Miscegenation in the Antebellum South

Nkrumah History

Fact #18 of 28

S Sexual relations between Blacks and Whites was the worst kept secret about the institution of slavery.

Consider this quote from Mary Chesnut, “Our men seem to think themselves patterns – models of husbands and fathers. But in reality, like the patriarchs of old they live all in one house with their wives and their concubines and the mulattoes one sees in EVERY family exactly resemble the white children.”

Initially, in America, mulatto children followed the condition of the father as they did in the French, Dutch, Danish, German, Spanish and Portuguese colonies. But in 1662, Virginia passed a law that totally changed how slave children were dealt with in the United States. It stated that children of slaves should follow the condition of the mother. In Louisiana, which the United States acquired in the Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon Bonaparte in 1803, it remained customary that many of the French slave owners turned their mulatto children free, and made slaveholders of them instead of keeping them as Slaves. Today we know this group as Creoles.
All in all, only about 7 to 12 percent of the enslaved population in the Antebellum South were, in fact, mulattos. Contrary to popular belief, mulattos were NOT more likely to be house slaves. However being biracial, did have its practical advantages. The most obvious advantage being it was easier for mulattos to “pass” for white when escaping from slavery.

Our men seem to think themselves patterns – models of husbands and fathers. But in reality, like the patriarchs of old they live all in one house with their wives and their concubines and the mulattoes one sees in EVERY family exactly resemble the white children.Mary Chesnut
As evidence of this, many of the slave narratives were pinned by these very same mulattos who had, in fact, used the fact that they could pass for white to escape from slavery. They also often write about being the favorites of their masters, who not so coincidentally were often also their fathers. Many talk of having idyllic childhoods where they were fondled, taken on horseback rides, rewarded with various gifts and acts of kindness. William Grimes recalled that his master “was’ very fond of me, and always treated me kindly”. Other slaves also reported that their masters were unabashedly indulgent towards them and often gave them sweets and sometimes even protected them from discipline from their enslaved African mothers.

White overseers and planters obtained sexual favors from enslaved African women Often through gifts and privileges like being excused of work duties but mostly sexual favors were obtained by force. And by force, I mean they were forced to submit themselves willingly rather than getting a flogging.

Although many White women deeply resented this aspect of Plantation life, most seemed to find a way to coexist with it, because, let’s face it, slavery provided the basis for their own wealthy, comfort and social status. Unfortunately, for enslaved African women, the way White wives dealt with their husbands’ habitual infidelity was far too often to exact revenge on the enslaved African woman whom their husband had taken a fancy to.

It was not uncommon to for an enslaved African woman to have the child of the slave master only to have the White wife insist that the child be sold off, to have the mother sold off or even, in some cases to have the newborn child end up mysteriously poisoned. One slave reported that her mistress used to slap the hands and face of her daughter unmercifully until the child’s face was black and blue, out of resentment for the child being the daughter of her husband while the enslaved African mother stood powerless to protect her own child.

It was not unheard of for White women for file for and secure divorces from their husbands. In most cases, adultery alone wasn’t enough to make a white women give up all that she would stand to lose by divorcing a wealthy planter and all of the social status and privilege that came with it. When she did file for divorce, she only did so because the White Slave-master actually loved his concubine more than they loved their spouse.
What actually shocked me was that it went both ways. It has also been documented that on innumerable occasions, that white woman also had affairs with enslaved black men. A divorce petition from Virginia reads: that a Norfolk white man asserted in 1835 that his wife had “lived for the last six or seven years and continues to live in an open adultery with a Negro man…”

Often Sexual relations between enslaved African men and white women went undetected because the children resulting from such unions were light enough to pass for white. One White man testified that when his white wife first gave birth to a mulatto he “did not at first doubt it to be his, notwithstanding its darkness of color, and its unusual appearance.”
One example that will surely give you a chuckle was how one white woman in the eighteenth century Virginia who had a mulatto child convinced her husband that the child was dark because someone had cast a spell on her. He believed this story for 18 years.

I have attached a picture of my Great, Great Grandfather George W. Henry. The second picture is of my Great, Great Grandmother, his wife Octavia who was born a slave and emancipated as an infant. Both were mulatto. He lived with his mother Mariah Lott, along with his brothers in a home on the land of his white father Sam G. Henry who was a surveyor in Richland County, South Carolina. Be honest, if you saw this guy would you ever think for a second that he was a runaway slave?

I didnt think so. You should see my Great Grandfather.
Now you know why my kids look like they do.

img132_George W Henry

George W. Henry (1860-1955)