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Katherine Thomas

History 190 Research Proposal


In the past few decades, feminist scholars and southern historians have taken a
greater interest in the relational dynamics of white and black women in the Old South and
Reconstruction.1 Great lengths have gone to debunk the myth of the “powerless
mistress” and the “powerless female slave.”2 In truth, these women asserted power daily,
in production, and in many cases, through acts of resistance and violence. Black and
white women faced interactions with one another that could range from the slightly
compassionate to the most physically abusive. But the “family, white and black,”
however perceived by the plantation mistress, would be altered forever with the dawn of
the Reconstruction. African American women who were once associated with the
“dependent” relationship of the slaveholder would by 1865 fight for an association
designated by free labor. Transition to Freedom is a study which hopes to reveal the
complexities of the black and white female relationships found both within the context of
the plantation and the Postbellum South. Through the use of first hand accounts,
narratives, as well as secondary sources, this study seeks to answer the question, how did
the ways in which African American women and their plantation mistresses
regarded each other compare from the start to the end of nineteenth century?

Summary of Research on the Topic

As has been researched by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, the relationship between the

plantation mistress and the African American woman could never be defined as a
“sisterhood,” even under a shared system of white patriarchy.3 Her book, Within the
Plantation Household, however, argues that plantation mistresses believed that a familial
connection existed between her family and their African American servants, and in some
cases, genuine feelings of care were expressed.4 Eugene Genovese’s essay “Our Family
White and Black,” investigates the ideals held by slaveholding families as more than a
form of rationalization, but as a longstanding part of slaveholding politics and culture.5 In
spite of any displayed affection, planters’ wives also initiated the abuse upon African
Americans often attributed to slave masters and overseers. Marli Frances Weiner’s
dissertation on plantation mistresses and female slaves unravels the overlapping issues of
race and gender within South Carolina plantations6 drawing from many of the first and
second hand accounts that have been left behind.
A variety of studies have also been done on the Postbellum woman’s experience.
Once freedom is in sight, African American women were more than ready to form lives
apart from the plantation. In the words of Leslie A. Schwalm, “freedwomen were
challenging the façade of reciprocal relations that had masked the abusive and exploitive
nature of antebellum paternalism”.7 Schwalm’s contribution to The Black Worker: A
Reader reveals that in lowcountry South Carolina, newly emancipated women fought
against their overseers physically and stole the property of their slaveholders, all to the
shock of the landed gentry.8 This speaks not only of the South Carolinian black woman’s
“‘dreams of freedom,’” but also her immediate willingness to see them fulfilled. Tera W.
Hunter offers her historical perspective in To Joy My Freedom, which looks at both the
joyful and painful experiences of the working southern black woman from the time of
Appomattox to the Great Migration.9 Marilyn Mayer Culpepper’s chapter “Help Wanted”
in the book All Things Altered, discusses the struggles faced by former mistresses as they
tried to run plantations amidst a changing work force. Much information can be gleaned
from these separate studies to form a fuller perspective about the white and black
woman’s transition from a slave society into Reconstruction.

Summary of Primary Sources/Research Plans

This study’s primary sources will consist of journals, narratives, and interviews of
nineteenth century women. One series of journals, written by Ella Gertrude Clanton
Thomas, spanning from 1848 to 1889 will provide an example of a Southern mistress’
perceptions of her role as a planter’s wife, her relationships with the household servants,
as well as her take on the current changing political state. Narratives written by former
slaves Elizabeth Keckley and Harriet Jacobs, will also give specific perspectives
regarding the slaveholding mistress both during their enslavement and their road to
freedom. I also plan to utilize the interviews of former slave women such as those taken
from the “Voices from the Days of Slavery” collection held by the American Folklife
Center. First hand accounts such as these will provide an insider’s glimpse into how
relationships between black and white women could have transpired and reveal some of
the potential inner conflict experienced by both parties. By supplementing these public
and private materials with those excerpted within secondary sources, my hope is to paint
a broader picture of how these women saw themselves and each other, and how these
feelings may or may not have changed by the end of the Civil War and onward to the end
of the nineteenth century.


Further study regarding the relationships of enslaved women and their mistresses
and their transition into Reconstruction might reveal the ways that women have been
unfairly typecast within the history books. Women began working towards freedom
years prior to the end of the Civil War and continued to fight afterwards. Also, a look
into the life of the slaveholding woman may reveal a more complex persona than she has
been allowed before. Overall, the black and white women of this nineteenth century study
will in some way be able to “speak for themselves” about their lives and help draw larger
conclusions regarding the effects of slavery and Reconstruction on southern female
relationships across the racial line.

Brent, Linda. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Ed. L. Maria Child. Boston:
Published for the Author, 1861. In The Classic Slave Narratives, edited by Henry
Louis Gates, Jr. New York: New American Library, 2002.

Burr, Virginia Ingraham, ed. The Secret Eye: The Journal of Ella Gertrude Clanton
Thomas, 1848-1889. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990.

Culpepper, Marilyn Mayer. All Things Altered: Women in the Wake of Civil War and
Reconstruction. Jefferson, North Carolina: MacFarland and Company, Inc., 2002.

Fox-Genovese, Elizabeth. Within the Plantation Household: Black and White

Women of the Old South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

Genovese, Eugene. “‘Our Family, White and Black’: Family and Household in the
Southern Slaveholders’ World View.” In Joy and Sorrow: Women, Family, and
Marriagein the Victorian South, 1830-1900, edited by Carol Blesser. New York:
Oxford University Press, 1991.

Hunter, Tera W. To Joy My Freedom. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Keckley, Elizabeth. Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in
the White House. New York: G. W. Carleton & Co., Publishers, 1868.

O’ Brien, Micheal. An Evening When Alone: Four Journals of Single Women in the
South, 1827-67. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993.

Smalley, Laura, interview by James Henry Faulk, 1941, part 2 of 5, transcript, Library of
Congress, Archive of Folk Culture, American Folklife Center, Washington, D.C.

Schwalm, Leslie A. “‘Sweet Dreams of Freedom’: Freedwomen’s Reconstruction of Life

and Labor in Lowcountry South Carolina.” In The Black Worker: A Reader,
edited by Eric Arnesen. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007.

Weiner, Marli Frances. “Plantation Mistresses and Female Slaves: Gender, Race, and
South Carolina Women, 1830-1860.” Diss.U of Rochester, 1986.
Barbara Ellen Smith, ed. Neither Separate Nor Equal: Women, Race, Class in the South (Philadelphia: Temple University
Press, 1999), 20.
Elizabeth Fox-Genovese. Within the Plantation Household: Black and White
Women of the Old South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 35. On this page, Fox-Genovese
discusses the white privilege of slave mistresses as well as the determination of African American women.
Ibid, 34-35.
Ibid, 129.
Eugene Genovese. “‘Our Family, White and Black’: Family and Household in the
Southern Slaveholders’ World View.” in In Joy and Sorrow: Women, Family, and Marriage
in the Victorian South, 1830-1900. ed. Carol Blesser (New York: Oxford University
Press 1991), 69.
Marli Frances Weiner, “Plantation Mistresses and Female Slaves: Gender, Race, and
South Carolina Women, 1830-1860” (PhD diss., U of Rochester, 1986), vi.
Leslie A Schwalm, “‘Sweet Dreams of Freedom’: Freedwomen’s Reconstruction of Life and Labor in Lowcountry South
Carolina.” in The Black Worker: A Reader, ed. Eric Arnesen (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007), 20.
Ibid 17, 11. In these respective pages, Schwalm talks about the Keithfield plantation revolt and Peggy, a former slave who
steals from Mr. Manigualt.
Tera W. Hunter. To Joy My Freedom (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1997), viii.