E. Mills, M. McClelland, and E. Hudson, with I. Padalecki
Archives are not neutral spaces. They reflect the beliefs of those who established the institutions and created records they deemed worthy to save. Documents from the Antebellum era favor those who owned land and enslaved people. Enslaved women, in particular, make comparatively few appearances by name in most records from this period. This includes those kept by Davidson College, specifically its faculty and trustees. While this makes researching and writing about enslaved women challenging, learning about their experiences and their impact on the college is possible. The irony is that the references we do have tell us that enslaved women’s presence was ubiquitous and their labor essential. Using innovative methods and informed by Black feminist theory, we can gan insight into the lives of enslaved women from plantations around the college and households within town and understand how enslaved women in both of these settings interacted with the school.
Plantation, College, and Archival Silences
Records kept by the college document by name the sons of planters that enrolled and provide some insight into routine interaction between the college and neighboring plantations. Still, we know less about the region surrounding Davidson than we do about other regions of the South. In his article about slavery in the North Carolina Piedmont, historian John David Smith writes in reference to this documentary gap, “part of the explanation for the lack of knowledge about the Piedmont and slavery results from the relative paucity of information pertaining to it in secondary accounts.”1Smith, John David. “‘I Was Raised Poor and Hard as Any Slave’: African American Slavery in Piedmont North Carolina.” The North Carolina Historical Review 90, no. 1 (2013): 4. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23523655. For this reason, historians of slavery rely heavily on a wide range of primary sources and secondary sources to make comparisons to areas more thoroughly studied. Trustee minutes, for example, reveal that slave owning trustees were compensated by the college for labor enslaved people performed on campus. They do not document the names of the enslaved people as they do the names of those educated here whose families owned other human beings, nor do they tell us in detail what kind of labor enslaved people performed. The more thorough documentary records at other Southern colleges and universities suggest that enslaved people performed routine domestic labor, including cleaning and heating buildings, and grounds maintenance around the campus, but they also performed specialized labor involved with construction and the actual physical growth of the campus.2Craig Steven Wilder, Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities (London: Bloomsbury Press, 2013). In July 2018, when a descendent of Betty Davidson Tate, a woman enslaved on a nearby plantation, contacted the college because their family had kept a story about her role “helping to build the college,” an archivist confirmed that the college had purchased bricks handmade at a nearby plantation for construction of early buildings.3DebbieLee Landee, email to Rose Stremlau, July, 16, 2018. The college still has a record of that payment although no list of who did the work; now, however, because of that phone call, we now know the name of Betty Davidson Tate.
Although no one document held in the Davidson College Archives tells about the lives of enslaved women in detail, we can learn about general patterns by considering primary sources together. For example, take the map of the plantations around Davidson compiled by historian and archivist Chalmers Davidson. At first glance, we find no mention of the enslaved people who lived and worked at this site. If we cross-reference this map with the slave schedules, or censuses, created by the US government in 1850 and 1860, we can learn how many enslaved people lived at each plantation and some basic demographic information about them: their gender, their age, and their ancestry– Black or mulatto, meaning mixed. Tellingly, these records also do not identify enslaved people by their names. For example, nineteen of the thirty three people enslaved by William Lee Davidson, Jr, one of the founders of Davidson College, were female. They ranged in age from sixty-five to one year old. The majority are identified as Black, but the color of two women, a twenty-two-year old and a twenty-four-year old, is coded as mulatto.4Slave Schedule, Iredell County, 1850 US Census.
Because they were considered the property of their owners, enslaved women could not refuse to have sex with planters, their sons, or white men who oversaw their labor. The widespread experience of sexual abuse in slavery was well-documented at the time by abolitionists and critics of the institution and remains a painful theme in the oral histories and family stories of many Black Americans. Considered together — this map, the slave schedule, and our general understanding of women’s experiences of enslavement — we can make logical conclusions about what enslaved women in and around Davidson would have experienced. That included sexual violence.5Diane Miller Sommerville, Rape and Race in the Nineteenth-Century South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004).
Southern plantations were sites of racialized and gendered violence, and while historical scholarship has thoroughly documented the normalized brutality enacted by slave-owning men, more recent scholarship by historians of women has demonstrated how white women participated in the system of enslavement as well. While some historical narratives attempt to depict white women and enslaved women as equals in experiencing gendered oppression, this was not the case. White women often were responsible for physical violence perpetrated against enslaved women because of proximity to them and responsibility for household labor. According to historian Thavolia Glymph, “White women…owned slaves and managed households in which they held the power of…life and death…”6Glymph, Thavolia. “Women in Slavery: The Gender of Violence,” in Women’s America: Refocusing the Past, ed. Linda K Kerber, Jane Sherron De Hart, Cornelia Hughes Dayton, Judy Tzu-Chun Wu, 147-157. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. pg. 149. Southern white women on plantations were responsible for their separate sphere of domesticity, the “women’s work” in the household that was seen as distinct from men’s work in the public sphere.7 Catherine Clinton, The Plantation Mistress: Woman’s World in the Old South (New York: Random House Inc., 1982). Likewise, white women did not perform much of the hard labor required to keep a household running. Enslaved women did this work and faced severe, violent punishment if their white mistresses were not satisfied. The idealized, pious, and pure domestic sphere did not extend to enslaved women, who performed the same hard labor as enslaved men as well as the emotional, domestic labor often attributed to white mothers. Understanding gendered and racialized norms of behavior within antebellum slavery, we can work toward a more nuanced understanding of plantation life around Davidson.
Black Women’s Emotional Labor in the Domestic Sphere
One document held by the Davidson College Archives does speak to the humanity of a local enslaved woman. The emotional labor associated with caregiving performed by enslaved women in Davidson is especially evident in the story of a woman named Cynthia. The family of Franklin Brevard McDowell (class of 1869) claimed ownership of Cynthia, who lived on the Brevard Plantation, which was located near Davidson College. As an adult, McDowell wrote about Cynthia, who he describes as his ‘nurse’. According to historians Emily West and R.J. Knight, the term ‘nurse’ was often used to describe both enslaved wet nurses, women who breastfed the children of white slave-owners, and general caretakers of young children.8West, Emily and Knight, R.J.. “Mothers’ Milk: Slavery, Wet-Nursing, and Black and White Women in the Antebellum South.” The Journal of Southern History, (2017): pg. 44. Cynthia could have been either or both. West and Knight describe the expectation of enslaved women to act as wet-nurses as “a system of dual exploitation of enslaved women’s bodies as both reproducers and as workers.9West, Emily and Knight, R.J.. “Mothers’ Milk: Slavery, Wet-Nursing, and Black and White Women in the Antebellum South.” The Journal of Southern History, (2017): pg. 40. Therefore, it is possible that the McDowells exploited Cynthia for both her reproductive and physical labor. White slave-owning parents forced enslaved women to feed owners’ babies instead of their own, a violent theft of bodily autonomy normalized by white supremacy.10West, Emily and Knight, R.J.. “Mothers’ Milk: Slavery, Wet-Nursing, and Black and White Women in the Antebellum South.” The Journal of Southern History, (2017): pg. 43.
At the same time, McDowell’s reminiscences reveal a girl or woman who had loved ones of her own. We know her father’s name was Nero. She also had a sense of humor and teased the young boy about his being a foundling she saved from a hawk — a joke that inverted the power dynamics between her and the boy’s parents. If Cynthia found the boy, she was his, not the other way around. McDowell’s memories also hint at Cynthia’s agency is finding respite from the plantation and physical distance from its hardships by taking her young charge into the woods. In her study of enslaved women, Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South, historian Stephanie Camp emphasized that the forests surrounding plantations often were safe spaces for enslaved women. They would sometimes run away into the woods to rob their owners of their labor. 11Camp, Stephanie M.H.. Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women & Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004. Camp argues that the economic impact of these minor acts of truancy was cumulative, and through them enslaved people reclaimed time, labor, and bodily autonomy. Seemingly unaware of the irony in his recollections, McDowell gives us a glimpse of how Cynthia carved out space to briefly feel freedom from bondage.