Who Was Julia Chinn?: An Excerpt from “The Vice President’s Black Wife”

The following is an excerpt from the introduction of The Vice President’s Black Wife: The Untold Life of Julia Chinn by Amrita Chakrabarti Myers, which is available wherever books are sold.

Who Was Julia Chinn?

Julia Ann Chinn was an enslaved Black woman. Born sometime between 1790 and 1797, Julia was originally owned by Richard’s parents, Robert and Jemima Suggett Johnson. Trained to be a domestic servant, Julia moved to Richard’s home, Blue Spring Farm, around age fourteen and became his housekeeper. The pair began having intercourse shortly thereafter, and Julia gave birth to the couple’s first daughter, Imogene, in early 1812. Although Julia remained legally enslaved for the rest of her life, she and Richard apparently “stood up” in front of a preacher and lived together as man and wife until her death from cholera in 1833.

Richard never married a white woman, and he referred to Julia as his wife. He also never denied his paternity of the couple’s two daughters: he introduced Imogene and Adaline to his colleagues, had both girls educated, and gave them substantial property during his lifetime. And because his political work kept him in Washington, DC, for six months each year, it was Julia who handled the daily operations needed to run the plantation and Richard’s other businesses in Kentucky. She dealt with local contractors, was responsible for the farm’s finances, managed the estate’s enslaved laborers, took care of visitors, planned all social functions, and helped operate Choctaw Academy, the boarding school for Native American boys located at Blue Spring.

Kentucky whites appeared to tolerate Julia and Richard’s relationship in certain ways. The couple attended a nearby Baptist church that Richard’s parents had helped found; Scott County merchants did business with Julia when Richard was away; neighbors attended large parties at Blue Spring Farm; and two local white men eventually married the Johnsons’ daughters. There were limits to the toleration, however. The couple’s younger daughter, Adaline, was excluded from attending a Fourth of July celebration alongside the county’s white women; area newspapers published angry editorials when Adaline married her white husband; and neighbors protested when Julia was seen riding around in the family carriage, a marker of white ladyhood. Black women who behaved like white women blurred the line between slavery and freedom. This also set a precedent of racial and social equality that couldn’t be allowed to stand, at least not without pushback.

The union of Julia Chinn and Richard Johnson reveals how most Americans of the day, not just Kentuckians, felt about interracial sex. While DC insiders had long known about Julia and Richard’s connection, it was mainly “pillow talk.” Even most news columnists referred to Richard as a bachelor—until he ran for the vice presidency. That was when editors, politicians, and laypersons all began engaging in public mudslinging about “amalgamation” (the antebellum term for miscegenation or interracial sex), publishing articles that attacked Julia, Richard, and their daughters. All this, even though Julia had been dead for almost three years. Their comments made it clear that white folks cared less that the couple had a sexual relationship and more about the open nature of it. People were particularly outraged that Richard had tried to place his now-deceased wife and their two daughters on an equal social footing with white women.

The union of Julia Chinn and Richard Johnson reveals how most Americans of the day, not just Kentuckians, felt about interracial sex.

The Vice President’s Black Wife not only highlights the existence and the limits of enslaved Black women’s power and privilege; it also illuminates a gap that existed between the ideals that Americans projected about themselves and life on the ground in their society. Antebellum whites engaged in rhetoric that was at odds with their behavior. They wrote pamphlets and preached sermons claiming that interracial unions didn’t exist or that they only took place among white persons from the lowest orders of society, who lived with their Black lovers in secrecy and shame. There was a divide between these public outcries against amalgamation and the real, private toleration that often existed in the face of such relationships, particularly at the local level.

Consider Julia and Richard, who entertained visiting dignitaries in their home and defied racial conventions of the day by appearing in public places together, such as church. This gap between what I call “rhetoric and reality” held its course, from the eastern seaboard to the new frontier, from urban ports to rural areas, from the Deep South to Washington, DC. Equally true was that toleration was not true tolerance, and even grudging accommodation could vanish in an instant. Julia Chinn literally lived with the daily reminder of her vulnerability. An enslaved Black woman who was owned by her husband, she was subject to his every whim. Had Richard died or tired of her, she could have found herself on the auction block. Julia also had no real protection from the law. If she or her daughters became the victims of sexual violence by outsiders, for example, there would have been no recourse through the Kentucky courts, which held that only white women could be rape victims. Richard’s protection was all they had, and it was a thin shield from the many horrors that the antebellum South held for enslaved women.

Amrita Chakrabarti Myers is the Ruth N. Halls Associate Professor of History and gender studies at Indiana University Bloomington. She is the author of Forging Freedom: Black Women and the Pursuit of Liberty in Antebellum Charleston