Book cover saying They Were Her Property and drawing of slaves

As a professor of African American history, I have very little interest in slavery. I am painfully aware that the insidious institution constructed and maintained the American economy, and that its horrific impact is still felt at this very second. I just have no interest in the subject in terms of research. So, I was surprised to find They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South such an absorbing read.

For the most part, the story of white women and their role as plantation mistresses has focused on the top 3 percent of slave owners who owned large plantations with twenty or more slaves. Southern plantation mistresses often kept diaries–the Civil War diary of Mary Boykin Chestnut comes to mind–in which they described their lives. But stories such as Chestnut’s are the views of slavery from the elites. There is very little literature on smaller plantations and the acquisition and management of slaves by white women.

Jones-Rogers breaks new ground with her original and expanded use of the approximately two thousand narratives collected from formerly enslaved people by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the Depression. This treasure trove has been used by scholars before, but she limns them in a heretofore unused way; she focuses on their descriptions of female mistresses, and by doing so, has exploded the myth of white southern women as unaware of the brutality of buying, selling, and managing slaves. They were savvy buyers and sellers; to them slavery was a serious business. Furthermore, Jones-Rogers’ book disproves the theory that white women were the gentle hand with regard to slavery. She has found them just as brutal and cunning as white men.

Jones-Rogers also writes that white women were consciously reared for the role of slave mistress. It was not uncommon for a young girl to be given a slave as a birthday present, or to inherit a slave girl. Even a toddler learned that a slave was hers to command. From this early age, white girls learned the management of slaves so that by the time they married, they would be fully knowledgeable of their duties as plantation mistresses.

They Were Her Property shows the reader in painstaking, riveting detail that white women were fully complicit in all aspects of slavery. They openly attended auctions and carefully inspected the enslaved who were for sale. At times, slave markets were held at the homes of white women, negating the need for them to mix in the rough and tumble of a public auction. White women were just as crafty as men when it came to haggling over price, and they didn’t hesitate to mete out or administer horrific physical punishment when they felt the need.

Many readers will also be surprised at how far white women went to protect their property. Remember, it was the age of coverture, a legal doctrine under which, generally speaking, women were not allowed to own property once they were married. Yet Jones-Rogers has found plenty of evidence to show that white female slave owners used a number of ways to guarantee that their slaves were solely their property. For example, she has discovered elaborate and detailed prenuptial agreements to ensure that husbands would not gain access to their wives’ slaves, or any of the proceeds that came from her buying, selling, and owning slaves.

Nor were white women unaware of the vagaries of capitalism. Large plantations were often propped up by credit, making the enslaved vulnerable to being sold to satisfy debts. The fortunes of slavery waxed and waned with the economy. White women zealously protected that property, if for no other reason then to ensure that in case of an economic downturn, they would not be affected by the ill fortune of their husbands.                        

They also knew the how to get the most value from the enslaved. White female slave owners favored purchasing young women who were in their prime reproductive years. They knew that the status of the child was that of the mother, and so they participated in hiring out slaves, forced coupling, and often turned a blind eye to the sexual assault of the female enslaved by their husbands. Finally, white women routinely forced black women to wet nurse white babies to the neglect of their own, thereby inventing a cottage industry.

The recipient of more than a dozen awards, honors, and national fellowships and grants, Jones-Rogers is an assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley. The book is based on her revised dissertation. They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South is an enormous and welcome contribution to social and women’s history and the history of slavery. Its publication is definitely a game changer. Professors will need to make room on their lists of assigned reading.