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
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.
Subjects: History, Sociology
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