30 November 2018
“Dark History of Slavery in America”
Throughout our years of schooling we have learned that slavery in America was a difficult time for African Americans. But do people sincerely understand how hard it was for African American female slaves? Celia, A Slave is Melton A. McLaurin story of young fourteen-year-old Celia who became property of Robert Newsom. Newsome continuously rapes her from the first day of purchase until his death. On June 23, 1855 Celia struck her master as he tried to rape her. Celia’s murder trial took around the time when the Kansas Nebraska Act had reached its heights during controversy over slavery. Conflicts arose when questions about the rights of slaves to fight against slaves being abused by their master. McLaurin argues the true conditions of antebellum slavery. Celia’s story illustrates how masters abuse power over a single slave forced whites to make moral decisions about the nature of slavery. “The life of Celia demonstrates how slavery placed individuals, black and white, in specific situations that forced them to make and to act upon personal decisions of a fundamentally moral nature” (xii). “Her case starkly reveals the relationships of race, gender, and power in the antebellum South, in addition to illustrating the manner in which the law was employed to assuage the moral anxiety of slavery production.
Melton A. McLaurin is the author of nine books of American history, and several articles on various aspects of the history of the American South and race relations. Melton McLaurin received his Ph.D. in American history from the University of South Carolina in 1967. He also taught at the University of South Alabama prior to joining the UNCW department of history as chairperson in 1977. I believe that McLaurin wrote the story of Celia to give an example of historical incident that helps to illustrate the complicated issues facing pre-Civil War period. Melton acknowledges from the start that Celia’s story, in fact, reveals little about slavery as a broad institution. “Celia’s life also inform us little about certain aspects of slavery, for example the political economy of slavery, or the structure and activities of the slave community” (xii). Instead, what he presents is a case study in “the fundamental moral anxiety” that slavery produced”(xii), which he feels has been ignored by historians who focus on social or economic aspects of slavery, and therefore need not confront the more intimate moral issues blacks and whites faced daily when participating in an institution that dehumanized one group for the sake of the other.
Chapter One, “Beginnings”, provides background information about Robert Newsom, who was Celia’s owner and John Jameson who was her attorney. McLaurin goes into very deep detail comparing both men to another. Newsome made his living as a farmer and Jameson practiced law, served in the House of Representatives, and later became a minister. Both men were slave owners, McLaurin ends the first chapter with a statement that something bad is going to happen. “Of the two men, however, only one was what he seemed” (15). Chapter Two, “The Crime”, setting the plot of crime, Celia killing Robert Newsome. In the years leading up to the crime, Celia begins a romantic relationship with another slave, George. Celia confronts Newsome begging him not rap her anymore. Newsome does not listen to Celia and shows up one night to rape her. While trying to defend herself against being rape again Celia stricks Newsome with a stick and kills him, destroying any evidence by burning his body in her fireplace. “In the act that revealed the depth of her hatred for Newsome and his kin, she asked the boy to come into her cabin and clean out her fireplace” (36). Here McLaurin demonstrates the depths of Celia’s hatred towards Newsom. Chapter Three, “Inquisition”, begins with the search for Newsome’s body. William Powell, one of Newsome’s neighbors and leader begins questioning family and slaves. George, a suspect is questioned due to his romantic relationship with Celia. George tells authorities that he knows nothing but that Celia was involved. Powell begins to threaten Celia’s life, and the lives of her children. Eventually after wearing down, Celia admitted to the entire event. Celia was arrested and appeared in court the next day. Calloway County gets ready for a jury trial the State of Missouri vs. Celia, A Slave begins. Chapter Four, “Backdrop”, McLaurin presents the reader with a better understanding of the political issues arising during Celia’s trail. McLaurin begins by discussing the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which revoked the Missouri Compromise and “allow the possibility of the expansion of slavery into new federal territories of kansas and Nebraska”(63). He then goes on to discusses the New England Emigrant Aid Company, Senator David Atchison, a pro-slavery candidate struggling to retain his seat. He sends his own supporters into Kansas to scare anti-slavery supporters, bullying at the polls suspected Free-Soil voters with curses, threats of violence and occasional rifle fire. The chapter ends with the establishment of two governments in Kansas, one fighting to make Kansas a free slave state and the other fighting to make it a slave state. “The treat of open civil strife loomed ominously on the territory’s political horizon” (78). Chapters Five, “The Trial”, describes the judges for Celia’s trial, her team of lawyers, and the jury. The prosecution called six witnesses, including William Powell, Celia’s first interrogator, Jefferson Jones, Celia’s second interrogator, Virginia and Coffee Waynescot, Newsom’s daughter and grandson and two doctors who testified that the remains found were those of an adult male. The defense calls Dr. James Martin to testify to how difficult it would have been for Celia to have burned Newsome’s body on her own. Celia’s defense team approach the trial not to prove that Celia was innocent of the crime, but instead to prove her motive for committing the crime. “In fact, there seemed to be very reason for Judge Hall to suppose that John Jameson would give Celia a good, sound, if predictable and unimaginative, defense” (87). In this chapter McLaurin concludes that Celia’s lawyers sought to provided her with the best defense possible. Chapters Six, “The Verdict”, presents the judge to deliver specific instructions to the jury after each side has given their argument. The judge had to approve and deliver the instructions. Judge Hall rejects the majority of the jury instructions written in Celia’s defense making her guilty verdict and sentencing Celia to death. Chapter Seven, “Final Disposition”, Celia is illegally removed from the jail before her execution. “Evidence in Celia’s file indicates that the escape was planned, that Celia was removed from jail to prevent her death before a ruling from the supreme court, and that her attorneys, if not involved in her actual escape, were at least aware that she had been freed for that purpose” (124). During this time the mounting tensions between pro-and antislavery forces in Kansas threatened to erupt into a full-fledged civil war. Once Celia was returned her new execution date took place December 21, 1855. Celia, was hanged in Callaway Missouri. Witness precisely characterized Celia’s death: “Thus closed one of the most horrible tragedies ever enacted in our country” (135). Chapter Eight, “Conclusions”, McLaurin ends the book with a description of what Celia’s experience can teach us. The authors explains that slaves were almost powerless, and female slaves who were mistreated had no one to turn to for help. During the antebellum period, the vast majority of white women from slave-owning families tolerated the rape of female slaves. White women were themselves their husbands’ property, and weren’t in a position where they could easily oppose the rape of slaves. Celia’s case helps us understand the law of antebellum, emotions on slavery in Missouri, with southern law holding the rights of masters to their property.
In conclusion McLaurin does a great job telling Celia’ story, much can be learned from his portraying of her experience. By displaying the events that occurred between Celia and Robert Newsom, the author was able to show the personal aspects of slavery in addition to the economic aspects. Overall, Celia, A Slave is a book that should be read by anyone interested in the explanation and effects of slavery in the South during the 1800’s.