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Celia was only fourteen years old when she was acquired by John Newsom, an aging widower and one of the most prosperous and respected citizens of Callaway County, Missouri. The pattern of sexual abuse that would mark their entire relationship began almost immediately. After ...
Celia was only fourteen years old when she was acquired by John Newsom, an aging widower and one of the most prosperous and respected citizens of Callaway County, Missouri. The pattern of sexual abuse that would mark their entire relationship began almost immediately. After purchasing Celia in a neighboring county, Newsom raped her on the journey back to his farm. He then established her in a small cabin near his house and visited her regularly (most likely with the knowledge of the son and two daughters who lived with him). Over the next five years, Celia bore Newsom two children; meanwhile, she became involved with a slave named George and resolved at his insistence to end the relationship with her master. When Newsom refused, Celia one night struck him fatally with a club and disposed of his body in her fireplace.
Her act quickly discovered, Celia was brought to trial. She received a surprisingly vigorous defense from her court-appointed attorneys, who built their case on a state law allowing women the use of deadly force to defend their honor. Nevertheless, the court upheld the tenets of a white social order that wielded almost total control over the lives of slaves. Celia was found guilty and hanged.
Melton A. McLaurin uses Celia's story to reveal the tensions that strained the fabric of antebellum southern society. Celia's case demonstrates how one master's abuse of power over a single slave forced whites to make moral decisions about the nature of slavery. McLaurin focuses sharply on the role of gender, exploring the degree to which female slaves were sexually exploited, the conditions that often prevented white women from stopping such abuse, and the inability of male slaves to defend slave women. Setting the case in the context of the 1850s slavery debates, he also probes the manner in which the legal system was used to justify slavery. By granting slaves certain statutory rights (which were usually rendered meaningless by the customary prerogatives of masters), southerners could argue that they observed moral restraint in the operations of their peculiar institution.
An important addition to our understanding of the pre-Civil War era, Celia, A Slave is also an intensely compelling narrative of one woman pushed beyond the limits of her endurance by a system that denied her humanity at the most basic level.
Celia was only 14 when she was purchased by John Newsom. On the journey back to his farm, Newsom raped the young girl, beginning a horrifying pattern of sexual abuse that would last for years. Finally she confronted him, struck him fatally with a club, was brought to trial and eventually hanged. An important addition to our understanding of the pre-Civil War era.
"A remarkable account . . . McLaurin succeeds admirably in using Celia's story to raise larger issues about the meaning of American slavery. . . . That Celia and her shocking tale can be recovered at all is testimony to McLaurin's skill and assiduity."--Drew Gilpin Faust, New York Times Book Review
"McLaurin has not only told a compelling story, but also crafted a work that teaches the art of history by richly illuminating a particular time, place, and moral climate."--Journal of Southern History
"Informed by theory, the book is not thesis-ridden and it may be used easily by scholars of any perspective."--Choice
"A remarkable biography . . . McLaurin has masterfully researched judicial, historical, and contemporary materials in preparing this compelling and thoughtful narrative. Enhanced by its sensitivity and brevity, this book is a provocative starting point for discussion of its many ethical, legal, historical, and social issues. It should be required reading for high school students."--School Library Journal
"Provides a new chapter in the growing literature on slave women . . . McLaurin may not have believed that Celia acted entirely independently; he has nonetheless added her name to the saga of black women who 'struck a blow' for freedom."--Journal of American History
"McLaurin's novelistic approach to history results in an information-packed, thought-provoking piece of theater. McLaurin's meticulous research brings forward layers of information that set the scene and reconstruct the details of an "insignificant" life."--Booklist
"A straightforward and compelling account of one small historical incident that helps to illustrate the complex issues facing pre-Civil War America."--Kirkus Reviews
Robert Newsom seemed the ideal representative of the family farmers who in 1850 composed the majority of the citizens of Callaway County, Missouri. His life experiences, family relationships, and economic status made him seem so. Indeed, nothing in the public record indicated that Robert Newsom was anything other than what he seemed--a man who had labored hard and endured much for the measure of prosperity he had achieved; a good father who continued to contribute to the welfare of his children, all now themselves adults; a man who had gained the respect of his neighbors. In many respects he was the fulfillment of the Jeffersonian dream, the personification of the ideals that had led to the purchase of the territory in which he settled. He was, as were so many of his fellow Missourians, the selfsufficient yeoman farmer, secure because of the abundance that came from the land he owned, and which he helped to till.
The journey of Robert Newsom and his family to Missouri had been typical of that undertaken by many of his fellow citizens of Callaway County. His was among the many families to abandon Virginia in the second decade of the nineteenth century and trek westward to the newly created territories of the transmontane southwest. The promise of a better life took the Newsoms to Missouri sometime between 1819 and 1822. Like thousands of others who were fleeing the overcropped lands of the east, the Newsoms recognized the potential of the rich river bottom lands of the most recent addition to the Union. Robert had made his westward journey with his wife, whose name we do not know, and son Harry and daughter Virginia, bothof whom were born in Virginia. The method by which they traveled is unknown, but however they traveled it would have been an arduous journey for the family, and not without danger, especially for the children. Virginia would have been an infant, at most not more than two years of age; Harry would have been no more than seven. The rigors of travel on the western frontier would have exposed both children to accident and disease, whether the family journeyed overland through Kentucky or took the more likely route by flatboat down the Ohio and Mississippi to the burgeoning river port of St. Louis.
If they entered the territory from St. Louis, it is probable that Robert Newsom took his young family up the Missouri, a notoriously difficult river to navigate. Although European and American settlers had used the river for decades, until the second decade of the nineteenth century such traffic was haphazardly organized and risky in the extreme. Canoes and pirogues, often rafted in pairs, were frequently used on the river, as were mackinaws, flat-bottomed, high-prowed craft capable of only downriver voyages, and skinboats, flimsy, unstable craft made of buffalo hide that deteriorated rapidly. Keelboats were introduced to the Big Muddy only in 1811, when rival fur-trading companies launched expeditions on a race upstream on high spring waters. Not until 1819, two years after they appeared in St. Louis on the Mississippi, did steamboats ascend the Missouri.
At the time the Newsom family arrived in Missouri, all of these craft were still used on the river. If the family went inland on its waters, their financial situation would have determined the craft in which they traveled. Quite possibly the family ascended the river by steamboat, although such travel would have been expensive, as the fur company boats remained the only such vessels on the river. Chances are that the family traveled by keelboat, their vessel powered by muscular rivermen, some of whom may have plied their trade since the great race that inaugurated keelboat service on the Missouri. Although less likely, the Newsoms may have come upriver in a solid, serviceable pirogue, hewn from a single walnut or cottonwood log, their provisions strewn about its bottom, protected from hungry river ratsby a cat or two.
Regardless of their mode of travel, by the fall of 1822 Robert Newsom and his family had settled in southern Callaway County, in a section that would eventually become Fulton Township. The Newsom family was but one of many to immigrate to the region after lands there were opened for sale to the public in December 1818. Like many early settlers, Robert Newsom selected land along the timbered shores of a river or creek, a site that provided rich alluvial soils for crops, wood for building and for fuel, and an in- ` expensive means of transporting the crops he planned to raise and the products he hoped to purchase from the profits his sale of the harvest would bring. The site Newsom purchased was located on the Middle River, a minor tributary of the Missouri, some nine miles south of the locality that would eventually become the town of Fulton.
The Newsoms and their neighbors, who settled the farmlands along the banks of the Middle River, had come to Missouri in pursuit of prosperity and the more rewarding life they hoped prosperity would bring. Theirs was a dream both unique and common, individual and communal. Most, like the Newsoms, came from Virginia and North Carolina, a few from New York, Pennsylvania, and other northern states of the eastern seaboard. A surprising number came from Kentucky and Tennessee, the first of the transmontane states to send their restless citizenry further west in the relentless American pursuit of happiness. They had come on the rivers by keel and flatboat, in canoes and dugouts, on rafts of roughsawed planking nailed across fresh-cut logs. Overland they had come by cart and wagon, astride horses and mules. Many journeyed by foot, plodding mile after mile along widened footpaths that hardly deserved to be called roads. Seekers and dreamers all, they hoped to reach the western promised land, a land said to flow with milk and honey, a land such as their God had promised, and delivered, to the ancient Israelites.
|Chapter 2||The Crime||16|
|Chapter 5||The Trial||80|
|Chapter 6||The Verdict||104|
|Chapter 7||Final Disposition||123|
Posted December 6, 2000
Mclaurin's account of the life of Celia is one that I would recommend for anyone who is interested in understanding the psychological impact that the institution of slavery had on the active participants involved. McLaurin presents an effective argument throughout his book and demonstrates a unique ability to intertwine appropriate primary documents within his publication.
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