Stephanie Jones-Rogers gives interview on how white women’s “investment” in slavery has shaped America todayHistorians in the News
tags: slavery, plantations, white women
In the American South before the Civil War, white women couldn’t vote. They couldn’t hold office. When they married, their property technically belonged to their husbands.
But, as historian Stephanie Jones-Rogers notes, there was one thing they could do, just as white men could: They could buy, sell, and own enslaved people.
In her recent book, They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South, Jones-Rogers makes the case that white women were far from passive bystanders in the business of slavery, as previous historians argued. Rather, they were active participants, shoring up their own economic power through ownership of the enslaved.
In the past, historians had often based their conclusions about white women’s role in slavery on the writings of a small subset of white Southern women. But Jones-Rogers, an associate professor of history at the University of California Berkeley, drew on a different source: interviews with formerly enslaved people conducted during the Great Depression as part of the Federal Writers’ Project, an arm of the Works Progress Administration. These interviews, Jones-Rogers writes, show that white girls were trained in slave ownership, discipline, and mastery sometimes from birth, even being given enslaved people as gifts when they were as young as nine months old.
The result was a deep investment by white women in slavery, and its echoes continue to be felt today. As the New York Times and others commemorate the date, 400 years ago, when enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia, Vox reached out to Jones-Rogers to talk about the history of white, slaveholding women in the South and what that history says about race, gender, wealth, and power in America in 2019. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.
Can you talk a little about how this book came about?
When I was in graduate school, I was taking all these different courses and reading all these books on African American history but also on women’s and gender history. I was particularly interested in what these two subfields of history had to say about white women’s economic investments in the institution of slavery. What struck me is that they seemed to be in direct contradiction to each other, in many respects.
Those historians who explored the experiences of white Southern women would often argue that while women had access to enslaved people that male kin or their spouses may have owned, they were not directly involved in the buying and selling of enslaved people — particularly married women weren’t.
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