‘They Were Her Property’: Author reveals how white women took part in and profited from slave industry

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For many, a slave master conjures the image of a white man overseeing the black people he owns, while white women are bystanders who don’t participate.

In “They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South,” author Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers dismantles this idea through a litany of historical documents and resources that suggest otherwise.

“The book is about how a group of white women invested in white supremacy,” Jones-Rogers, an associate professor at University of California, Berkeley, told Mississippi Today.

“While we think of them as a group that is primarily operating as an oppressed and marginalized group because of gender, this particular group found that by investing in a racially discriminatory society, they could exercise a certain type of power they could not as women.”

Jones-Rogers said she stumbled across the basis of the book accidentally as a graduate student. She noticed that historical literature about the African American experience in the South differed from literature about Southern women. One relied heavily on the reflections of formerly enslaved people, while the other relied more on correspondence left behind by white women’s letters and diaries, she said.

“The reason why you have these two different characterizations was because they are using these sources in different ways,” she said. “I think largely because of our contemporary understanding of how gender roles operated at those times, it makes us less inclined to look for evidence to the contrary.”

But when she did start to look, she found evidence was everywhere.

In eight very detailed chapters, the book takes readers through the many aspects in which white women were involved in the slave economy, including buying and selling them, disciplining them, and going to court to ensure their ownership.

Lilly Cummings

Stephanie Jones-Rogers, author of “They Were Her Property” and associate professor at University of California, Berkeley.

“Slave-owning women not only witnessed the most brutal features of slavery, they took part in them, profited from them, and defended them,” Jones-Rogers writes in the book, which was published this year.

Women were often given slaves by their parents at a young age or as gifts before marriage to ensure they would have economic independence as a married woman. At the time, married women were often bound by the doctrine of “coverture.”

For them, marriage meant a woman was under the authority of her husband, or as Jones-Rogers wrote in the book, their “‘very being'” and ‘legal existence'” no longer belonged to them. Despite this, many women still found a way to assert their independence as slave owners and businesspeople.

The book contains many anecdotes and references about Mississippi. In 1841, Susan Hunter bought 18 slaves while she lived in the state and later moved to Kentucky, where she went to court to ensure she was legally recognized as their owner. In Scooba, Mississippi, a woman named Frances Gray said she didn’t allow anyone (including her husband) to mistreat her slaves because they were “her property and her living and she want goin’ to ‘low nobody to whup’em.”

Jones-Rogers said the book forces readers to “grapple with the fact that feminism can be an ugly thing at times.”

“I often call it an ugly feminist history because it’s like a feminist dream in some respects. Women say OK, I can’t do A, B and C, but I’m going to find ways to exercise autonomy in my life anyway, and they do that in ways that not only benefit them directly but subsequent generations,” Jones-Rogers said. “But the problem with that dream is it eventually turns into a nightmare … Slavery was their freedom. They were able to exercise control and autonomy by owning enslaved people.”

At times the book is difficult to read, as it includes frank details about how women talked about and treated their slaves. Jones-Rogers said the book took a decade to complete, and there were times when she had to step away because reading and revising passages filled with atrocities became traumatic, she said.

“The darker parts of the book were dark for me too,” she said.  “What would compel me to return to the work was ultimately, I was thinking about these formerly enslaved people.”

The book references interviews formerly enslaved people did with the Federal Writer’s Project of the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, where African Americans spoke about what happened to them.

“They wanted us to know what happened — they didn’t want it to be sanitized,” Jones-Rogers said. “This book is about white slave-owning women, but most important, it’s about them and their experiences as they were owned by these women.”

“They Were Her Property” was released on Feb. 19, and published by Yale University Press.