As Black Women’s History Month gets underway, the release of a new book that tells the stories of enslaved Black women who were charged with crimes by their owners couldn’t be timed any better.
Written by Dr. Tamika Nunley, a historian and professor of history at Cornell University, “The Demands of Justice: Enslaved Women, Capital Crime, and Clemency in Early Virginia” specifically addresses the previously unreported testimonies of enslaved Black women facing crimes such as poisoning, theft, murder, infanticide, and arson.
“The Demands of Justice,” which was released on Tuesday, offers precious context about the history of America’s criminal justice system and how it treated enslaved Black women, in particular.
Keep reading to find an excerpt from “The Demands of Justice” below:
In 1705, the colonial legislature of Virginia passed a measure that compensated slaveholders for executed enslaved people at market value. The law revealed some important truths about the presence of slavery in America, the first being the political and economic commitment of the state to protect the property interests of enslavers and the second pointed to the reality of enslaved people’s resistance. A lesser-known aspect of the history of American slavery is the story of how enslaved women and girls violently contested bondage.
From the very beginnings of the history of colonial Virginia to the American Civil War, enslaved women and girls stood accused of poisoning and murdering white Virginians, committing acts of infanticide, and setting plantations ablaze. While these acts did not occur every day, tensions mounted and the atmosphere of forced bondage proved conducive to a climate of violence and desperation throughout the nineteenth century. Evidence of enslaved women’s responses to the everyday realities of physical, mental, emotional and sexual violence appeared throughout the court dockets, auditor’s records, executive office papers, and newspapers of early Virginia.
In 1851, the auditor of public accounts issued compensation to the family of Gerard Mason for the execution of Agnes, an enslaved woman accused of murdering Mason. Mason came from an elite Virginia family that included his more famous relative, George Mason; a delegate to the Constitutional Convention and revered Founding Father. A number of local newspapers reported on the case including the Alexandria Gazette which opined that “beyond a rational doubt, that Mr. Mason was killed in his bed, most probably whilst asleep, by blows inflicted with an ax by the accused.” Reports of the incident pointed to the criminality of the enslaved woman and the malicious intent behind the crime. But the news coverage failed to account for the power dynamics between Mason and the enslaved on his Prince William County estate.
Four years before Agnes appeared in the news for killing Gerard Mason, the local jailor held him in custody for the murder of an enslaved woman named Katy. Locals who conducted daily business transactions selling wood, making repairs, and arranging for the exchange of goods witnessed Mason’s interactions with Katy. While unloading wood on Mason’s estate, William Johnson “saw Negro Katy lying in the yard at the quarters, she seemed to be in great pain as if from a beating—just breathing, just talking, not able to turn about.” Another county resident, William Bates, testified that “Katy was unable to walk about and ha[d] continued so ever since,” and he noticed her “crawling about her cabin and when crawling would sometimes fall some.” Henry Duvall told the court that “[Mason] beat Katy with a large stick at the home, drove her back to the field, pursued and beat her a second time—knocked her down and left her lying on the ground.” Every person who witnessed this violence recalled the manner in which Katy always remained lying on the ground. The imagery of Katy is only a snapshot of how Mason expressed power through sadistic violence. On October 23, 1845, Mason killed Katy and buried her on his property.
News coverage of cases citing the violent reactions of enslaved women and girls assumed their guilt because the law did not allow for the enslaved to defend themselves from physical or sexual violence. An inquest of Katy’s battered corpse revealed extensive alterations to her body as a result of Mason’s brutality. When questioned about why Agnes charged at Mason with an ax, she testified that Mason wanted to “turn up her clothes and take privilege,” but she told him, “She was too old for that now.” The experiences of the enslaved women forced to labor and suffer under Mason’s charge show that the legal beginnings of the nation lacked an ethics of justice that protected Black women. Gerard Mason was exonerated for Katy’s death and the jailor instead, prepared Agnes for the gallows for his death. The legal value of whiteness outweighed the scales of human justice. With a legal scaffolding that did not hold white Virginians accountable for the cruelty and abuse that enslaved women and girls experienced, justice remained outside of their reach. Stories of enslaved women accused of crimes against slaveholders put the history of how Black women became criminalized in context.
Enslaved women and girls lived in a nation that required them to comply with a different set of laws than free white Americans. Known as “slave codes,” these laws gave these women and girls limited access to justice particularly in instances where they resisted bondage. These contestations against slavery became criminalized because their actions threatened the property rights of slaveholders and the power that came with legal ownership. The actions of enslaved women and girls, however, revealed their own ideas about right and wrong. Their lives tell a bigger story about the long struggle for justice in America.
Readers can buy “The Demands of Justice” wherever books are sold, or by clicking here.
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