I wrote some time ago that I did not know as much as I liked about fugitive slaves and had never read a slave narrative. As my writing has now moved into Northern resistance to the Fugitive Slave Law, now seemed the ideal time. I take as my text William and Ellen Craft’s Running One Thousand Miles for Freedom, published in the United Kingdom in 1860 and detailing their 1848 escape from slavery and 1850 escape from the Fugitive Slave Act’s imposition on the North.
The ambiguity inherent in the presence of mixed-race people highlighted the distant relationship between reality and the Southern insistence that society divided neatly into black and slave (with regrettable exceptions that they tried to keep to a minimum) on one hand and white and free on the other. The fact that most such people came from white masters dallying with their property constituted an insult to their marriages, their “proper” white families, and to the restraint expected of them as gentlemen. In one illicit act, such unions combined adultery and something akin to bestiality.
More important to us, if less so to many of them, how could any slave properly consent to such a union? Every slave woman knew she might face the lash or be sold away from her home and family if she refused, or even appeared less than fully willing. Even slave women treated very well by their owners had to know that if refused, those same owners might turn mean or sell them to someone else who would treat them much worse. In that environment, even otherwise freely given consent must come under some duress. The owner, by the very nature of his relationship with the slave, became at best something akin to a sexual harasser or statutory rapist. For many we can doubtless removed the qualifiers entirely.
Humans form bonds largely through proximity. Slavery kept the races together and required their frequent mixing. Such unions, however horrifying their implications to us today or their different implications to white society then, inevitably resulted. We can’t know how many given how the census recorded apparent race and that most sex does not result in pregnancy or childbirth, but the fact rode on the face of every slave who had light skin and a strong family resemblance to an owner.
In a very stratified society, the fact that a slave could appear fully white posed serious problems for elites. How could they know who to treat with the civility and dignity a white person deserved and who with the combination of contempt, disdain, and condescension slaves deserved? William W. Freehling gives one practical solution in The Road to Disunion: Secessionists at Bay 1776-1854:
Charlestonians, unable to distinguish between sun-tanned whites and fair-skinned blacks, required mulattoes to wear black veils. With this substitution of man-made cloth for self-evident traits, Charlestonians announced their natural order was hopelessly unnatural.
No less a Carolinian than Mary Boykin Chesnut, wife of a Senator and famed diarist, insisted that slavery required her and the rest of her class to “live surrounded by prostitutes”. She goes on:
like the patriarchs of old our men live in one house with their wives & their concubines, & their Mulattoes one sees in every family exactly resemble the white children – & every lady tells you who is the father of all the Mulatto children in every body’s household, but those in her own, she seems to think drop from the clouds or pretends to think
Born to a biracial mother and her owner in 1826, Ellen Craft had fair skin and greatly resembled her half-sisters. That resemblance reminded her owner’s wife of just who fathered the girl who, by Georgia law inherited her mother’s slave status. Southern slave codes, though race based, didn’t place much stock in blood quantum. Ellen’s one quarter black heritage counted for more than her three-quarters white heritage, or in fact any fraction, no matter how small, provided she had a slave for a mother. The womb, not the genes that few in the nineteenth century knew anything about, transmitted slavery.