Unfixing Race: Class, Power, and Identity in an Interracial Family

Unfixing Race: Class, Power, and Identity in an Interracial Family

The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Volume 102, Number 3 (July, 1994)
pages 349-380

Thomas E. Buckley, S.J., Professor of American Religious History
Jesuit School of Theology, Berkeley
Santa Clara University

This article is also available as a chapter in Martha Hode’s (ed.) Sex, Love, Race: Crossing Boundaries in North American History.

In November 1816 Robert Wright, a slaveholding farmer from Campbell County in the Virginia Piedmont, petitioned the General Assembly for a divorce. Because the state courts lacked jurisdiction over divorce in the early nineteenth century, the legislators regularly considered such requests. Wright’s petition, however, was unlike any other the assembly had ever received. According to Wright’s account, his marriage to Mary Godsey in 1806 had been a happy one. Describing his behavior toward her as ‘kind and affectionate,” Wright acknowledged that Mary had brought him “great domestic comfort, and felicity” until 1814, when William Arthur “by his artful, and insidious attentions” replaced Wright “in her affections.” The couple eloped in January 1815, taking with them some of Wright’s property including a female slave, but were caught in neighboring Bedford County. Wright reclaimed his possessions, and Mary consented “to return to the Home, and the Husband she had so ungratefully, and cruelly abandoned.” Despite her infidelity, Wright maintained that he had again treated his wife with affection, hoping “time… would reconcile her to her situation and restore her to Happiness.” His hopes proved illusory. Ten months later, Mary and William ran off to Tennessee. Charging her with desertion and adultery, Wright asked the assembly to pass a law ending their marriage.

Thus far the case was familiar. Tales of infidelity, desertion, and scorned love the legislators had heard before. What made Wright’s petition unique was his frank admission that as “a free man of color” he had married a white woman and so violated Virginia’s law forbidding interracial marriage. While avoiding a rhetorical style that was either defiant or obsequious, Wright defended the validity of his union and presented his case in matter-of-fact fashion. His free status apparently empowered him with a sense of personal worth and dignity and a claim to equal treatment that he was unafraid to assert publicly.¬† Equally noteworthy were the affidavits submitted with the memorial.¬† Defying the mores historians commonly ascribe to white southerners, more than fifty white citizens of Campbell County ignored Wright’s miscegenation, endorsed his request for a divorce, and testified to his good standing in their community…

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