Notorious in the Neighborhood: Sex and Families across the Color Line in Virginia, 1787-1861

Notorious in the Neighborhood: Sex and Families across the Color Line in Virginia, 1787-1861

Notorious in the Neighborhood: Sex and Families across the Color Line in Virginia, 1787-1861

Notorious in the Neighborhood: Sex and Families across the Color Line in Virginia, 1787-1861


Laws and cultural norms militated against interracial sex in Virginia before the Civil War, and yet it was ubiquitous in cities, towns, and plantation communities throughout the state. In Notorious in the Neighborhood, Joshua Rothman examines the full spectrum of interracial sexual relationships under slavery--from Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings, and the intertwined interracial families of Monticello and Charlottesville to commercial sex in Richmond, the routinized sexual exploitation of enslaved women, and adultery across the color line. He explores the complex considerations of legal and judicial authorities who handled cases involving illicit sex and describes how the customary toleration of sex across the color line both supported and undermined racism and slavery in the early national and antebellum South.

White Virginians allowed for an astonishing degree of flexibility and fluidity within a seemingly rigid system of race and interracial relations, Rothman argues, and the relationship between law and custom regarding racial intermixture was always shifting. As a consequence, even as whites never questioned their own racial supremacy, the meaning and significance of racial boundaries, racial hierarchy, and ultimately of race itself always stood on unstable ground--a reality that whites understood and about which they demonstrated increasing anxiety as the nation's sectional crisis intensified.


Late on the night of September 3, 1792, in Henrico County, Virginia, two white men named Peter Franklin and Jesse Carpenter took captive a runaway slave boy they found in the home of a free woman of color named Angela Barnett. Questioning the boy led the two men to believe that Barnett harbored other runaways, and they returned to the house the next night. After forcing their way inside, they and Barnett engaged in a verbal and physical confrontation, during which Franklin advanced toward Barnett with a weapon in his hand. But before Franklin could reach her, Barnett grabbed an adze from behind a trunk and drove its blade six inches deep into Franklin’s skull, fatally wounding him. Barnett was arrested and sent to jail to await trial. in April 1793 a jury found her guilty of murder and sentenced her to hang.

Angela Barnett lived just outside the city limits of Richmond, but she had worked in the city proper for many years and had powerful friends among the white elite of Virginia’s capital. Dozens of Barnett’s supporters pleaded with Governor Henry Lee not to hang her, and they assured him that she was not normally a violent woman. William Richardson, with whose family Barnett had lived around 1780, wrote that she had always “conducted herself in a very decent & orderly manner.” Major William Duval, one of Richmond’s most prominent citizens, sent a note to the governor indicating that Barnett had lived with his family for an entire year, during which time “she conducted herself as a faithful servant, and had the care of my children, which Trust she discharged with Integrity & Fidelity.” Thirty-eight other Richmonders—most of whom were white women from the city’s wealthiest neighborhood— cosigned a petition recommending mercy for Barnett. the support of Barnett’s influential white friends, however, appears to have had no impact on the governor, who ignored their petitions. Barnett’s execution remained on schedule.

On May 9, 1793, just eight days before her sentence was to be carried out, Barnett took matters into her own hands. She wrote to the governor . . .

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