12 May 2012

Guest Post - White Slavery In The Ante-Bellum South


White Slavery in the ante-Bellum South and Civil War Era: A Little Known Phenomenon by Daniel N. Rolph, Ph.D.


When one researches primary source material for the 19th-century American South, occasionally one finds enigmatic references to ‘white slaves,’ or individuals who were in reality Caucasians, but were sold or held in bondage, by crooked masters or slave-dealers, for a variety of reasons. A number of publications exist on the subject today, but one wonders exactly how many whites were in reality enslaved, since cases or accounts of such incidents are numerically significant.

For example, the abolitionist newspaper, the National Anti-Slavery Standard, published in New York City, for March 9, 1861, printed an incident of a slave being sent back to Tippah County, Mississippi, from Illinois, who according to the Cairo (IL) Gazette, “claimed he was actually white, and had every appearance of being so.” The individual’s name, was Henry Lee, alias Henry Jones, the property of a Mr. W.C. Faulkner.  The above article declares:

“Mr. Lee…thinks he is a white man, and if the matter were to be determined wholly by color and appearance, some folks might join him in the conclusion. He says that his parents were white, that they dying, when he was very young, left him in the charge of a slaveholder in Alabama, who raised him in slavery, and taught him to believe that he was a mulatto. He further claims that his name was changed so that his relatives might never seek to reclaim him from bondage.”

Such assertions as above may seem to be distortions of the truth, but it was the case in some Southern states, that children who were products of Black fathers, but White mothers, often obtained their freedom once they reached a certain age. Thus, many African-Americans attempted to ’pass as partial Whites,’ or went to court attesting that their mothers were White and not Black, when the issue became a source of contention between the person enslaved, and his or her master or mistress.

The Philadelphia (PA) Public Ledger, for December 27, 1860, reprinted an article from a Natchez, Mississippi newspaper, entitled, “Painting a White Girl to Make Her a Slave.”  It was stated how a man from Natchez was on a steamboat on its way to Greenville, Mississippi, when he noticed a young girl, “aged about nine or ten years,” with black hair and “yellowish brown skin.” He was told she belonged to a gentleman on board who was taking her to New Orleans to be sold for $160.00. Talking to the young girl alone, the inquisitive passenger was informed by the girl, how “she was an orphan, and had been taken from an asylum in New York,” and that her hair had been light originally, but her ‘master’ had a barber dye her hair black, and also put “some yellow dye on her skin.”
Soon after the above confession, the young girl was taken by the ship captain, who after using potash, soap and water, removed “the dyes…and the light hair and light complexion {were} brought to light.” The pretended “master was seized by the excited passengers,” who caused him to be locked up in a state room until the boat should land.  The young girl was eventually placed in an orphan asylum in New Orleans.

Interestingly, such cases of ‘white slavery’ in the Southern states was not limited only to the ‘ante-bellum’ or pre-Civil War period of history. During the ‘War Between the States,’ in 1863, a correspondent of the Cincinnati (Ohio) Gazette (reprinted in the Philadelphia Daily Evening Bulletin), related that within the 78th Ohio Infantry Regiment, was a man who was taken, “as a runaway slave,” into the Union lines in Tennessee. His features and skin color denoted “Anglo-Saxon” ancestry, while his eyes were also “blue, his lips thin, and his hair light.”  His former Tennessee master had admitted to Colonel Mortimer D. Leggett, “that there was not a drop of African blood in the veins of his slave,” and that he had purchased the man in Richmond, Kentucky years before, and that he’d been “sold into slavery, out of some charitable institution to which he had been committed as a vagrant.”
The Lebanon (PA) Courier, for April 9, 1863, contains a remarkable tale of a white man held as a slave. The account states how a planter’s daughter in Mississippi was seduced, and to “hide her shame” after she became pregnant, her female child was given to a slave woman, along with a certain amount of money, in order to “bring her up as her own.” The child eventually became the “mistress of the planter’s son, who succeeded to the estate. She had by him five children, and among them the man…Charles Grayson. This was in Calhoun County, Mississippi, three miles from Paris.”

Eventually Charles was sold to William Steen, and soon after he learned of his true parentage. Running away, he was “captured and treated with harshness. He was made to do more work than any slave.–The object was to break him down. He proved to be strong and able to bear all the burdens put upon him.”

On December 17, 1862, the Third Michigan Cavalry came into the area, and Grayson procured a horse and rode into their encampment. There he was employed as a cook for one of the non-commissioned officers, Theodore Reese, of Company ‘F.’ He wished to move North, and was thus aided by Lt. Col. G. Rogers as well as citizens of Jackson, Tennessee, who assisted Grayson in carrying out his plan. Not long after he took up residence in Cass County, Michigan, where by 1870 he was working as a farm laborer for a Peter Scofield and his family of Cass County.

Charles Grayson was a ‘slave’ for seventeen of his twenty-three years, but his “straight, light hair, fair blue eyes, a sandy beard,” revealed that he was indeed a Caucasian and not of Black ancestry.

The above accounts are only a few scattered renditions of one little known aspect of the institution of slavery within the Southern States prior to and during the American Civil War. Such incidents reveal that ‘slavery’ is a much more complex issue than anyone has imagined, affecting individuals, both White and Black in a very diverse manner.
Such accounts, like so many other topics included within this blog, may be found here, within the collections at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Dr. Rolph is a Historian for The Historical Society of Pennsylvania and is also a Senior Lecturer in History at Montgomery County Community College.   He also served as Assistant Professor in the Department of Liberal Arts & Applied Sciences at the former Hahnemann University (also Allegheny University) for thirteen years and he lectured for eight years at Gwynedd Mercy College. Visit his blog here.

7 comments:

Joshua Horn said...

A very interesting post. Another category of white slaves are the indentured servants during the settlement of America.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Josh - yes, it is interesting. To hear some folks talk, you'd think there has only been one instance of slavery in the world, or that it still does not exist in the world. It is a stain upon mankind - all of mankind. Indentured servitude is a another aspect, but unique in its own right. Interesting enough, Stonewall Jackson's ancestors were indentured servants.

Brock Townsend said...

Thanks and posted.

13thBama said...

She probably meant to say that her grandmother was of the Na'vi tribe ;)

Lindsay said...

Wow, this is something that certainly is under the radar - how fascinating! I really enjoyed the education this morning :)

13thBama said...

I responded to the wrong story I guess. That was meant for Ms. Warren.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Thanks Lindsay.