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The Sexual Abuse of Black Men under American Slavery
Thomas A. Foster
Journal of the History of Sexuality, Volume 20, Number 3, September
2011, pp. 445-464 (Article)
Published by University of Texas Press
DOI: 10.1353/sex.2011.0059
For additional information about this article
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The Sexual Abuse of Black Men
under American Slavery
DePaul University
I N 1 7 8 7 A N E N S L A V E D M A N I N Maryland raped a free black woman.
The story comes to us from the female victim in the incident, Elizabeth
Amwood. One white man, William Holland, had her “Pull up her Close
and Lie Down he then Called a Negrow Man Slave” “and ordered him to
pull Down his Britches and gitt upon the said Amwood and to bee grate
with her.” A fourth individual in this horrific scene, a white man named
John Pettigrew, operating with Holland, pointed a pistol at the unnamed
enslaved man and Elizabeth Amwood. All the while, Holland taunted them
both, asking if it “was in” and “if it was sweet.” Afterward, William “went
up into the Company and Called for Water to wash his hand, saying he had
bin putting a Mare to a horse.”1
Scholars have suggested that rape can serve as a metaphor for enslavement—thus applying to both men and women who were enslaved. As
Aliyah I. Abdur-Rahman argues, “The vulnerability of all enslaved black
persons to nearly every conceivable violation produced a collective ‘raped’
subjectivity.”2 The standard scholarly interpretation of how slavery affected
black manhood is perhaps best captured by the comments of one former
slave, Lewis Clarke, who declared that a slave “can’t be a man” because he
I would like to thank all those who helped with the development of this article, including
Ramón A. Gutiérrez, Mathew Kuefler, and the participants in the history of the intersection
of race and sexuality conference hosted by the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity
at the University of California, San Diego. I would also like to thank Estelle Freedman and
Margaret Storey for feedback on earlier versions of this article.
Petitions for William Holland, March 1787, Governor and Council, Pardon Papers, box
4, folder 47, Maryland State Archives (hereafter MdSA). See also Sharon Block, Rape and
Sexual Power in Early America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 85.
Aliyah I. Abdur-Rahman argues: “More than simply a condition of black women’s experience under slavery, rape serves as a useful paradigm for assessing and describing the position
and experience of black people in total under slavery’s brutal regime” (“‘The Strangest Freaks
of Despotism’: Queer Sexuality in Antebellum African American Slave Narratives,” African
American Review 40, no. 2 [2006]: 230–31).
Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol. 20, No. 3, September 2011
© 2011 by the University of Texas Press, PO Box 7819, Austin, TX 78713-7819
could not protect his female kin from being sexually assaulted by owners and
overseers.3 Clark’s concern, the rape and sexual assault of black women and
girls, has been well documented by the historical record. Thelma Jennings
and others have analyzed the literal sexual assault of enslaved women in a
range of contexts.4 Physical sexual abuse of women and girls under slavery
ranged from acts of punishment to expressions of desire and from forms
of forced reproduction to systems of concubinage. Slavery violated the
masculinity of black men who were denied the ability to protect vulnerable
female dependents. According to Deborah Gray White, “Those who tried to
protect their spouses were themselves abused.”5 The emasculating psychic
toll, White further argued, could have led men to eschew monogamy or
resist marriage altogether.6
The rape of Elizabeth Amwood reveals that black manhood under slavery
was also violated in other ways that are less easily spoken of (then and now),
namely, the sexual exploitation of enslaved men.7 The historical sexual assault
of men and boys is well known, if mostly unarticulated.8 The scholarship
on early America shows us numerous instances of rape and sexual assault of
men and boys. Ramón Gutiérrez has argued that individuals of the Native
American third sex, or berdaches, were frequently prisoners of war used for
Lewis Clarke, “Leaves from a Slave’s Journal of Life,” National Anti-Slavery Standard,
20 and 27 October 1842, reprinted in Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches,
Interviews, and Autobiographies, ed. John W. Blassingame (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State
University Press, 1977), 156–58.
Thelma Jennings, “‘Us Colored Women Had to Go Through a Plenty’: Sexual Exploitation of African-American Slave Women,” Journal of Women’s History 1, no. 3 (1990): 45–74.
Deborah Gray White, Ar’n’t I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South (1985;
New York: Norton, 1999), 146. See also, for example, Daina Ramey Berry, “Swing the Sickle
for the Harvest Is Ripe”: Gender and Slavery in Antebellum Georgia (Chicago: University of
Illinois Press, 2007), 81.
White, Ar’n’t I a Woman?, 147.
The rape of adult men in conflict and war today, for example, goes underreported and is
much less discussed than rape of women as a weapon of war. In 2005, for example, in eastern
Congo and northern Uganda, rape of boys and men was a notable feature of the conflicts
there. This has been documented by the United Nations, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty
International. See, for example, its 2005 Annual Report for Congo (Dem. Rep. of), available
online at (accessed
1 August 2010). Also muted in discussions of the rape and sexual assault of men is prison
rape. See, for example, Human Rights Watch, “No Escape: Male Rape in U.S. Prisons,” 2001,
available online at (accessed
1 August 2010). On the history of sex and sexual abuse behind bars, see, for example, Regina
Kunzel, Criminal Intimacy: Prison and the Uneven History of Modern American Sexuality
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008). More often than not, rape of men in prison is
the subject of derisive humor in popular culture masking a deep discomfort and homophobia.
But dismissive humor also hides the deeper threat that male rape exposes—the penetrability
and vulnerability of men.
Michael Scarce, Male on Male Rape: The Hidden Toll of Stigma and Shame (New York:
Plenum, 1997).
Sexual Abuse of Black Men
sex and emasculated. We also know through the handful of extant sodomy
cases that males have been so abused. The seventeenth-century Connecticut gentleman Nicholas Sension, for example, sexually preyed on his male
servants. Virtually all of the cases of sodomy that came to the courts in
early America involved individuals violating status boundaries—instructors
on students, masters on servants. None involved peers.9
In the context of slavery, literary scholars have shown that sexual abuse
of men was part of the Spanish slave system in Cuba. Robert Richmond
Ellis argues that the account of former slave Juan Francisco Manzano “has
commonly been regarded as a searing indictment of a physical mistreatment
of slaves” but “can also be read as silent testimony to a kind of abuse largely
unacknowledged by historians of slavery and critics of slave narratives: the
sexual violation of male slaves.” As Ellis points out, the topic has largely gone
unexplored for a wide variety of reasons, including the obvious barrier of the
historical record in that “male victims of slave rape left behind no biological record in the form of offspring” as well as the prevalent homophobia
in traditional Latin American societies, which would have prevented men
from telling their stories given that “male sexual passivity . . . was particularly
stigmatized insofar as it was seen as entailing a loss of masculinity.”10
This article uses a wide range of sources on slavery—early American
newspapers, court records, slave owners’ journals, abolitionist literature,
and the testimony of former slaves collected in autobiographies and in interviews—to argue that enslaved black men were sexually assaulted by both
white men and white women. It finds that sexual assault of enslaved men
took a wide variety of forms, including outright physical penetrative assault,
forced reproduction, sexual coercion and manipulation, and psychic abuse.
It is difficult to determine with certainty the prevalence of the sexual
abuse of male slaves. Martha Hodes concludes that the sexual “coercion” of
black men in antebellum America “lurked as a possibility regardless of how
frequently it came to pass.”11 Antislavery movements documented relatively
more instances of such abuse than did previous eras. Nineteenth-century
sources discussing slavery in the South, for example, are more abundant
given the abolitionist movement, which drew attention to sexual depravity
to argue for the immorality of slavery as an institution. Given the variety of
social and cultural barriers to documenting the sexual abuse of enslaved black
men, however, it would be an error to assume that the pattern of surviving
See Thomas A. Foster, ed., Long before Stonewall: Histories of Same-Sex Sexuality in Early
America (New York: New York University Press, 2007), introduction and essays by Ramón
Gutiérrez and Richard Godbeer.
Robert Richmond Ellis, “Reading through the Veil of Juan Francisco Manzano: From
Homoerotic Violence to the Dream of a Homoracial Bond,” PMLA 113, no. 3 (1998):
Martha Hodes, White Women, Black Men: Illicit Sex in the Nineteenth-Century South
(New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997), 139.
sources reflects the historical practice of abuse. Indeed, the unlikelihood
that cases would have been documented at all suggests that it would be
safe to say that, regardless of location and time period, no enslaved man
would have been safe from the threat of sexual abuse.
In many ways the cases discussed here have been hidden in plain sight.
This article revisits instances that other scholars have cited in their studies
of sex and slavery. In particular, it is indebted to Martha Hodes’s research
on antebellum sex between white women and enslaved black men, Thelma
Jennings’s work on the sexual exploitation of enslaved women, and Deborah
Gray White’s study of plantation life for enslaved women.12 Through their
painstaking research in slave records, these and other scholars show that
the sexual abuse of enslaved women was ubiquitous. Establishing this now
widely accepted conclusion was itself a challenge, for historians had to argue
against deep-rooted racist depictions of enslaved women as hypersexual.
Turning to the sexual abuse and exploitation of enslaved men builds upon
the perspective of this recent literature to challenge the view of black men
as hypersexual and white women as passive and asexual.
Although scholars have acknowledged the sexual assault of enslaved
women, none to my knowledge have highlighted the sexual abuse of enslaved men. In part, we have taken our cues from the nineteenth-century
abolitionist writers who drew upon certain gender-, race-, and class-infused
understandings of sexual assault to appeal to a particular audience. As Martha
Hodes reminds us, though, it was not simply that sex between black men
and white women was uninteresting to abolitionists. Individuals recognized
that it was “dangerous to the cause” to insult the virtue of southern white
womanhood.13 The rape of slave men has also gone unacknowledged because
of the current and historical tendency to define rape along gendered lines,
making both victims and perpetrators reluctant to discuss male rape. The
sexual assault of men dangerously points out cracks in the marble base of
patriarchy that asserts men as penetrators in opposition to the penetrable,
whether homosexuals, children, or adult women. This article, therefore,
confronts our own raced, classed, and gendered perceptions of rape and
argues that we have a moral imperative to recognize the coerced sexuality
of enslaved men as rape. Narrowly defining sexual assault along gendered
lines has obscured our ability to recognize the climate of terror and the
physical and mental sexual abuse that enslaved black men also endured.
The sexual exploitation of enslaved black men took place within a cultural
context that fixated on black male bodies with both desire and horror. Sexual
Ibid.; Jennings, “‘Us Colored Women’”; White, Ar’n’t I a Woman?
Hodes, White Women, Black Men, 128.
Sexual Abuse of Black Men
assault took a wide variety of forms, but the common factor in all was the legal
ownership that enabled control of the enslaved body. Winthrop Jordan notes
the conflicting messages embraced by Anglo-American culture as it sought
to control and circumscribe the bodies of enslaved men and women, on the
one hand voicing repulsion for Africans, framing them as beastly, ugly, and
unappealing, while on the other hand viewing them as hypersexual. AngloAmerican culture had a long-standing view of black men as “particularly
virile, promiscuous, and lusty.”14 Although this view is consistently framed
as a negative one, given Anglo-American cultural norms of moderation
and self-control, it is clear that early Americans also saw erotic possibilities
and beauty in black bodies. We know, for example, that some slave masters
fetishized and objectified women of color, understanding that sexual abuse
was about power and not simply expressing sexual desire. The presence of
antebellum “fetish” markets of light-skinned enslaved women, in particular,
has been well documented by scholars. Edward Baptist, for example, argues
that the antebellum domestic slave trade might be reconsidered as a “complex of inseparable fetishisms” given the slave traders’ “frequent discussions
of the rape of light-skinned enslaved women, or ‘fancy maids,’” and “their
own relentlessly sexualized vision of the trade.”15
The evidence also leads us to speculate that an unusual interest in lightskinned men may have paralleled the more formalized and documented
fetish market in “fancy maids” that Edward Baptist has analyzed. Such an
interest is found in testimony presented to the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission (AFIC), which was established by the secretary of war
in 1863 to document the conditions of those freed by the Emancipation
Proclamation. White abolitionist Richard J. Hinton, for example, testified
that “I have never yet found a bright looking colored man” “who has not
told me of instances where he has been compelled, either by his mistress,
or by white women of the same class, to have connection with them.”16 In
another case, a man testified that a man who had been “brought up in the
family” was also coerced into sex by his mistress, his family connection suggesting that he was mulatto. We also have some evidence of light-skinned
black men as sexually prized. Testimony to the AFIC included reference to
light-skinned men as “fine looking.”17 One man told the AFIC: “It was an
extremely common thing among all the handsome mulattoes at the South
to have connection with the white women.”18 In the antebellum divorce
Winthrop D. Jordan, White over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, 1550–1812
(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968), 151.
Edward E. Baptist, “‘Cuffy,’ ‘Fancy Maids,’ and ‘One-Eyed Men’: Rape, Commodification, and the Domestic Slave Trade in the United States,” American Historical Review 106,
no. 5 (2001): 1620.
Richard Hinton testimony, quoted in Hodes, White Women, Black Men, 130–31.
James Redpath testimony, quoted in ibid., 127.
case of one white couple, Dorothea and Lewis Bourne, Dorothea’s chosen
lover, an enslaved man named Edmond, is described in the records by more
than one neighbor as “so bright in his colour, a stranger would take him
for a white man.”19 Such testimony raises the possibility that in this patriarchal society the sexual abuse of “nearly white” men could enable white
women to enact radical fantasies of domination over white men with the
knowledge that their victim’s body was legally black and enslaved, subject
to the women’s control.
Although we have no evidence for a sexual fetish market in black male
flesh, historical scholarship shows us that black male bodies might well be
eroticized by white observers. Jordan claims that Anglo-American culture
long held a fascination with the penises of black men and projected both
desire and jealousy upon an objectified and disembodied black phallus.20
Colonial accounts abound with recorded instances of masters and others
commenting not only on the nudity of slaves but on their bodies with a
certain fascination. As Philip Morgan reminds us, “daily encounters had a
sexual dimension” in part because slaves “wore little or no clothing.” One
observer in 1781 named William Feltman remarked on the reaction this
nudity might provoke among Virginia women, given that “young boys of
about Fourteen and Fifteen years Old” were “virtually naked.” Feltman
quipped: “I can Assure you It would Surprize a person to see these d——d
[damned] black boys how well they are hung.”21 Numerous abolitionist images also fixate on the black male body as perfection, highlighting
muscular bodies and, in almost pornographic detail, exposed buttocks,
enduring unjust abuse and degradation. William Benemann and others
maintain that the image of whipping exposed male flesh carried a homoerotic charge—one that mirrored the nearly obscene fixation on whipping
nude enslaved women, as has been suggested by scholars such as Colette
Colligan.22 John Saillant’s work on the eroticization of the black male body
in early abolitionist literature also contributes to this view that whites found
sexual appeal in black male bodies. He notes that this literature idealized
black male bodies in a manner that included an unusual focus on height,
musculature, and skin color. Accounts in late eighteenth-century and early
Lewis Bourne divorce petition, Louisa County, Virginia, 20 January 1825, quoted
in American Sexual Histories, ed. Elizabeth Reis (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001), 166–67.
Jordan, White over Black, 34–35.
Military journal of Lt. William Feltman, 22 June 1781, HSP, quoted in Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry, by Philip D.
Morgan (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 398–99.
William Benemann, Male-Male Intimacy in Early America: Beyond Romantic Friendships (New York: Harrington Park, 2006), 68–69; Colette Colligan, “Anti-Abolition Writes
Obscenity: The English Vice, Transatlantic Slavery, and England’s Obscene Print Culture,”
in International Exposure: Perspectives on Modern Pornography, 1800–2000, ed. Lisa Z. Sigel
(New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005), 67–99.
Sexual Abuse of Black Men
nineteenth-century American publications like the American Universal
Magazine and the Philadelphia Minerva described black male characters as
“the blackest, the best made, the most amiable,” “beautiful in shape as the
Apollo of Belvedere,” and “Tall and shapely.”23 Black men’s bodies could
be described in sympathetic tones: “Jack knelt down—not a muscle of his
countenance quivered—he was entirely naked, and was a remarkably muscular and well made man. He looked like a fine bronze statue.”24 Accounts
also discussed the “strength of limb, the roundness of muscle, mind, tender
affection, sympathy,” in efforts to combat slavery; such details served to
underscore the moral injustice of enslaving these men.25 It is also worth
noting that, despite the homoerotic nature of these accounts suggested by
their content, women made up the backbone of the abolitionist movement
and readily consumed such literature. Accordingly, these descriptions lead
us to conclude that white women were exposed to cultural ideas about
black male beauty, desirability, and physical prowess.
Yet at the same time, black men’s genitalia were subject to scrutiny and
punishment. Castration and other genital mutilations served as punishment
in the hands of overseers and owners as well as in popular depictions of
public enforcement of “justice.” Thus, the Boston News-Letter reported in
1718 the assault of a white woman but with a focus on black male genitalia
that warned off “all Negroes meddling with any White Woman”: “A Negro
Man met abroad an English woman, which he accosted to lye with, stooping
down, fearing none behind him, a Man observing his Design, took out his
Knife, before the Negro was aware, cut off all his unruly parts Smack and
Smooth, the Negro Jumpt up roaring and run for his Life, the Black is now
an Eunuch and like to recover of his wounds & doubtless cured from any
more such Wicked Attempts.”26 In 1762 a North Carolina enslaved black
man convicted of raping a white woman had his “private parts cut off and
thrown in his face” as part of his execution.27 While these articles recall the
depiction of black men as agents of sexual assault, still then a notion in
formation but one that would long remain in the American tradition, they
also underscore how punishments for perceived or actual sexual infractions,
in the hands of whites, focused on black male bodies and in particular in
maiming the genitalia of enslaved men.
Already in the era of slavery Anglo-American culture embraced a message about black men as particularly sexual, prone to sensual indulgence,
and desiring white women. Such messages undoubtedly served to demonize and define the population of black men but would also have raised the
John Saillant, “The Black Body Erotic and the Republican Body Politic,” in Foster,
Long before Stonewall, 314.
Colored American, 5 October 1839.
North Star, 17 November 1848.
Boston News-Letter, 3 March 1718.
Morgan, Slave Counterpoint, 405.
radical possibility for some women of the desirability of such men as highly
sexual and accomplished—a model of masculinity that highlighted power,
strength, and mastery rather than one of moderation and self-control.
Objectification of black men affected bodies and minds. Depictions of
sexual prowess and the myth of the black rapist constituted one form of
sexual abuse. This myth contributed to the legal and political disenfranchisement of black men from the earliest days of the Republic.28 Yet the psychic
toll was also high. Being told that one is hypersexual and uncontrollable
cannot be dismissed as mere racist caricaturing; for some men such messages
would have inflicted great emotional pain.
Like heterosexual relations between white men and black women, sex
between masters and male slaves undoubtedly occurred, sometimes in
affectionate and close relationships but also as a particular kind of punishment. That we have a handful of documented instances is noteworthy, given
the prohibitions against sodomy in early America, the absolute power that
owners wielded and that enabled them to keep such moments secret, and
the shame that was attached to being sodomized by a master and that could
ensure the victim’s silence.
Abolitionist literature demonstrates the possibility of the sexual assault
of enslaved black men by slave-owning white men of what was called the
planter class. John Saillant’s analysis of early abolitionist literature both
shows the homoerotics of the literature and provides examples of masters
who were said to be sexually abusing their slaves.29 In one such account,
authored by Joseph LaVallée, a slave named Itanoko was subjected to rape
by a white slaver named Urban. Urban was described as a “ravisher” who,
Itanoko explained, was “struck by my comeliness,” and he did “violate,
what is most sacred among men.” As Saillant explains, although Itanoko
was rescued, he found himself on a plantation in Saint Domingue, where
he met Theodore, “whose ‘criminal complaisance with the overseer’ allows
him to give ‘free scope to his irregular passions.’” As Saillant explains, “The
‘irregular passions’ apparently include sexual activity with black men, which
LaVallée calls ‘crime,’ ‘vice,’ and ‘rapine,’ all ‘enormities’ resulting from
‘unbridled disorders’ and ‘passion.’”30
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, published in 1861 by abolitionist
and escaped slave Harriet Jacobs (under the pseudonym Linda Brent), also
See, for example, Leslie Harris, “From Abolitionist Amalgamators to ‘Rulers of the Five
Points’: The Discourse of Interracial Sex and Reform in Antebellum New York City,” in Sex,
Love, Race: Crossing Boundaries in North American History, ed. Martha Hodes (New York:
New York University Press, 1999), 191–212.
Saillant, “The Black Body Erotic,” 303–30.
Ibid., 310.
Sexual Abuse of Black Men
included mention of male slave owners sexually abusing male slaves. Jacobs
alluded to this abuse in the context of the rape of slave women and girls,
lamenting that “no pen can give adequate description to the all-pervading
corruption produced by slavery.” That corruption extended beyond female
victims, for, as Jacobs wrote, “in some cases they exercise the same authority
over the men slaves.”31 Jacobs’s autobiographical account also includes an
incident between a slave named Luke and his owner that Abdur-Rahman
reads as “sadomasochistic” and one that “reveals in general the entwinement of desire and coercion that typifies the master-slave relationship.” He
writes: “Linda remembers Luke as a particularly degraded figure” sent to
the master’s son, a man described in coded terms as a depraved homosexually inclined individual. It was in this man’s service that Luke “became prey
to the vices growing out of the ‘patriarchal institution.’”32 Abdur-Rahman
points, for example, to passages in Jacobs like the following:
The fact that [the young master] was entirely dependent on Luke’s
care, and was obliged to be tended like an infant, instead of inspiring
any gratitude or compassion towards his poor slave, seemed only to
increase his irritability and cruelty. As he lay there on his bed, a mere
wreck of manhood, he took into his head the strangest freaks of despotism; and if Luke hesitated to submit to his orders, the constable was
immediately sent for. Some of these freaks were of a nature too filthy to
be repeated. When I fled the house of bondage, I left poor Luke still
chained to the bed of this cruel and disgusting wretch.33
Even while most of the accounts illustrating sexual abuse of enslaved men
came from the nineteenth century, eighteenth-century sources indicate the
practice was not limited to that era. Slave owners’ diaries, for example, also
reveal instances of sexual assault perpetrated by masters, indicating that the
literary examples reflected a certain social reality. The eighteenth-century
diary of a Jamaican planter named Thomas Thistlewood tersely noted two
incidents of homosexual assault. In one entry he recorded: “Report of Mr.
Watt Committing Sodomy with his Negroe waiting Boy.” The language is
specific enough to indicate this was a case of sodomy—not the more common attempted sodomy found in the historical records. It also notes the
power dynamic within a power dynamic by singling out a “boy” and not
an adult man. Thistlewood’s diary also noted “strange reports about the
parson and John his man.” While the term “strange reports” is not precise,
Trevor Burnard interprets it as meaning homosexual activity.34 Again it
Linda Brent [Harriet Jacobs], Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself
(1861), quoted in Abdur-Rahman, “The Strangest Freaks,” 236n13.
Ibid., 231. See also Benemann, Male-Male Intimacy, 149–50.
Jacobs, Incidents in the Life, 233.
Trevor Burnard, Mastery, Tyranny, and Desire: Thomas Thistlewood and His Slaves in
the Anglo-Jamaican World (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 216.
is worth noting that this act occurred between a slave owner and a close
personal servant rather than with a field hand. As such, this type of abuse
follows a broader pattern that suggests the closer the proximity to whites,
the more likely that sexual abuse was to occur.
In the story from eighteenth-century Maryland that opened this article, it is
clear that the unnamed enslaved man was also a victim of sexual assault. Yet
such stories have rarely been told by historians, and this account itself was
documented only by chance. One of the white perpetrators of the assault,
William Holland, was convicted of assault and battery on the free black
woman, Elizabeth Amwood. Holland petitioned the governor of Maryland
for a pardon. Included in the pardon file was a memorandum from Amwood
detailing the assault.35 The case illustrates the sexual vulnerability of black
women, to be sure. But we must also recognize the physical and psychological toll that such an event would have taken on the enslaved man, who was
unnamed. Forced to rape this woman at the point of a gun, not only would
he have had to deal with the legal and moral consequences of assaulting
a free black woman—someone he may or may not have known—but his
manhood was also usurped.
Other accounts of forced sex reveal that male slaves could also suffer
punishment for a forced attack. An abolitionist newspaper, the National
Era, reported in 1853 on the case of another unnamed man, described only
as a “negro man, belonging to H. France.” The man had been “burned at
the stake” for having “attempted to commit rape” and for murder. What
makes this case unusual, however, is that after the execution the “citizens of
Pettis county” requested that the France family leave the community, “having some suspicion that the negro was instigated to the perpetration of the
deed by his master.” In addition to “aiding and abetting the murder,” the
master was criticized for his “bad examples set before slaves, by conversing
with them in relation to the virtue and chastity of white women, and in
defamation of their character; thereby influencing them to commit deeds
of crime and rapine.”36 We must consider that France may well have forced
his slaves to assault white women, since to take the story at face value is to
accept the rhetoric of an ignorant, animalistic, and docile slave who, excited
by France, was set loose upon women.
At a minimum, this last story raises questions about how often slave masters used male slaves to inflict sexual punishment on women, whether free
Petitions for William Holland, March 1787, Governor and Council, Pardon Papers, box
4, folder 47, MdSA. See also Block, Rape and Sexual Power, 85.
National Era, 4 August 1853.
Sexual Abuse of Black Men
black, enslaved, or white, and about the toll that these forced rapes would
have taken on those men, who could rarely resist the will of their masters.
In this instance, it resulted in the punishment for the slave of death by being burned alive. It is important to note again that the man was unnamed.
His designation as only a “negro” man dehumanizes him, rendering him in
his assault on the woman a symbol perhaps of all black men, but we must
rehumanize him as another type of victim in a multilayered sexual assault
perpetrated by white men on both black men and white and black women.
Forced sex also took place within the context of so-called slave breeding. From what little documentation we have, we know the practice of
forcing slaves to reproduce had colonial roots. Most scholars identify the
early nineteenth century as the period of greatest expansion of this practice,
coinciding with the growth of slavery in the United States and the maturation of the domestic slave trade. In his account of his experiences as a slave,
William J. Anderson described what he knew about one master’s attempts
at forced breeding: “I have known him to make four men leave their wives
for nothing, and would not let them come and see them any more on the
peril of being shot down like dogs; he then made the women marry other
men against their will. Oh, see what it is to be a slave? A man, like the
brute, is driven, whipped, sold, comes and goes at his master’s bidding.”37
Many slave owners allowed enslaved men and women to develop personal
ties and to form relationships and families of their own choosing. Others,
however, clearly took a more active role in selecting for the qualities they
wanted in slaves, forcing some to have children or to live as husband and
wife. The conclusions that historian Thelma Jennings draws about the
power that slave owners held over enslaved women should be applied as
well to enslaved men: “The white patriarch had the power to force them to
mate with whomever he chose, to reproduce or suffer the consequences,
to limit the time spent with their children, and even to sell them and their
children.”38 Masters could and did force couples to have sexual intercourse,
and if “either one showed any reluctance, the master would make the couple
consummate the relation in his presence.”39
Testimony from a number of former slaves demonstrates how forced
reproduction had the dehumanizing effect of labeling certain enslaved men
as “stock men” or “bulls.” As Thelma Jennings explains with one example,
“On Mary Ingram’s plantation, the master made the decision on who could
and could not get married.” Or, in the words of Mary Ingram herself, “Him
select de po’tly and p’lific women, and de po’tly man, and use sich for de
breeder an’ de father ob de women’s chillums.”40 In another example,
Life and Narrative of William J. Anderson (Chicago, 1857), 24.
Jennings, “‘Us Colored Women,’” 46.
Ibid., 50. See also, for example, Berry, “Swing the Sickle,” 76–103.
Quoted in Jennings, “‘Us Colored Women,’” 50.
one former slave recollected how “Joe was ’bout seven feet tall an’ was de
breedinges’ nigger in Virginia.” He continued: “Once ole Marsa hired him
out to a white man what lived down in Suffolk. Dey come an’ got him on
a Friday. Dey brung him back Monday mo’nin’.”41 Another former slave
similarly noted how his master had prevented him from engaging in sexual
relations with only one woman, forcing him to reproduce with about fifteen
women and to father dozens of children.42
Forcing some enslaved men to reproduce with many different women
denied to them a fatherly role even while it prevented their children from
bonding with them. A Texas woman who had been enslaved attested to
this result when she noted that “half of us young negroes didn’t know who
our fathers were.” Similarly, one slave named Mary Young remarked: “We
never hardly knew who our father was.” Another slave, Millie Williams, also
commented: “Shuck’s nobody knows who der father waz.”43 It is possible
that African and African American men would have viewed this violation differently than Anglo-Americans, given Anglo-American norms of monogamy
and traditional West African matrilineal kinship practices, although these
differences would have become lessened within long-enslaved populations.
Nonetheless, men from both cultures shared the values of male independence
and mastery in a broad sense.44
Forced coupling also placed a premium on young and healthy men and
implied the lesser value of men who were beyond years thought suitable for
reproduction. As Thelma Jennings explains, the former slave Lulu Wilson
noted that her father was forced off her plantation once the slave owner considered him to be “too old for breeding.”45 Other men who might be young
enough to reproduce but were deemed undesirable were prevented from
fathering children. One Tennessee slave woman remarked that a “scrubby
man” would not be permitted to father children. Another slave woman,
Polly Cancer, noted that her suitor was forced by her master to discontinue
seeing her and told “to git coz he didn’t want no runts on his place.”46
The scholarly focus, reflecting the sources, has generally viewed these
forced couplings from the point of view of the assaulted woman, often
wholly neglecting the male participant. Thus, for instance, despite the very
rich testimony she mobilized to explain the sexual exploitation of enslaved
women when discussing miscegenation, Thelma Jennings concludes that
Quoted in Brenda E. Stevenson, “Slave Marriage and Family Relations,” in Major
Problems in the History of American Sexuality: Documents and Essays, ed. Kathy Peiss (Boston:
Houghton Mifflin, 2001), 169.
Jennings, “‘Us Colored Women,’” 51.
Quoted in ibid., 50.
See, for example, Daniel P. Black, Dismantling Black Manhood: An Historical and Literary Analysis of the Legacy of Slavery (New York: Garland, 1997); and Herbert G. Gutman, The
Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750–1925 (New York: Vintage, 1977).
Jennings, “‘Us Colored Women,’” 51.
Quoted in ibid.
Sexual Abuse of Black Men
“only the bondwomen could be subjected to the white man’s passion,”
overlooking the broader power that white men also held over enslaved black
men’s bodies and sexuality.47 Still, the sources can provide that evidence.
In one example, a slave woman named Rose Williams of Texas fought off
a slave man, Rufus, despite their owner’s decision to place them together.
Rose described Rufus as a “bully” and explained, “I don’t like Rufus.”
Accordingly, when he attempted to “crawl in” bed with her, she argued
with him. He never responded with physical force but instead pleaded with
her that she should “hush” and said to her: “Dis am my bunk, too.” Rose
used physical violence to discourage Rufus from being intimate with her,
giving him a “shove” and taking a “poker,” with which she “lets him have
it over de head.” Rufus did not respond with force but did let her know
that “dey’s gwine larn you somethin’,” indicating the punishment that
would await her for disobeying their owner’s intentions. The account as
told by Rose rightly positions her as a victim, but we should not overlook
that Rufus himself was placed in a position of powerlessness by his owner.
Rufus did not retaliate physically even after being assaulted. In the end,
however, Rose capitulated after being threatened by her mistress.48
In addition to being forced into sexual situations with women they did
not choose, enslaved men could also face the emotional withdrawal and
resentment of the women they were then supposed to seduce and marry.
Rufus, for example, faced the physical resistance of Rose Williams. After
the freeing of the slaves, she was able to leave Rufus, with whom she bore
only two children, which some have taken to suggest a resistance to him
throughout their “marriage.” Jennings’s observations on the psychic trauma
of forced marriage for women should also be applied to men. Forced marriage, she argues, caused both “physical and mental anguish” and “may
have even caused greater humiliation than concubinage . . . since marriage
was long term.”49 A level of resentment and even hatred could more easily
be aimed at the enslaved male husband than at the slave master or white
overseer. One woman, Mary Gaffner, told her interviewer: “I just hated the
man I married . . . but it was what Master said do.”50 In forced coupling,
the levels of victimhood were multilayered.
Men such as Joe in Virginia who were forced to have children with many
women might also have found themselves unwanted within the slave community. These unions might have led to children who would have been desired by the white planter class but certainly not always by enslaved women.
Some slave women, for example, rejected husbands and lovers because of
their promiscuity, as did one woman “on account of his having so Many
Ibid., 61.
Rose Williams interview, in When I Was a Slave: Memoirs from the Slave Narrative Collection, ed. Norman R. Yetman (Mineova, NY: Dover, 2002), 146–49.
Jennings, “‘Us Colored Women,’” 49.
Quoted in ibid., 47.
Children.”51 Deborah Gray White notes in one example that after a slave
named Molly lost her husband because he ran away, she was “given” a new
husband—meaning forced into another arrangement to produce children.
Despite having nine children together, however, Molly later rejected this
man and exclaimed that he was not her “real” husband despite their years of
cohabitation. “In Molly’s heart her real husband was the man sold away by
their master.”52 For such men the rejection and resentment of their forced
wives would have further compounded their dehumanized situation.
Records from the period immediately after slavery indicate the desire of
former slaves both to find family members who had been sold away and to
remove themselves from forced spouses. Men and women found themselves
able to extricate themselves from sexual partners they had not selected and,
in many cases, not wanted. The Florida General Assembly, for example, created legislation for those who sought to legalize their chosen families and
spouses but came under fire for failing to address the problem of those who
had previously been forced into marriage and who were “opposed to being
regularly joined in the bonds of matrimony” with these unwanted spouses.53
The forced coupling of enslaved men and women denied the individuality of both. Continuing to overlook the victimization of men in such
sexual assaults not only denies the full extent of that sexual abuse but also
continues dangerously to draw on long-standing stereotypes of black male
sexuality that positions black men as hypersexual. In some instances of forced
coupling, undoubtedly, some men took pleasure, as did some women. In
other instances, for both partners, it may have been a last resort to avoid
punishment from masters or overseers. In all such cases, white men controlled the bodies of both black men and women.
The traditional denial of white women’s sexual agency has contributed
to our obscured view of those white women who sexually assaulted and
exploited enslaved men. Indeed, the abuse of black men at the hands of
white women stands on its head the traditional gendered views of racialized
sexual assault. Yet as historians have demonstrated, despite the legal and
cultural prohibitions against sex between black men and white women in
early America, occurrences were far from rare. Many examples, from a wide
range of sources, demonstrate no outright violence or threat of physical
harm to the black men (enslaved and free) but highlight that it was well
Quoted in White, Ar’n’t I a Woman?, 156–57.
Ibid., 149.
Untitled letter from 1st Lt. F. E. Grossman to the Actg. Asst. Adjt. General, 1 October
1866, quoted in Families and Freedom: A Documentary History of African-American Kinship
in the Civil War Era, ed. Ira Berlin and Leslie S. Rowland (New York: New Press, 1997), 171.
Sexual Abuse of Black Men
understood that white women did at times take the initiative in these interactions. As with relations between white men and enslaved women, sexual
contact between white women and enslaved men ranged from affectionate
to violent. Even presumably affectionate and long-term relationships must
be reconsidered given the context of slavery. As scholars remind us, the apparently affectionate relationships of enslaved women and white men took
place within the context of absolute power over life and limb and therefore
must not be viewed as consensual. Few scholars, however, have viewed the
relationships of enslaved men and free white women through the lens of
sexual abuse in part because of gendered assumptions about sexual power.
White women’s desire for sexual intimacy with black men was noted by
more than one early American observer, sometimes in the form of derisive attacks against the women involved. For example, in 1731 one white
woman declared about another woman that she “would have Jumpt over
nine hedges to have had a Negroe.”54 One Maryland planter commented in
1739 that a white woman who had heard about a slave rebellion from one
of her slaves did nothing because “perhaps She had a mind for a black husband.”55 In 1769, after giving birth to a black child, one woman in Maryland
was condemned in the newspaper for “pollut[ing]” her husband’s bed.56
Another woman in 1785 in Virginia was punished by her church for “committing fornication by cohabiting with a negro.”57 Thomas Thistlewood’s
eighteenth-century diary denounced a white woman in Jamaica who was
“making free” with male slaves.58 His comment, although brief, indicated
her agency in the matter and reminds us that in such cases it is wrong for
us to assume that the enslaved man would be necessarily perceived as the
sexual aggressor in such encounters.
Philip Morgan’s research on the eighteenth-century Chesapeake and
Lowcountry regions of the American colonies revealed numerous instances
of white women engaged in sexual relationships with enslaved men. In
early eighteenth-century Maryland, for example, one woman who lived
with an enslaved man had seven children, although Morgan emphasizes
the man’s agency in this instance by noting that she “bore him” seven
children.59 The divorce case of Dorothea and Lewis Bourne, a focus of
Hodes’s study and mentioned above, reveals another instance that tells us
that such cases were far from rare. In this 1825 divorce, testimony from
neighbors and friends revealed that Dorothea had enjoyed a long-term
Anne Batson v. John Fitchet and Wife Mary (1731), quoted in Morgan, Slave Counterpoint, 401–2.
Stephen Bordley to Matt Harris, Annapolis, Maryland, 30 January 1739, quoted in
Jordan, White over Black, 154.
Maryland Gazette, 12 October 1769, quoted in Morgan, Slave Counterpoint, 402.
Hartwood Baptist Church, 25 June 1785, quoted in Morgan, Slave Counterpoint, 402.
Burnard, Mastery, Tyranny and Desire, 216.
Morgan, Slave Counterpoint, 400, emphasis added.
relationship with a neighbor’s slave, Edmond, with whom she had probably
had several children. Neighbors revealed themselves to be well aware of her
conduct and, perhaps more surprisingly, did not frame it as wholly unusual.
Martha Hodes argues that this incident provides yet more evidence that
black men were not necessarily assumed to be the initiators in such relationships and that the figures of the aggressive black man and the sexually
passive white woman had not yet emerged as cultural stereotypes. Indeed,
Judith Richardson, who owned Edmond, testified that Dorothea was often
seen “lurking about her negroes houses.”60
Abolitionist literature also occasionally drew attention to white women’s
agency in depictions of interracial intimacy. Harriet Jacobs noted in her
account that sex between white women and black men was not all that unusual, as did another former slave named J. W. Lindsay, who said: “There are
cases where white women fall in love with their servants.”61 Martha Hodes
explains that one African American told the AFIC that when he had worked
as a steward on the Mississippi River, it was common for black men who
worked on the river to exchange information about “the desires of certain
white women to ‘sleep with them.’”62 Another told the AFIC that during
his time in Tennessee he observed that “planters here in Tennessee have
sometimes to watch their daughters to keep them from intercourse with
the negroes. This though of course exceptional, is yet common enough to
be a source of uneasiness to parents.”63
That it was understood that white women at times took the initiative in
interracial sex is not, of course, in itself evidence of the sexual abuse of enslaved men, although it is worth repeating that the enslaved status of black
men in such interactions made them necessarily vulnerable. Other evidence
more clearly points to instances of coercion and sexual exploitation and
should lead us to conclude that white men were not the sole perpetrators
of sexual coercion or the sexual abuse of enslaved black men and women.
Hinton told the AFIC that one slave recounted to him a story of being
“ordered” “to sleep with” his mistress within a year of her husband’s death,
something that he said had happened “regularly.”64 Testimony from Hinton
before the AFIC also told of hearing that “colored men on that river knew
that the women of the Ward family of Louisville, Kentucky, were in the habit
of having the [black] stewards, or other fine looking fellows, sleep with them
when they were on the boats.”65 There is hint of the men’s coercion in these
comments, and certainly much more than a hint of the women’s agency.
Bourne divorce petition, 165–67. See also Hodes, White Women, Black Men, 68–95.
Hodes, White Women, Black Men, 133; Lindsay interview in ibid., 400–401.
Ibid., 128–29.
Testimony of Maj. George L. Stearns, Nashville, Tennessee, 23 November 1863, quoted
in ibid., 127.
Hinton testimony in ibid., 131.
Ibid., 130.
Sexual Abuse of Black Men
Hinton’s testimony also revealed something about the variety of tactics
that women employed toward the men in such circumstances, many of them
strikingly similar to the strategies employed by white owners against black
women. “I have generally found that, unless the woman has treated them
kindly, and won their confidence, they have to be threatened, or have their
passions aroused by actual contact.”66 Here we see that direct threats or
indirect manipulation, with a more subtle threat of violence, accompanied
some of these relationships. Even in the physical contact and arousal that
Hinton mentioned, once made, the man would have little recourse to resist.
Other sources supported the testimony before the AFIC and show the
possibility of the exploitation of enslaved men by white women, even in
seemingly benign relationships. Court testimony from an 1841 Kentucky
case likewise involved an enslaved man and a white woman who lived together as husband and wife and whose case had come to court over the
woman’s ability to sell her own land. The court declared that their relationship was not marriage but was instead one of “concubinage,” given the
power imbalance between them. Moreover, the case included testimony that
revealed the power dynamic within the relationship, since it was reported
that the white woman “sometimes threatened to sell” her concubine, James.67
As Hodes argues, white women of the planter class were certainly able
to wield power over black men, although all white women could coerce
enslaved black men given the legal and social setting in which they lived.
Planter-class women might more easily and more believably have persuaded
the community to view them as innocent victims of their sexual contact with
black men. One black man who recruited black Union soldiers told the AFIC
that another black man had told him how white women could assume the
mantle of white female purity to facilitate the sexual assault of black men.
Even women who may have been physically smaller and weaker than their
victims thus wielded a powerful threat. The recruiter testified about “a
young girl” who “got him out in the woods and told him she would declare
he attempted to force her, if he didn’t have connection with her.” Others
testified that this sort of coercion was not unusual, and one Patrick Minor,
for example, told Hinton that he knew of “several cases of the same kind.”68
As an alternative to or in conjunction with threats of retribution, some
white women may have wielded the purse as a means of coercing enslaved
men to have sex with them. That is to say, some men may have been paid
for their sexual services to white women. One black steward reported that
a white woman from Louisville, Kentucky, “offered him five dollars to arrive at her house in Louisville at a particular time.”69 The words suggest
that she was negotiating a way to discretely engage in sex with him. Others
Ibid., 131.
Armstrong v. Hodges, from Franklin County, Kentucky (1841), quoted in ibid., 133–34.
Hinton testimony in ibid., 135.
Ibid., 130.
may have done the same. Enslaved men, like enslaved women, may well
have negotiated opportunities that sex under slavery presented them to
their advantage. One black man testified to the AFIC precisely how such
encounters might have begun: “I will tell you how it is here. I will go up
with the towels, and when I go into the room the woman will keep following me with her eyes, until I take notice of it, and one thing leads to
another. Others will take hold of me and pull me on to the sofa, and others
will stick out their foot and ask one to tie their boot, and I will take hold
of their foot and say ‘what a pretty foot!’”70
Regardless of the circumstances that prompted these varied arrangements, many of them clearly took place in the context of servitude and
highlighted the power of the slave-owning mistress over the enslaved man.
Harriet Jacobs, in her mention of a white woman who preyed on a male
slave, wrote that she had picked a man who was “the most brutalized,
over whom her authority could be exercised with less fear of exposure.”71
Anecdotes such as these suggest that some white women initiated sexual
encounters and made clear what they wanted, knowing that their cultural
role, the sexual innocence expected of them, helped to hide their actions.
Jacobs’s account noted that she was personally familiar with this household,
and she suggested that the woman preyed on more than one man, saying
that the woman “did not make advances . . . to her father’s more intelligent
servants” but singled out for sexual assault instead a man “over whom her
authority could be exercised with less fear of exposure” because he was so
traumatized. Such a man, it is suggested, had been terrorized into submission on the plantation, and she took advantage of his state of mind to force
herself upon him—with the threat of additional punishment if he did not
accept her assault and if he did not keep it clandestine.
Wives and daughters of planters who formed these sexual relationships
were simply taking advantage of their position within the slave system.
Having sex with their white counterparts in the insular world of the white
planter class, if exposed, would certainly have risked opprobrium, and even
gossip about their public actions might have marred their reputations.
Daughters of planters could use enslaved men in domestic settings, however,
and retain their virtue and maintain the appearance of passionlessness and
virginity while seeking sexual experimentation. In other words, one of the
ways that some southern women may have protected their public virtue
was by clandestine relations with black men. Hinton also told the AFIC
that a white doctor reported to him that in Virginia and Missouri, “white
women, especially the daughters of the smaller planters, who were brought
into more direct relations with the negro, had compelled some one of the
men to have something to do with them.”72
Redpath testimony in ibid., 130.
Jacobs, Incidents in the Life, quoted in ibid., 133.
Hinton testimony in ibid., 131.
Sexual Abuse of Black Men
Sons of planters also engaged in such conduct, as Hinton also noted,
even suggesting that young women imitated the behavior of their brothers.
Daughters of wealthy individuals on the American frontier, he explained,
where interaction with male suitors was also relatively limited as it was for
planters’ daughters given social constraints, noted that they “knew that
their brothers were sleeping with the chambermaids, or other servants,
and I don’t see how it could be otherwise than they too should give loose
to their passions.”73 Another man reported that the conditions of slavery
brought about not only the “promiscuous intercourse among blacks, and
between black women and white men,” but also created a context that
encouraged white women to be “involved” in the “general depravity.”74
Harriet Jacobs wrote that daughters “know that the women slaves are subject
to their father’s authority over men slaves” and use their example to coerce
certain male slaves into being their sexual partners. Although Hinton and
Jacobs perhaps could not conceive of women taking the initiative on their
own and so understood them as following the example set by their fathers
and brothers, we should note that the women seem to have engaged in the
same behavior as the men, if not perhaps as many women as men.
As historians have often pointed out, the widespread presence of persons
of mixed racial ancestry across the American South in the era of slavery has
stood as firm evidence, in the face of denials, that sex between white men
and black women took place on plantations. Madison Jefferson, for example,
who was himself a slave in Virginia, pointed out already in 1841 that “the
proof” of the rape of enslaved black women by white men was that “a very
considerable portion of the slaves are of the mixed race.”75 One major difference between white male exploitation of enslaved women and white female
exploitation of enslaved men is that white women, including daughters of
planters, risked giving birth. We do know that some white women became
pregnant, as did Dorothea Bourne. To be sure, white women risked less
than their black female counterparts, with their far greater control over
their sexual partners and greater access to contraceptive information and
technologies. Still, the risks were there. Although by law the status of a
child followed that of its mother, in many cases when a white woman had
a child who was fathered by an enslaved man, the child was taken away and
placed with the local slave community or sold into slavery elsewhere. Lewis
Jenkins, for example, was raised as a slave although his mother was a white
woman. As he told his family’s story, when his mother became pregnant,
she was “taken away from her playmates and kept in the attic hid. They
took me soon as I was born from her.”76
Ibid., 132.
Samuel Gridley Howe, The Refugees from Slavery in Canada West: Report to the Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission (1864), quoted in ibid., 132.
Madison Jefferson interview (1841), quoted in Blassingame, Slave Testimony, 221.
Lewis Jenkins interview, quoted in Yetman, When I Was a Slave, 77.
The sexual assault of enslaved black men was a component of slavery and
took place in a wide variety of contexts and in a wide range of forms. Given
the current and historical obstacles to documenting and recognizing the
abuse, the examples described here should be seen as the tip of the iceberg
and the abuse as far from rare. In addition to the direct physical abuse of
men that happened under slavery, this sexual exploitation constituted a type
of psychological abuse that was ubiquitous. Without recognizing male sexual
abuse, we run the risk of reinscribing the very stereotypes used by white
slave owners and others who reduced black men to bestial sexual predators
and white women to passionless and passive vessels. The cases discussed
here show that the use of physical force and direct threats of violence as
well as implicit power imbalances worked against enslaved men as well as
enslaved women. The documentary record confronts our own gendered
perceptions of rape and creates a moral imperative for historians to recognize the sexual assault of enslaved black men. The cases here should also
help us to rethink male sexual abuse in general not only in the antebellum
American South but also elsewhere, and future research could further refine
these findings along geographic and chronological lines of examination.
This article, therefore, is offered as a contribution to our understanding of
the experience of black masculinity in early America.

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