Primary Source Example
Recently, I subscribed to Accessible Archives, an online, full text searchable database of 18th and 19th century publications. The database has a collection of eight African American newspapers and several other antislavery newspapers and publications. For the presentation I chose an article from The Colored American, an African American newspaper in circulation from 1837-1841. I have included an image of the newspaper from January 20, 1838. Of interest to my research and for the presentation is the section called “Read and Ponder,” located on the bottom right of the page, and a regular feature in the publication. The article tells the story of a New Hampshire man who traveled South to settle his brother’s estate and bring his three nieces home with him. He is shocked to learn the three girls are considered slaves and are of considerable worth because of their light complexions. The girls are sold and each bring a high rate again due to their “perfectly white” appearances. There are several other references in the article to their whiteness including: “no perceptible mulatto tinge” and “white slaves.” The story gives us details of a slave family being torn apart, which was a typical strategy among abolitionists.
The article shows the use of whiteness as a strategy of antislavery publications. The use of “white slaves” in conjunction with tales of family separation, sexual desire of Southern slave owners, and religious rhetoric establishes whiteness as an abolitionist tactic. While not explicitly said, the story of white girls being sold as “first rate articles” was told to illicit an emotional response in the newspapers readers, some of whom may have white daughters close in age to the slaves in the story. It is also interesting that this story of white slaves was printed in an African American newspaper. Presumably the paper would have white readers sympathetic to the antislavery movement but I think this is something I should look into further. It may also be interesting to compare the instances of whiteness in African American publications versus other abolitionist publications. This also the earliest example of such a strategy as I have been able to find at this point in my research. Based on my previous findings I thought this strategy was used closer to the Civil War, but finding an 1838 publication increases both the time-frame of my topic and the potential number of sources.
Interesting to read this article in reverse…what does it say about blackness? Just a thought and perhaps we can talk about it as part of your presentation.
Looking at readership is important, I agree. I wonder also about the overall purpose of the paper- was it newsy or was it specifically an abolitionist paper. (This info might help you figure out who read the paper.)
What an interesting source! Have you discovered other sources that are similar to this one? Are there other stories of “white slaves” used for the same purposes (that is, to elicit an emotional response from sympathetic whites?) in African American newspapers? I am just wondering if this type of story was commonplace or an oddity. Looking forward to your presentation!
David–I know you have been interested in sourcing anti-slavery resources as they relate to social movements. Did you hear about the recent launch of the Digital Archive of Massachusetts Anti-Slavery and Anti-Segregation Petitions by the Radcliffe Library? It might be of some interest to you as you move forward.
I have not heard of this digital archive, but I will definitely check it out. It sounds like it would be a real help my research. Thanks!
This article was very interesting and your post also raised some questions that maybe we can discuss more fully in class. The man from New Hampshire that traveled down South to handle his brother’s estate, was he the one that moved forward with t he sale of his “nieces”? Also, if the slaves were considered light skinned or white, when did this become acceptable to begin have this take place? I am looking forward to seeing the answers you dig up.