Today is Labor Day, the day many of us get to take a paid day off from work. In my recent interview with Dr. Quincy Newell, we discussed the life of early black Mormon pioneer Jane Manning James. While Jane was born free, her grandmother was a slave, and her mother was an emancipated slave. While we are out celebrating our barbecues and enjoying our day off, how many of us think about the forced labor blacks in pre-Civil War America endured?
Quincy: Jane was not a slave. She was very particular in making sure that everybody knew that. She was born free in Connecticut, in about 1820. Her mother had been enslaved, and she said that her maternal grandmother had been brought from Africa as an enslaved woman as well. So Jane certainly had slavery in her background. She knew about it. She experienced it. She knew people who had been enslaved. But she herself was not enslaved at any point. That’s a status symbol, I think, for her. So she was very particular in making sure that people who knew her, people who heard about her, knew that she was not enslaved, and that was important to her.
GT: But her mother was a slave. How did that work? I think there was a law or something that you were emancipated a certain age or something. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Quincy: Yes, I’m not sure I’m going to be able to get all the details right off the top of my head. But Connecticut passed a set of laws that basically instituted a kind of gradual emancipation. I don’t remember the year in which they were passed, but Jane’s grandmother was too old, and was never emancipated. The legislature in Connecticut decided they didn’t want owners of slaves to dump their aged slaves on the public trust and make the public responsible for maintaining them. So they remained enslaved for the rest of their lives. But there was a date that anybody born after that date was to be emancipated by, I think, their 25th birthday, something like that. So Jane’s mother was eligible for that emancipation, and for that reason, she probably was emancipated in around 1810 or so. Jane was born about 10 years later, so she was born free. But she certainly knew relatives who would have remained enslaved for the rest of their lives.
It was tough being a slave in antebellum 19th century America. Female slaves had the added concern of being raped by their slaveholders. There has been speculation that even though Jane Manning James was born free, she may have been raped resulting in a pregnancy. I asked Dr. Quincy Newell if that was true.
Quincy: Black women were subject to sexual violence by white men on a fairly regular basis in the antebellum United States. It’s a known fact. On the other hand, I don’t want to simply assume that because Jane was black, she was raped. It’s really easy for us to sort of take a black woman and just assume that her life circumstances fall into line with the statistics that we know about it and sort of the worst statistics that we know about, in terms of the lives of black women during that time period. So, in that sense, I’m reluctant to say for sure. I think our best bet is, yeah, she was probably raped.
GT Was it a minister?
Quincy: I don’t think so. Well, I don’t think that we have enough evidence to say this is really the answer there. The theory that it was a minister comes from a comment that Jane’s brother, Isaac, made to Elizabeth Roundy, sometime between 1902 and 1908. Elizabeth Roundy is the person to whom Jane dictated her autobiography. She was asked by a church leader to inquire after the circumstances of Sylvester’s parentage, because somebody was wondering. And so Elizabeth Roundy doesn’t actually ask Jane, as far as I can tell. Instead, she goes and talks to Jane’s brother. I think that’s because Jane just sort of shut that line of inquiry down. Jane’s brother says it was a white minister, but he couldn’t remember if it was Methodist, or Presbyterian. So this is the brother of a woman who might have been raped, talking about the circumstances of that 60 years after the fact. So the fact that Sylvester’s conception is still a topic of discussion at that point, is really striking to me. Because it suggests a certain kind of obsession with black women’s sexuality, which I think is really interesting, and worth noticing. But also, I don’t trust Isaac to know what’s going on 60 years after the fact. Given Jane’s silence about Sylvester’s conception, I’m not sure that she ever would have told her brother.
I was quite surprised how complicated it was for black women, slave or free, to navigate sexual politics of the time. Was it possible Jane entered a sexual relationship willingly?
Quincy: Well, I think there are good reasons that Jane might have had to choose a sexual union with a man, but still maybe not want to talk about it all that much. I use the comparison with a woman named Harriet Jacobs, who wrote a book called, “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.” She was enslaved in North Carolina, I believe, and she believed that her master was intending to rape her eventually. So as a way to sort of defend herself against that, she actually deliberately took another white man as a lover and eventually had two children with him. So there’s a kind of strategic move there, a use of limited options, in order to avoid what seems like the worst option, and it’s possible that Jane felt similarly threatened and used a similar kind of strategy.
What are your thoughts about slavery as you think about celebrating Labor Day?