Celia, a Slave

Celia, a Slave

Copyright Date: 1991
Pages: 160
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  • Book Info
    Celia, a Slave
    Book Description:

    Illuminating the moral dilemmas that lie at the heart of a slaveholding society, this book tells the story of a young slave who was sexually exploited by her master and ultimately executed for his murder. 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.

    eISBN: 978-0-8203-4159-0
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. ix-xii)

    The lives of public figures, those whom society comes to regard as great men and women, are often used by historians and biographers to exemplify or define an issue or era from the past. In the mid-nineteenth century, for example, Elizabeth Cady Stanton came to represent the women’s movement; Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison the abolitionists; Dorothea Dix reform in the treatment of the criminal and the insane; Edmund Ruffin and William Loundes Yancey a fierce southern nationalism based upon the defense and perpetuation of the institution of slavery. Yet the lives of lesser figures, men and women who...

  5. Chapter One BEGINNINGS
    (pp. 1-13)

    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...

  6. Chapter Two THE CRIME
    (pp. 14-32)

    Controversy over slavery was nothing new for Missouri. The very creation of the state launched a national debate about the institution, the country’s first serious effort to probe the moral implications of slavery for a free and increasingly democratic society. At precisely the time that Robert Newsom was beginning his struggle to creste a new life for his family in the Missouri wilderness, was determining whether, and under what conditions, Missouri could be admitted to the Union. Since the conclusion of the War of 1812, several economic and social factors had contributed to an influx of settlers from the east,...

  7. Chapter Three INQUISITION
    (pp. 33-52)

    Sometime early in the morning of Sunday, June 24, 1855, Virginia and Mary Newsom became concerned about their father, who had not appeared for the morning meal. Their increasing concern about their father’s disappearance, a fear that something was amiss, prompted the daughters to begin to search for him. Virginia looked first along “all the paths and walks and every place for him” without success. Next she searched along the creek, fearing that Newsom had fallen into the creek and drowned. The women hunted for Robert Newsom in the coves along the creek banks, but “found no trace of him.”...

  8. Chapter Four BACKDROP
    (pp. 53-67)

    Indicted for Newsom’s murder on June 25, Celia would spend the remainder of the summer in the Callaway County jail awaiting her October trial. As she waited through the summer heat, the citizens of Callaway and Missouri who would conduct her trial and determine her fate were being drawn into yet another emotionally charged debate over slavery and its future in the neighboring Kansas Territory. As in 1820 and 1850, the debate raged across the nation, its volume and intensity reaching levels that frightened many who had previously paid scant attention to the morality of slavery. In Missouri the debate...

  9. Chapter Five THE TRIAL
    (pp. 68-87)

    To Judge William Augustus Hall fell the lot of presiding over Celia’s trial. Born in Portland, Maine, in 1815, Hall had moved as a child to a small northern Virginia town on the Potomac River. He spent the remainder of his boyhood in Harper’s Ferry before departing for Yale. After college, in 1840 Hall accompanied his father’s family on yet another move, this time to Randolph County, Missouri. There he studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1841. He opened a practice in Huntsville, which he later moved to Fayette. The young and ambitious attorney quickly entered the...

  10. Chapter Six THE VERDICT
    (pp. 88-103)

    With jury presentations completed Celia’s trial entered the stage most crucial to the defense, the determination of jury instructions. Missouri law enabled both the prosecution and defense to request that the judge deliver specific instructions to the jury. It also provided that either side could object to the proposed jury instructions of the other. The judge was at liberty to accept requested instructions either in whole or in part, or he could himself instruct the jury without regard to the requests of either the prosecution or the defense. Thus, the jury’s final instructions represented a combination of the instructions requested...

  11. Chapter Seven FINAL DISPOSITION
    (pp. 104-115)

    The exact nature of Celia’s appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court is unknown, for no copy of the appeals document exists. The list of what the defense perceived as irregularities in the conduct of Celia’s trial, however, provides a good indication of the language of the appeal. 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. By early November it was apparent to Jameson and...

  12. Chapter Eight CONCLUSIONS
    (pp. 116-122)

    In a recent essay, historian Darlene Clark Hine observes that “one of the most remarked upon but least analyzed themes in Black women’s history” is their “sexual vulnerability and powerlessness as victims of rape and domestic violence.” Hine suggests that this theme, so discernible in slave narratives, is accompanied by yet another—“these captive women’s efforts to resist the misappropriation and to maintain the integrity of their own sexuality.”¹ Although the brief and tragic life of Celia, a slave, cannot provide a comprehensive theory with which to evaluate the manner and degree to which the sexual exploitation of female slaves...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 123-136)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 137-144)
  15. Index
    (pp. 145-148)