Braided Relations, Entwined Lives
The Women of Charleston's Urban Slave Society
Publication Year: 2005
"[A] stunning, deeply researched, and gracefully written social history." -- Leslie Schwalm, University of Iowa
This study of women in antebellum Charleston, South Carolina, looks at the roles of women in an urban slave society. Cynthia M. Kennedy takes up issues of gender, race, condition (slave or free), and class and examines the ways each contributed to conveying and replicating power. She analyses what it meant to be a woman in a world where historically specific social classifications determined personal destiny and where at the same time people of color and white people mingled daily. Kennedy's study examines the lives of the women of Charleston and the variety of their attempts to negotiate the web of social relations that ensnared them.
Published by: Indiana University Press
Series: Blacks in the Diaspora
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As in most projects of this sort, many people and institutions provided assistance and I am happy for this opportunity to offer special thanks. The University of Maryland at College Park, the Albert J. Beveridge Fund of the American Historical Association, the Institute for Southern Studies at the University of South Carolina, and Clarion University of Pennsylvania all contributed to research funding.
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Early in 1820, Charleston, South Carolina, municipal authorities captured Lavinia and John Fisher, leaders of the infamous “Six Mile House Gang.” Two men claimed that “lovely Lavinia” lured travelers into the Six Mile House—an inn situated six miles outside the city—poisoned their food, and pushed their bodies into a cellar. No mere myrmidon, Lavinia...
Part One: the Place, the War, the First Reconstruction
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1. The Place and the People
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From the American Revolution to the Civil War, Charleston, South Carolina, was a city divided by a great disparity of wealth, and it was ill at ease with its black and brown majority. Charleston’s gaping social divisions and fundamental inquietude originated in its geographical situation and its founders’ goals, as well as the city’s development...
2. Disorder and Chaos of War
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The American Revolution precipitated near-total anarchy in South Carolina by unleashing fundamental conflicts—of race, color, condition, and economic position—forged in colonial slave society. The war disrupted two principal southern institutions: the household and slavery. As a consequence, war also temporarily eroded the social tenets that buttressed those institutions: patriarchal...
3. Rebuilding and Resisting
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After the war, women of all colors, conditions, and economic status had to rebuild their lives and ascertain their places in the new state. While engaged in this process, their interests often clashed. Yet at other times their needs and goals converged and complemented one another. One reality was constant. As they reconstructed their worlds, they did so in a city that was still chaotic and often dangerous, at the heart of a slave society...
Part Two: Defining Women, Defining Their Braided Relations
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4. Marriage and Cohabitation within the Aristocratic Paradigm: Wealthy White Women and the Free Brown Elite
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In relationships with men, as in all defining aspects of their lives, the different aspirations, possibilities, realities, and practices of Charleston women derived from their interdependence. Women’s marital identities were formed in daily interaction with each other and in ongoing social dialogue that differentiated the ideal married woman—the good wife of the master class—from all other...
5. Marriage and Cohabitation outside the Aristocratic Paradigm: Slaves and Free Laboring Women
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While Charleston ladies were commodified in the sense that marriage was integral to capital formation, the city’s true commodities—legally considered chattel personal—were slave women. A slave woman was the reverse image of her white mistress; one was forbidden by law to marry because of what she was, and the other was compelled to marry in order to fully realize who she was.
6. Mixing and Admixtures
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White men in eighteenth-century Charleston boasted publicly in doggerel verse of their “taste . . . for dark Beauties” and of the blessings of variety in “kiss[ing] black or white.” Variations on this theme persisted into the next century, when intrepid British traveler Harriet Martineau commented on “the very general connection of white gentlemen with their female slaves,” and city patriarchs...
7. Work and Workers
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All but an elite few Charleston women and girls worked, and that work—or freedom from work—configured women’s self-perceptions and public attitudes toward women. Recreation constituted the hallmark of the master class, so leisured ladies did not and could not labor for wages without jeopardizing status and reputation. Slave women’s regular hard work formed a second strand of...
8. Leisure and Recreation
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Slavery afforded leisure to Charleston’s wealthiest slave owners, leisure confirmed wealth, and the wealthy deliberately cultivated social and cultural activities to distinguish themselves as a ruling, aristocratic elite. While slaves worked hard and rarely played, wealthy white owners seldom worked and played earnestly to “keep ahead, to set the pace, and to adopt each new fashion in thought...
9. Women and the Law
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Whether criminals or victims of crime, Charleston women encountered the law differently based on the color of their skin, their social standing, and their economic status. Who and what they were not, as much as who and what they were, determined how the courts treated them. Judges and legislators (primarily men of the low-country master class) justified idiosyncratic treatment by declaring...
10. Illness and Death
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Illness, debility, and death cast continual shadows on Charleston women’s lives and simultaneously knit women together yet segregated them. Women shared the uniquely female experiences of pregnancy and childbirth, and all received distinct treatment from medical men because they were women. However, women also endured disease, medical treatment, and loss differently, and the...
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It is impossible wholly to understand slavery and slave society without fully illuminating women’s experiences, and a true portrait of women’s lives emerges only when all the players—slave women, free women of African descent, white women of the laboring classes, and master-class women—are analyzed in juxtaposition. The American Revolution profoundly altered...
Appendix 1. Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land-Warrant-Applications
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Appendix 2. South Carolina Court System and the Case Universe
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Page Count: 328
Illustrations: 1 bibliog., 1 index
Publication Year: 2005
Series Title: Blacks in the Diaspora