Family  /  Q&A

Tenuous Privileges, Tenuous Power

Amrita Myers paints freedom as a process in which Black women used the tools available to them to secure rights and privileges within a slave society.

KNB: One of the central themes of the book is power and how it is negotiated. How did Chinn manage to attain some modicum of power and privilege? How did she navigate the shifting terrain of the antebellum South?

ACM: Yes, Julia Chinn had some privileges. But those privileges were tenuous at best. And privileges can always be revoked. At home, Julia’s authority came from her relationship with her enslaver. It meant she had access to Richard’s lines of credit and cash, oversaw the enslaved laborers at Blue Spring Farm, hosted extravagant galas, entertained presidents, and more. But all of that would have disappeared if Richard tired of her, or if she angered him. That knowledge would have shaped Julia’s behavior in order to protect her children, if not herself.

Outside of Blue Spring Farm, Julia’s status also came from her relationship with Richard. It meant she sat on the main floor at church, unlike most Black people, enslaved or free, who would have sat up in the gallery. She also did business with local vendors, signed contracts on behalf of her husband, and doled out cash to white employees on the farm.

But it was exactly when Julia and her daughters left home that things became difficult. Although Georgetown locals were happy to attend the Johnsons’ fancy parties and partake of the food and wine out at Blue Spring, they pushed back when the couple’s daughters attempted to integrate local dances, marry white men, or inherit land. They also didn’t appreciate seeing Julia ride around town in a carriage, a privilege set aside for white women. And neither Julia nor her younger daughter, Adaline, were buried at Great Crossing Baptist Church, despite the family’s membership and many years of attendance. Julia thus walked a fine line in a place and time where white folks strove to maintain racial separation and functioned under the premise that white women had to be “protected.”

KNB: How does Chinn’s relative privilege help reveal how interracial relationships tested the divide between “public” and “private”? How did the relationship between Chinn and Johnson challenge the race and gender hierarchies of the antebellum South?

ACM: In some ways, this relationship doesn’t challenge the race and gender hierarchies of its day. It’s still the story of an enslaved woman who is in a sexual relationship with a white man who is her owner. We don’t know exactly how this relationship began, or how coercive it was, but there is a significant age difference between the pair, and Richard never frees Julia. Like many men in similar relationships, he does educate and free his biracial children, and he gives them sizable dowries when they get married, including cash, land, and enslaved laborers.