Base Wretches and Black Wenches: A Story of Sex and Race, Violence and Compassion, During Slavery

Base Wretches and Black Wenches: A Story of Sex and Race, Violence and Compassion, During Slavery

Alabama Law Review
Volume 59 (2008)
pages 1501-1555

Jason A. Gillmer, Associate Professor of Law
Texas Wesleyan School of Law

This Article examines in detail the local and trial records of a nineteenth-century Texas case to tell the story of a white slave master who had a thirty-year relationship with a female slave. This is a story of complexities and contradictions, and it is a story designed to add depth and detail to our current assumptions about the content of sex between the races during slavery times. Indeed, through these local records—a source traditionally underused by legal historians—the Article provides us with a pathway into the consciousness of ordinary people, and suggests a world with much more flexibility and fluidity along the lines of race and slavery than traditional accounts allow. The amount of sexual exploitation that took place under slavery will surprise no one; but, to hear the former slaves who lived on this plantation talk about it, this couple, at least, lived together as man and wife. It is this story—the story of the everyday life of slavery—that this Article seeks to tell, illuminating in the process a social order that was predicated on racial domination yet where men and women, white and black, often defied those ideologies. Ultimately, this Article concludes that the master narrative of rape so familiar to students of the subject is inadequate to account for a case like this, and urges us instead to focus on the fissures and blind spots created in the logic of slavery to further our understanding of the South and the relations between the races.


In 1861, with the country in the midst of the Civil War, John C. Clark died at his home in Wharton County, Texas. He left a large estate, consisting of lands, slaves, and personal assets, valued at almost a half a million dollars. Ten years later, his three adult children filed suit to maintain what, they claimed, rightfully belonged to them. Their only problem: they were—under the law—black, and John Clark had been white.

What ensued was a lengthy trial, consisting of dozens of witnesses testifying about John Clark, his life, his holdings, and his relationship with a “dark mulatto” woman named Sobrina, Clark’s long-time slave and the mother of the three plaintiffs. For Clark died without a will, and since no heirs came forward in the immediate aftermath of his death, the local court ordered his property sold, and then had the proceeds deposited in the public trust. But with that much money at stake, it did not take long for forgotten relatives from as far away as Virginia to descend on the small community, many claiming that they were entitled to the vast estate despite never having met the man whom they now so eagerly embraced. But for the jury listening to testimony in the case of Clark v. Honey these other filings were of little importance. For them, the question of whether the three persons before them were entitled to take under the laws of intestacy was deceptively simple: were they John Clark’s legitimate children, or, stated differently, were John and Sobrina husband and wife?

The ensuing trial and its aftermath, however, proved to be far more complicated than anyone on that mild December day likely could have anticipated. Indeed, the question of whether Clark’s children were entitled to inherit his property took years to resolve—the case and its offshoots occupied the courts for the next several decades—and the issues it raised remain problematic for scholars interested in questions of race and slavery even today. No one doubted then and no one doubts now that white men were involved sexually with their female slaves. But the question of whether terms like “caring,” “devotion,” and “love” can be used to describe these relations remains controversial. Twenty years ago, in her landmark study, Deborah Gray White turned contemporary analysis of the sexual aspects of slavery on its head when she looked at the subject from the perspective of black women, not white men. Since that time, there has been an impressive outpouring of scholarship, reminding us that there was nothing romantic about planters taking advantage of their slave women. Sex in these circumstances was about power: it was brutal, it was ugly, and it was rape.

But to hear John Clark’s former slaves talk about the couple that occupied the small rustic cabin on the banks of the Colorado River, their relationship, at least, was anything but violent. “Clark and Sobrina lived together as man and wife until their deaths,” said one witness.10 Another agreed: “Sobrina had no other husband and Clark no other wife.” Such testimony throws the master narrative of rape into flux, suggesting the need to reexamine the broad generalizations about the nature of these relationships and the people involved. It is unlikely, in this case or in most others, that the relationship ever evolved into an entirely consensual one—Sobrina, after all, remained Clark’s slave until his death, inevitably tilting the relationship toward power and dominance. But if we listen to Clark’s former slaves—witnesses who arguably knew best—the relationship consisted of something more. How much more is the question, and it is the same question that a jury of twelve men were asked to answer in December of 1871, two years after Sobrina, now free, had passed away.

This Article, through the close examination of John Clark’s relationship with Sobrina, seeks to broaden our understanding of sex between the races by focusing on a case that seems both unusual yet strangely emblematic of the South in the years before the Civil War. This is a story of complexities and contradictions, and it is a story which illustrates the importance of taking into account not just the circumstances of brutal exploitation so familiar to students of the subject, but also the rare case of genuine affection. Indeed, the central argument here is that sex between the races was far more complicated than traditional accounts suggest, as blacks and whites, men and women, intermingled with each other in ways that defied both the legal rules and the social conventions of the time. Reducing these cases to simple descriptions of power and powerlessness misses out on the rich details they have to offer, and risks minimizing the impact they had on both the people around them and on the larger community in which the participants lived.

To that end, this Article seeks to take advantage of a recent trend in slavery scholarship, one that draws on local records—and particularly trial records—to make its essential points. These records, as others have stressed, have been a surprisingly underused source among legal historians, a group who has traditionally spent time mining published appellate decisions and statutory provisions for hints of Southern ideologies. Yet trial records open up doors that these traditional sources can never do, by providing us with a window into the consciousness of ordinary people. Through their lawsuits and their testimony, litigants and witnesses argued about nothing of national significance yet about everything that mattered most to them. They fought over property rights and slave sales, over contested wills and slave hires—and in doing so they reveal a world that involved far less adherence to the bright line rules of race and slavery than previous studies would have allowed. Indeed, when it came to such topics as interracial sex and its consequences, guardians of the Southern social order spoke with a uniform voice. “Hybridism is heinous,” Henry Hughes roared in 1854. “Impurity of races is against the law of nature. Mulattoes are monsters.” But at the local level, these seemingly rigid racial lines broke down with considerable frequency. Men left their entire estates to their former slaves; white women divorced their husbands after losing their affections to their black counterparts; and local prosecutors indicted interracial couples for living together as husband and wife. And the communities’ response—through testimony, through verdicts, through the filings of the cases themselves—tells us much about the substance of life of the ground, and about the complex interplay of slavery, race, sexuality, and power, in shaping people’s views of the world in which they lived.

In the end, then, this Article is about more than just John Clark and Sobrina; it is about a society struggling with its own identity. Far from the official ideologies of the South, men and women, blacks and whites, regularly met in the towns and on the streets—sometimes explosively and sometimes on more considerate terms. Yet, in either case, local communities had to reckon with a social order that never was how it was supposed to be. John Clark’s relationship with Sobrina, in other words, like so many others, forced a confrontation over the ideals white Southerners projected about themselves and the stuff of everyday life…

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