Celia, A Slave depicts an instance in which the brutality and moral depravity of the institution of slavery impacted the life of an individual slave. In this way the book’s approach was somewhat novel when it was first published, as previous accounts of slavery had focused primarily on the larger, more abstract qualities of the institution. In particular, few historians had yet focused so exclusively on the toll slavery took on black women.
As Celia’s case demonstrates, slave women were left completely vulnerable to sexual violence, from both their masters and other slave men. Celia apparently suffered repeated rape at the hands of her master, Robert Newsom. When she finally succeeded in defending herself against his attacks—by killing him—she had nothing in the way of legal recourse to justify her actions. For one, she couldn’t testify during the trial proceedings, as Missouri slave law—a separate set of laws applying only to slaves—did not permit slaves to testify against their masters. Because there was no sympathetic third party to witness the attempted rape (such a situation would be unheard of) there was no way Celia could directly present, let alone bolster, her claims.
Secondly, while Missouri slave law allowed slaves to defend themselves against their masters if their lives were in danger, the law was silent when it came to slave women defending themselves against sexual violence. Such legal conditions, which were widespread across the South, allowed for the systematic sexual exploitation of perhaps millions of people. It was an issue that received almost no attention at the time, and very little attention in many major historical accounts of slavery. Celia, A Slave just hints at the widespread sexual exploitation of slaves, the full scale of which is unknowable.
Slavery and Sexual Exploitation ThemeTracker
Slavery and Sexual Exploitation Quotes in Celia, a Slave
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.
Throughout the antebellum era, while Callaway County's promise to settlers such as Robert Newsom of a better life in a relatively egalitarian white society was fulfilled, it would have been obvious to Newsom and others that the promise was more amply fulfilled for those who held slaves than for those who did not.
She was the slave Celia, who, when she arrived in 1850, was approximately fourteen years old, about the same age as Newsom's daughter Mary. Practically nothing is known about Celia's life before her arrival at the Newsom farm.
In this national crisis the desire to preserve the Union proved stronger than the sectional differences over slavery, and a compromise was negotiated. In 1821 Missouri was admitted to the Union as a slave state, Maine as a free state, and slavery's expansion into the Louisiana Territory was limited to that area south of Missouri.
A healthy sixty years of age, Newsom needed more than a hostess and manager of household affairs; he required a sexual partner. Newsom seems to have deliberately chosen to purchase a young slave girl to fulfill this role, a choice made the more convenient by the ability to present the girl as a domestic servant purchased for the benefit of his daughters.
Anger and resentment was a characteristic response of white women in slaveholding households when faced with the possibility of a relationship between a male in the household and a female slave. Frequently, however, southern white women were powerless to prevent the actions of male family members, a circumstance that sometimes led them to vent their anger at white males upon the slave. Certainly neither Mary nor Virginia was in a position to change her father's conduct toward his slave, even had she so desired. Mary was still an adolescent herself, totally dependent upon her father, and Virginia had three children of her own to consider.
Perhaps they escaped their dilemma through a process of rationalization, as a historian of slavery recently has suggested many plantation women did, viewing Celia as the dark, sensual temptress who seduced their father.
Afraid that an angered Newsom would harm her, Celia raised the club with both hands and once again brought it crashing down on Newsom's skull. With the second blow the old man fell, dead, to the floor.
The response of the six inquest jurors to the testimony presented was predictable. After hearing the witnesses, the jurors quickly arrived at the finding that there was probable cause to arrest Celia and charge her with the murder of Robert Newsom.
The threat of slave violence and possible insurrection was a specter that constantly haunted the white population of the antebellum South, and the residents of Callaway County were no exception.
Whether Celia's fourth, and emphatic, denial convinced Jefferson Jones that neither George nor anyone else had helped her kill Newsom cannot be ascertained from the evidence. What is clear is that Jones stopped his questioning at this point, probably convinced either that Celia was telling the truth or that it was unlikely that she would implicate George or anyone else under any circumstances.
Whatever his reasons, Harry Newsom's response to the Republican, with its emphasis upon facts and its total disregard for motive, anticipated the approach the prosecuting attorney would adopt during Celia's trial.
To enhance its chance of adoption, Douglas championed a bill that repealed the old Missouri Compromise and allowed the possibility of the expansion of slavery into the new federal territories of Kansas and Nebraska, which the proposed legislation would create.
Far from being the evil abolitionists claimed, slavery was "sanctioned alike by the Bible, the Laws of Nature, and the Constitution of the United States," and Congress had neither the authority nor the right to "impair a vested interest in slaves in the territories, the District of Columbia, or anywhere on earth."
"Unless the swelling tide of anti-slavery fanaticism be beaten back," Shannon predicted with prescient accuracy, the bonds of Union would break within five years.
From the perspective of the defense, the jury was about as good as could be expected.
Jameson's cross-examination quickly established a key element of a planned defense that became fully evident only after all testimony had been heard. He immediately focused on the sexual nature of the relationship between Celia and Newsom, forcing Jones to admit that Celia had told him that Newsom had raped her on the return trip from Audrain County immediately after his purchase of her, that he had continued to demand sexual favors of her throughout the years she resided on the Newsom farm, and that he had fathered her children.
The defense's contention that slave women had a legal right to protect their honor, that the term "any woman" in Missouri's general statutes applied to slaves was a truly radical notion, threatening both a fundamental concept of slave law and the everyday operations of slavery.
While acknowledging that slave women were used by masters for sexual favors, state studies of slavery, including Missouri's, fail to record charges against whites for rape of a female slave. Of course, the lack of such charges merely reflects that the law provided no protection to slave women against rape. If the courts would not convict black males of raping slaves, then such a charge against a white male was ludicrous. Thus, in the antebellum South the rape of slave women by white men, if not expected, was condoned by the law or, more precisely, by the lack of it.
The arguments of the defense threatened not only the social assumptions under which slavery operated but the economics of slavery as well. The fertility of slave women was of obvious economic value, since their offspring became assets of the mother's master. Although scholars contend over the degree to which owners interfered in the sex lives of their slaves to insure high fertility rates, that masters were concerned with fertility rates is beyond dispute. By granting slave women the legal right to use force to repel unwanted sexual advances, the defense's instructions would have interfered to some degree with what owners saw as a property right.
In whatever language the appeal was couched, Judge Hall's failure to issue a stay of execution order rendered it of no avail unless the supreme court acted quickly. As the defense waited for an answer from the supreme court, Celia's execution date drew nearer.
Those events also suggest that the psychic cost to whites of the defense of slavery, though paid, was high, just as they suggest that the psychic cost to blacks, though paid, was incalculable and enduring.