Slave Women and Free Black Women

Law Describing Bastard by Free Black Woman and White Man

This is a legal document showing the specific law and punishment for a bastard born from the coupling of a free black woman and a white man. 

Whether enslaved or free; there was a certain opinion of African American women. Ralph Betts Flanders argues that black women were considered to have no idea what purity was and were viewed as beast-like creatures. He states, “The female slave has no inducement to be chaste--nay she can have a very dim and imperfect idea of what female purity is.” [1] This created an environment where as a black slave, one was rarely punished as harshly as other demographics because this was expected of them. In fact, Flanders further states that it should have seemed to be an honor to be the favorite of the master or anyone connected to him, even if that meant many impure actions would occur.[2] The utmost concern was what these bastard children could contribute to the plantation. Because in this time period the ownership of the child went to the mother, this was not an issue since the child could be claimed by the master of the plantation. Because of this, female slaves were not punished nearly as much as the other demographics. Free black women, on the other hand, could be a problem if such a thing took place. In the Black Codes of the District of Columbia we see this firsthand. The law states that if a black woman has a child with a white man she is subject to the same consequences as a white woman in the reverse situation. [3] Like many of the other laws at the time, harsher punishments resulted from interracial actions. We see further examples of this in Joshua D. Rothman’s “Notorious in the Neighborhood” where he explores the case of Nancy West, a free mulatto woman, and David Isaac, a white man. This couple somehow managed to come out of the trial process unscathed because of a serious loophole. Because the couple at the time of the trial was not living together and could not be considered married, but also had given birth to children while acting as a married couple without the license, the court could not punish them for either crime of racial intermarriage or bastardy. [4] However, the most surprising aspect of this case is that the couple was able to live without much interference until Nancy bought property. This shows an instance where the black woman is punished for being able to contribute to society and seen as a threat. This case brings an interesting light to the nature of the laws in holding back people of color. Still, for the most part, black women, free or enslaved, were left alone by law unless they were seen as a “threat” to society. 

[1]  Ralph Betts Flanders. Plantation Slavery in Georgia (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1933), 572. 

[2] Ibid.

[3] Worthington G. Snethen,  The Black Code of the District of Columbia. (New York: William Harned, 1848), 10.

[4] Rothman, Joshua D. “‘Notorious in the Neighborhood’: An Interracial Family in Early National and Antebellum Virginia.” The Journal of Southern History, vol. 67, no. 1. (Feb 2001): 73-114.