Tenuous Privileges, Tenuous Power

In "The Vice President’s Black Wife," Amrita Myers paints freedom as a process in which Black women used the tools available to them to secure rights and privileges within a slave society.

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Amrita Chakrabarti Myers, Ruth N. Halls Associate Professor of History at Indiana University–Bloomington, about her groundbreaking new book, The Vice President’s Black Wife: The Untold Life of Julia Chinn (University of North Carolina Press / Ferris & Ferris, 2023). One of the nation’s leading scholars on slavery and Black women’s history, Myers has enriched scholarly discourse on the concepts of “freedom” and “power” in the antebellum South. In her first book, Forging Freedom: Black Women and the Pursuit of Liberty in Antebellum Charleston, Myers examines manumission in Charleston to reveal how freedom had a fluid definition. She argues for a more nuanced understanding of freedom that extends beyond the binary of “enslaved” and “free.” Her research paints freedom as a process in which Black women used the tools available to them to secure rights and privileges within a slave society.

Myers’s latest book, The Vice President’s Black Wife, builds on these themes—and moves in exciting new directions. Focusing on Julia Ann Chinn—the wife of Richard Mentor Johnson, the ninth vice president of the United States—Myers uncovers a narrative that explores power, racial and gender hierarchies, and the gap between antebellum rhetoric against interracial relationships and their reality within society. The product of over a decade of research, The Vice President’s Black Wife excavates the life and experiences of Chinn and her descendants—a task made more difficult by Myers’s suspicion that Johnson’s brothers may have destroyed his papers as a means to secure his property and obscure his relationship with Chinn.

Despite the archival challenges, Myers has written a remarkable book that offers valuable insights on the life and legacy of Julia Chinn. By telling Chinn’s story with such depth of care and nuance, Myers sheds new light on the complexities of race, gender, power, and politics in United States history. What follows is an edited and condensed version of our exchange.


Keisha N. Blain (KNB): Your new book excavates the largely unknown story of Julia Chinn. Who is Julia Chinn? Why did you decide to write this book on her life and her family?

 

Amrita Chakrabarti Myers (ACM): Julia Chinn was an enslaved Black woman. Born in rural Kentucky during the 1790s, she and her mother, Henrietta, belonged to one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in the region, the Robert Johnson family. When she was barely a teenager, Julia and her brother, Daniel, were passed down to one of Robert’s sons, Richard Mentor Johnson. Richard was by then a politician in Washington, DC, with a large plantation in Kentucky, Blue Spring Farm. Shortly after her arrival at Blue Spring, Julia became Richard’s housekeeper, and then his sexual partner. The couple had two daughters together, Imogene and Adaline, and maintained what was for all intents and purposes a marital alliance for almost a quarter century, until Julia’s death during a cholera epidemic in 1833. After decades as a US senator and congressman, Richard became vice president of the United States in 1837.

I decided to write about Julia and her daughters for several reasons. The most important one is that they, like all Black women, deserve to have their stories told. I was also struck by the fact that Julia seemed to have been deliberately erased from the larger US narrative. Given her position as the wife of a well-known politician, how was it that we didn’t know more about her? Unlike Thomas Jefferson, who never acknowledged his relationship with Sally Hemings, Richard referred to Julia Chinn as his wife. She was hostess of the many galas at Blue Spring, ran Richard’s businesses when he was away in DC, and the family lived together. This was not a “secret relationship.” And yet, there had never been a historical study done of Julia. There were only a handful of rather sensational online pieces about Richard and his “concubine.” Even the last full-length biography of Richard had been written in the 1930s. This disjuncture between history and memory told me that there was more there. And so I began. I wanted to find out as much as I could about Julia, but also to understand why this story had been buried for so long.

KNB: One of the central themes of the book is power and how it is negotiated. How did Chinn manage to attain some modicum of power and privilege? How did she navigate the shifting terrain of the antebellum South?

 

ACM: Yes, Julia Chinn had some privileges. But those privileges were tenuous at best. And privileges can always be revoked. At home, Julia’s authority came from her relationship with her enslaver. It meant she had access to Richard’s lines of credit and cash, oversaw the enslaved laborers at Blue Spring Farm, hosted extravagant galas, entertained presidents, and more. But all of that would have disappeared if Richard tired of her, or if she angered him. That knowledge would have shaped Julia’s behavior in order to protect her children, if not herself.

Outside of Blue Spring Farm, Julia’s status also came from her relationship with Richard. It meant she sat on the main floor at church, unlike most Black people, enslaved or free, who would have sat up in the gallery. She also did business with local vendors, signed contracts on behalf of her husband, and doled out cash to white employees on the farm.

But it was exactly when Julia and her daughters left home that things became difficult. Although Georgetown locals were happy to attend the Johnsons’ fancy parties and partake of the food and wine out at Blue Spring, they pushed back when the couple’s daughters attempted to integrate local dances, marry white men, or inherit land. They also didn’t appreciate seeing Julia ride around town in a carriage, a privilege set aside for white women. And neither Julia nor her younger daughter, Adaline, were buried at Great Crossing Baptist Church, despite the family’s membership and many years of attendance. Julia thus walked a fine line in a place and time where white folks strove to maintain racial separation and functioned under the premise that white women had to be “protected.”

 

KNB: How does Chinn’s relative privilege help reveal how interracial relationships tested the divide between “public” and “private”? How did the relationship between Chinn and Johnson challenge the race and gender hierarchies of the antebellum South?

 

ACM: In some ways, this relationship doesn’t challenge the race and gender hierarchies of its day. It’s still the story of an enslaved woman who is in a sexual relationship with a white man who is her owner. We don’t know exactly how this relationship began, or how coercive it was, but there is a significant age difference between the pair, and Richard never frees Julia. Like many men in similar relationships, he does educate and free his biracial children, and he gives them sizable dowries when they get married, including cash, land, and enslaved laborers.

What is unique about this relationship is that, unlike the interracial affairs of most political white men, it is very much out in the open. Unlike Henry Clay, for example, Richard never marries a white woman, and he refers to Julia as his wife. He doesn’t hide her in the slave quarters, and he never denies his paternity of their daughters. The family live together at Blue Spring, Julia is hostess of the many soirees at their home, the Johnsons attend church together, and local whites as well as those in Washington understand that Chinn and her daughters are Richard’s family.

It seemed as if, in many respects, the white residents of Great Crossing and Georgetown, Kentucky, tenuously accepted Julia and her daughters. White locals regularly attended parties at the Johnson home. Adaline and Imogene were well educated, and they grew up learning how to play the piano and interacting with foreign dignitaries and former presidents who visited Blue Spring Farm. Julia had access to Richard Johnson’s lines of credit, she oversaw the plantation’s labor force, managed her husband’s various business enterprises, and entered into contracts on his behalf with local vendors. The family also attended the church that Richard’s parents had helped found. Additionally, Richard’s reelection to public office year after year implies that his private life didn’t damage his career.

At the same time, Julia and her daughters did face racial discrimination, especially when the Johnsons insisted on making their relationship public. Locals pushed back and ejected Adaline Johnson from the festivities when Richard brought her with him to a Fourth of July celebration in town. Newspapers published enraged editorials when local white men crossed the color line and married the Johnsons’ daughters. And people noted with dismay, more than once, that Julia rode about in a carriage as if she were the equal of white women.

When Richard runs for the vice presidency, people make it plain that they would have continued to ignore Johnson’s sex life, had he only had the decency to keep it behind closed doors. His attempts to bring his daughters to public events and force the community to accept his Black family as his family, was the problem. White Americans were not going to accord Julia and her daughters the rights and privileges of white wives and daughters. That was going a bridge too far. And it is here that we see how this relationship challenged the public and private divide and conflicted with the race and gender hierarchies of its day.

 

KNB: How does Julia Chinn’s life help demonstrate how white supremacy shapes every aspect of American society?

 

ACM: The violence at Blue Spring was oftentimes visceral. And Julia Chinn oversaw some of that violence. How she felt about it is unknown. What we do know is that she strove to protect her children and extended kin, no matter the cost. For example, as Richard’s “housekeeper,” Julia managed the enslaved labor force at Blue Spring. She took charge of their work assignments, turned the field hands over to white men to be disciplined when they broke the rules, maneuvered her relatives into better positions on the farm, and directly meted out the punishments of the house staff. In doing so, she ensured the education, privilege, and freedom of her daughters and kinfolk, often at the expense of other Black people. Her daughters then grew up to become enslavers, and they then passed Black people on to their children.

The Johnson women also distanced themselves socially from other Black people, and Julia’s descendants eventually crossed the color line during the era of segregation. Living in a time and place that left little room for Black women to acquire an education, freedom, wealth, or upward social mobility, and where white folks practiced casual violence against Black people on a daily basis, Julia and her daughters allied themselves with the power structure of the day. Institutionalized racism taught them that this was their best option. That there was no other way out. The sad fact is that the lives of the Black women of Blue Spring are a testament to how anti-Black racism and white supremacy wound and warp everyone in the US, turning white folks into “moral monsters” and damaging Black folks’ bodies and minds.

 

KNB: The idea for this project started in 2011. Can you tell me about the process of researching and writing the book? What were some of the obstacles you faced while trying to find archival records for an enslaved Black woman? What help did you find along the way from Chinn’s descendants?

 

ACM: Gosh, this has been a journey! I assumed that I would find a lot of material on Richard, given that he had been in politics for roughly 44 years. There should be a massive Richard M. Johnson collection somewhere in the country, and a Richard M. Johnson Library in his home state of Kentucky. And although I wasn’t trying to write a book about Richard, scholars of enslaved Black women understand that we often have to go through the records of white persons, especially white men, to get to the lives and voices of our subjects. This is in large part because enslaved persons were prevented from learning how to read and write, and so they left behind few written sources of their own.

What was shocking to me is that there is no large Richard M. Johnson collection. Anywhere. Not in Kentucky, and not in Washington, DC, where Richard spent so much time. The Library of Congress has a small Johnson collection of business letters and financial documents. But what remains of Richard’s letters to other people are scattered across the nation in the collections of other persons. The single richest source is the Thomas Henderson collection at the Filson Historical Society in Louisville. Letters written to Richard, however, have vanished.

This made uncovering Julia’s story more complicated. I thus turned to public records, mining archives across Kentucky and the nation for newspapers, church registers, census data, estate papers, tax records, and more, to try and piece together the lives of Julia and her daughters. I also expanded my source base, analyzing buildings, items of material culture, photographs, cemeteries and gravestones, and the land itself, to add contour and detail to the written records.

I was also incredibly fortunate to connect with several descendants of the family. I met with them in their homes, interviewed them for the book, and read through and digitized the materials they had in their private collections. These oral interviews, along with family documents, photographs, and physical items, were an invaluable resource to my work. I am indebted to the Chinn-Johnson descendants for their kindness and assistance.

The lives of the Black women of Blue Spring are a testament to how anti-Black racism and white supremacy wound and warp everyone in the US, turning white folks into “moral monsters” and damaging Black folks’ bodies and minds.

KNB: Given the reality of having to use materials recorded and saved by white men to understand Julia Chinn, how did you approach these archives? How did you navigate the silences—especially in the case of Chinn and Johnson, where it seems records were purposefully destroyed?

 

ACM: Something I’ve long understood and been trained to do is interrogate silence. As historians of Black women, this is what we must do because of the gaps in the written record. What is missing can often tell us as much as what is present. Asking “why” a person isn’t in a document (or an archive) can be an incredibly fruitful line of inquiry. For example, I spent a lot of time thinking about why Julia and Adaline weren’t buried at Great Crossing Baptist Church. I also wondered why there wasn’t a large Richard M. Johnson archival collection anywhere in the country. The space where something or someone ought to be can speak with resounding clarity.

Over the last decade, I’ve also engaged more deeply in what I call informed speculation. Because the traditional archive for enslaved southern women is limited, scholars must be willing to make educated decisions about what may have happened. These are not random guesses. When you carefully bring together all the sources that are available on a person, thicken the surrounding context of that individual’s life to the best of your abilities, and then add in primary and secondary information gleaned from the lives of other people who lived in similar circumstances, perhaps in slightly different times or places, you can then broach possible conclusions as to how the subject of your own work may have felt or acted under similar conditions. Saidiya Hartman calls this kind of work “critical fabulation.”

 

KNB: What do you hope readers take away from The Vice President’s Black Wife?

 

ACM: I hope readers see the resilience of Black women and that they are moved by how enslaved women always seemed to “make a way out of no way.” That family came first, that everything Black women did was to make a better life for their children. Black women shouldn’t have had to fight such insurmountable odds to do so. There were choices they shouldn’t have ever had to make. But when they found themselves challenged, whether by the system or the people around them … watch out!

Additionally, I hope every reader sees this story as the history of an American family. The Chinn-Johnson family is, really, just like so many other families across the country. Richard may have been a politician, but there are many more stories, just like this one, of everyday people, that make up the colors of the American quilt. We need to acknowledge those families, those stories; that means acknowledging our whole history. The good, the bad, the boring, and the very, very ugly. It is those stories, and that history, that made and makes us who we are. icon

This article was commissioned by Marlene L. Daut and Geraldo Cadava.

Featured photograph: Courtesy of Amrita Chakrabarti Myers