Sister, Sister, Not In Carolina

December 1, 1998

Mary Ann Travis

Sisterhood is powerful, but historian Betty Wood can find no trace of any such sentiment between white, elite, slaveowning "ladies" and black enslaved women in Georgia and South Carolina during the American Revolutionary period.

Wood, a member of the history faculty at Cambridge University in England and the Andrew Mellon Professor at Tulane this semester, says that white women and black domestic slaves engaged in the "small politics of everyday life," but not as equals.

"They may have shared a joke or small gifts," says Wood, "but these exchanges did not conceal that they were involved in power relationships."

According to Wood, white women fulfilled the role of mistress, and black slaves were coerced into reciprocal relationships as docile servants. Wood presented her latest research at the Mellon Lecture, "Gender, Race and Rank in a Revolutionary Age," at the Newcomb College Center for Research on Women on Nov. 11.

Among her conclusions is that whites in the lower colonies--Georgia and South Carolina--did not doubt that the institution of slavery gave them prosperity. White people's livelihood and social prestige depended on slavery, says Wood, especially in the planter class. While white men were the predominate slaveowners, Wood has found that "five to 10 percent of all slaveowners in Georgia and South Carolina were women."

Women usually acquired slaves through inheritance from their husbands or fathers. "Wealthy white rice planters craved cultural refinement and gentility," says Wood. "The elite quest for gentility had enormous consequences for women. They had to become ladies and subordinate to patriarchy."

Elite, white women were expected to be good, Christian, "just and humane" mistresses to their slaves, says Wood. It is apparent, however, that slaves did not view their owners in this kindly manner, says Wood.

From court records, Wood discovered one African enslaved woman, whose name was not acknowledged, but whose story perhaps sheds light on the lack of black-white female bonding. The black woman put arsenic, which had been given to her to kill rats, in her master's and mistress's coffee. "She was caught and burned alive," says Wood. "And we don't even know her name."

Although few documents written by women exist from 1760 to 1830, Wood has explored the attitudes of women in this period by studying court and church records and newspapers. Wood has found that "no low country white woman is on record as being against slavery."

Also, Wood has learned that once white women owned slaves, they did not let them go. In Georgia and South Carolina from 1760 to 1820, Wood says, "No elite, white women freed any slaves." While the American Revolution is commonly thought of as a quest for equality, Wood says it was essentially a conservative movement.

"The Revolution hardened the commitment to slavery," says Wood. "It hardened class lines. And white women concurred." Wood credits Tulane history professor Sylvia Frey for being one of the first historians to note this strengthening of white commitment to slavery from 1775 to 1790. Frey, on the other hand, says that Wood, "almost single-handedly sustained, if not created, the study of the history of slavery and race relations in early colonial Georgia."

According to Frey, Wood's book, Slavery in Colonial Georgia, 1730-1775, is a definitive work. Frey and Wood co-authored Come Shouting to Zion: African-American Protestantism in the American South and British Caribbean to 1830, which was published by the University of North Carolina Press earlier this year.

They also cooperatively organized the Tulane-Cambridge Conference, "The Atlantic World: From Slavery to Emancipation," at Tulane in 1996. Another, similar conference is slated for spring 1999 at Cambridge. Frey and Wood are co-editing the 1996 conference papers, which will be published in 1999.

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000