just over 10 percent of the enslaved people in Virginia were mixed-race, according to the 1850 U.S. Census, the highest total in the country. In 1860, famed preacher Henry Ward Beecher made headlines around the country when he held a reverse slave auction to raise funds to free a nine-year-old, mixed-raced enslaved girl named Sally Maria Diggs—one in a line of light-skinned enslaved girls he helped free by emphasizing to his congregation that they could be “your niece” or “your sister.”

As the diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut wrote of life in the antebellum south, the widespread presence in so many households of mixed-race children that “exactly resemble the white children” created a kind of cognitive dissonance among white women. “[E]very 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 the moonlight and magnolias mythology of the “Old South” metastasized after the Civil War, the cultural memory of this acknowledged predation became even more remote. Any suggestion that men like Jefferson had “fix[ed] his illicit attentions” on enslaved women became, in the words of Jefferson’s granddaughter Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge, a “moral impossibility.” 

It would take scholars like Thelma Jennings, Annette Gordon-Reed, Brenda Stevenson, and Deborah Gray White, among others, to restore this memory and with it present a fuller picture of the lived reality of enslaved people. And to acknowledge, as Thomas Foster writes in our new entry, that sexual exploitation was “a ubiquitous component of enslavement throughout the history of slavery in Virginia” and that enslavers “benefited in many ways from the violations of Black men’s and women’s bodies.”


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