Poor Whites, Benevolent Masters, and the Ideologies of Slavery: A Slave Accused of Rape in the Antebellum South


This Article analyzes in detail a case involving a slave accused of raping a white woman in the 1850s to offer a fresh perspective on our basic assumptions about sex and race in the slave South. Joining a new group of “cultural-legal historians,” the author looks beyond the legal language of Southern legislatures and high courts, and focuses instead on the trial record of one case: State v. Pleasant. In doing so, the author uncovers the stories of ordinary men and women – the slave, his master, his accuser, his attorney, the jurors, and others – to see how the laws and attitudes governing sex, race, and slavery affected everyday lives. The approach adds both specificity and complexity to the debate over how the socio-legal regime responded to black-white relationships. Ultimately, the author concludes that an accusation of interracial rape did not produce the hysteria that traditional thought presumes. Demands for retributive justice were tempered by the interests of the master and his slaveholding neighbors, and by Southern notions about the honor and character of white men, white women, and black slaves.


Civil Rights and Discrimination | Criminal Law | Criminal Procedure | Law and Society | Legal History | Sexuality and the Law

Date of this Version

March 2006