In the spring of 1852, Catherine Payne’s brother, Jim Green, shot free black man Samuel Mars in the chest. Mars lived for about an hour before dying. Just before the resulting trial, the Adams County Sentinel recorded the facts thus.
There was never a doubt who committed the shooting, as Green immediately reported to a Justice of the Peace and made clear he had shot Mars. At the trial, tavern-keeper Charles Myers revealed that Green had confided in him that Mars had hired his stepdaughter Nancy and that Green disapproved because he assumed that Myers wanted her for “his personal accommodation.”
Nothing in the record we have today indicates Mars was guilty of any such thing, but the fear of sexual trauma and violence was real for any survivor of slavery. In this chapter, I have suggested that such fear is one of the reasons that drives Jim’s reaction. In doing so, I have given Jim a back story that may or may not be accurate for him but was, in fact, accurate for thousands of black men in the antebellum South. Whether or not he has forced to participate in these practices, his fear of sexual violence against women he loved was rooted in reality. To research the subject in depth, readers may want to start with the compilation Sex, Power, and Slavery, edited by Gwyn Campbell and Elizabeth Elbourne. I have drawn for some of my own background research the article found therein by David Brion Davis, “Slavery, Sex, and Dehumanization.” For a more concise overview, readers may want to try this article by William Spivey.
As well, DNA testing now daily confirms what was obvious in people’s appearances for the last two hundred years—white men frequently fathered children with their enslaved women. In many cases, this was done purposely in order to increase the volume of human “property” on the plantation. Scholars continue to debate the why of the practice. Most people note that the trans-Atlantic slave trade was banned in 1808 in the new United States with bipartisan support. Many scholars then suggest that, in a tale of perverse outcomes, slaveholders sought to increase the enslaved population through “breeding” (whether through white or black men made little difference), when the banning of the transatlantic trade was meant to push slavery toward its death. However, other scholars note Southern support for the ban and suggest that it was a form of protectionism for human property owners. With less external “property” coming in, the value of held property increased. Likewise, the incentive to produce more enslaved people increased.
Whatever the case, the power dynamic makes these practices forms of sexual abuse and rape. W.E.B. DuBois said plainly, “The rape which your gentlemen have done against helpless black women in defiance of your own laws is written on the foreheads of two millions of mulattoes, and written in ineffaceable blood.”
On another note, the chapter refers to the “driver” and the “overseer.” Larger plantations often employed both a slave driver and an overseer. The driver was typically a black enslaved man promoted to the position from field hand, while the overseer was typically a white man paid a wage. Masters often did not engage in discipline themselves but called upon their overseers to do whatever was required for the generation of the farm’s products. Overseers developed notoriously bad reputations, as a result. The driver was often someone who mediated between the overseer and the working enslaved persons so as to maximize production while minimizing the violence an overseer might employ.
A final note about this chapter. Jim Green’s master refers to him as “boy” while the overseer refers to him as a “young buck.” These derogatory terms were used regularly by masters and overseers as a means of enforcing the social hierarchy and relegating enslaved people to a position like cattle. They are not appropriate and are used here only for historical accuracy.