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Feb. 7, 2022

Julia Chinn

Julia Chinn was born into slavery in Kentucky at the tail end of the 18th Century. Despite laws against interracial marriage, Richard Mentor Johnson, the ninth Vice President of the United States, called Julia Chinn his wife, and he recognized their daughters together as his. Johnson left Julia in charge of his Blue Spring Farm when he was away in DC for months at a time, and Julia ran the household and plantation, managed the business affairs, and worked as both manager and nurse at the Chocktaw Academy boarding school for Native American boys on the property. When the Marquis de Lafayette visited Blue Spring, Julia Chinn organized a magnificent celebration in his honor, a party for 5,000 guests, where her daughters performed on the piano.

Even while trusting Julia with this authority and openly discussing their relationship, Richard never emancipated Julia Chinn; she remained his property until her death.

Joining me to discuss Julia Chinn is Dr. Amrita Chakrabarti Myers, the Ruth N. Halls Associate Professor of History and Gender Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington, and author of an upcoming book on Julia Chinn.

Our theme song is Frogs Legs Rag, composed by James Scott and performed by Kevin MacLeod, licensed under Creative Commons. The episode image is an artist rendition by Matthew Weflen.





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Kelly Therese Pollock  0:00  
This is Unsung History, the podcast where we discuss people and events in American history that haven't always received a lot of attention. I'm your host, Kelly Therese Pollock. I'll start each episode with a brief introduction to the topic, and then talk to someone who knows a lot more than I do. Be sure to subscribe to Unsung History on your favorite podcasting app, so you never miss an episode. And please tell your friends, family, neighbors, colleagues, maybe even strangers to listen too. On today's episode, we're discussing an enslaved woman who was the wife of the ninth Vice President of the United States. Her name is Julia Chinn. Julia Chinn was born in Scott County, Kentucky, sometime around 1790, although it may have been as late as 1796 or 1797. Her mother, Henrietta, was enslaved by the Johnson family. The identity of Julia's father is unknown, but he was likely a white man since Julia was said to be light skinned. Since both Julia and her brother Daniel went by the last name Chinn, it's possible they believed their father to be one of the local Chinns, maybe Richard H. Chinn, a law partner of Henry Clay. Jemima Sugget Johnson, the mistress of the plantation on which Julia and her mother were enslaved, likely raised Julia to be a house servant, which would have meant that Julia learned household tasks like cooking, cleaning and sewing. She was also educated in reading and writing, and at some point in her life, she learned to play the piano quite well. When Robert and Jemima's son, the unmarried Richard Mentor, Johnson, built his own house, Jemima supposedly said that he needed a housekeeper to oversee things, and sent Julia to him. However Julia ended up in Richard's home, she quickly became his companion and common law wife. Their daughters, Imogene and Adaline, were born soon after. Interracial marriage was illegal in Kentucky, and Richard and Julia never legally married, although it was rumored that they had a wedding ceremony with a minister, cake, and violin music. For his part, Richard openly referred to Julia as his wife, and he acknowledged their daughters as his own. In 1815, Richard's father, Robert died, and Richard inherited Julia. He did not emancipate her then or ever. However, while she remained enslaved, Julia was given quite a lot of autonomy in their home. Richard was away in Washington, DC for long stretches, as a US Representative until 1819, and as Senator until 1829. While he was away, Julia ran the household and the plantation. Richard wrote letters to his white employees, instructing them to obey Julia, and she managed the business affairs and was recognized as an authorized user of his credit accounts. In 1825, Richard's Blue Spring Farm was the site of a new boarding school for Native American boys named the Chocktaw Academy. The superintendent of the school was local Baptist minister Thomas Henderson, but much of the management of the school and the paying of teachers was done by Julia when Richard was away. Julia was also the school nurse. Several people enslaved at Blue Spring worked at the school, as cooks and maids, and racial tensions were sometimes high. When visiting dignitaries came to Blue Spring, Julia was the official hostess. In 1825, the Marquis de Lafayette visited and Julia organized a magnificent celebration in his honor, a party for 5000 guests where her daughters performed on the piano. Although Julia was never emancipated, her well educated daughters were. Despite the laws against interracial marriage, both of Julia's daughters married well respected white men.

Imogene's wedding to Daniel B. Pence was even performed in the Great Crossing Church that Julia and Richard attended. Richard gave his daughters large farms as dowries. In 1833, a cholera outbreak struck Chocktaw Academy. Julia, who was nurse at the school cared for the sick students before she herself became ill and died. Adaline died a few years later, and the final resting places of mother and daughter are unknown. In 1836, Richard Mentor Johnson ran for vice president with the backing of Andrew Jackson. Despite Jackson's support, the Democratic Party did not unanimously approve of Johnson. He was a war hero, having fought in the War of 1812, and having supposedly personally killed Shawnee Chief Tecumseh in battle, but his openly acknowledged relationship with Chinn was well known and unpopular, especially in the South. He won the nomination, barely on the ticket with Martin Van Buren. But in the general election, Van Buren received 170 electoral votes for president, while Johnson received only 147 for vice president, when the Virginia electors refused to vote for him. Following the practice outlined in the 12th Amendment, the Senate was charged with electing vice president and they elected Johnson along party lines, in February,1837. In the 1840 election, the Democratic Party nominated Van Buren without a vice presidential candidate, rather than re-nominate Johnson. Van Buren lost to William Henry Harrison. When Richard Mentor Johnson died in 1850, at age 70, Imogene was prevented from inheriting because she was deemed illegitimate. The Fayette County Court found that, "He had left no widow, children, father, or mother living." Johnson's estate was instead divided between his two living brothers. Joining me to discuss Julia Chinn is Dr. Amrita Chakrabarti Myers, the Ruth N. Hall Associate Professor of History and Gender Studies at Indiana University Bloomington, and author of an article in the Journal of African American history about Julia Chinn, and a book on Julia Chinn that will be published in 2023. Hi, Professor Myers, thank you so much for joining me today.

Dr. Amrita Chakabarti Myers  7:35  
It's really a pleasure to be on the show. Thank you so much for asking me. 

Kelly Therese Pollock  7:38  
Yes! So I am delighted to learn about Julia Chinn, who will probably not surprise you to know that I had not heard of her at all, before I saw you talking about her on Twitter. So we talk a lot on this show, of course, about history that's been forgotten or sort of discarded. But this is history that has been actively erased. And so I wonder if you could start by talking about just how how you sort of discovered Julia Chinn and got interested in her story.

Dr. Amrita Chakabarti Myers  8:08  
Oh, it happened in a couple of different ways, interestingly enough, which is how I realized I needed to write the book because it kept coming up. And one of those ways was that I was getting ready to write lectures for my US Survey class, which you know, covers everything from contact, back in the 14 and 1500s, all the way down to the Civil War in one semester. And as I was prepping and reading and getting, getting ready to teach the class, I came across a really small mention of Richard Mentor Johnson, the ninth Vice President of the United States, and it was in a survey textbook, and they were talking about, you know, it was sort of talking about abolitionists and how northern abolitionists were using Johnson as an example of a slave owner and a politician, you know, a negative example of a slave owner and a politician who abused his enslaved laborers, particularly Black women. He had all of these concubines and mistresses that he had relationships with. And this was a yet another reason why slavery should be abolished, you know, to protect Black women from slaveholders, like Johnson, who continued to be elected to public office, despite his very seamy, distasteful personal life. And I thought to myself, "I have heard lots of stories about people like Henry Clay, and of course, Thomas Jefferson and others who had these kinds of relationships with Black women on their plantations, but I've actually never heard of Richard Johnson." And you know, he's from Kentucky, which is very close, obviously, to where I live here in Indiana. And so I felt that was, you know, really unusual that I've never heard of this, because he mentioned that he had at least three different relationships with three different women, including one named Julia Chinn, who he had been with for apparently, say, a couple of decades. And so I kind of, you know, set it aside, I sort of bookmarked it, put a pin in it, I said, "Well, let me come back to this later." And then I ended up having a conversation with a colleague of mine, named Christina Snyder, who she's no longer here at IU. But at that point, she was here at IU, and she had just started working on a book on a Native American boarding school named Chocktaw Academy. And she's, she has now since subsequently published her book on Chocktaw Academy. And she was talking about Chocktaw Academy, she had just started doing the research, and the boarding school was actually located on the property of this prominent Kentucky politician named Richard Johnson. And he also had a really unconventional love life, quote, unquote. And I said, "Hang on a second, is this the same guy?" You know, and, you know, I sort of said to her, "I read about this guy in my textbook, is this the same guy?" And she said, "Yes, it is. But you know, it's a lot more complicated, you know, than the textbooks make it out to be." And we started having this conversation, and I said, "Good grief, like no one's ever written about this? 

You know, these relationships, these Black women, I said, "Someone really needs to write about this, someone really needs to write about the Black women, right? Someone really needs to write about how complicated these relationships were, how much privilege did they really have? Where were the boundary lines drawn? What could they do? What couldn't they do? Right? Private spaces, public places, where could they go?  Where couldn't they go? How free? How free was she? Right?  Was she enslaved? Was she free? You know, those sorts of things." I said, "Someone really needs to write a book about this." And I remember Christina sort of looking at me and saying, "Well, isn't this kind of what you do?" Because I had, I had written about similar relationships in my first book "Forging Freedom." A lot of the women I had written about, were not necessarily legally free, they were de facto free Black women. And the last two chapters of the book were about women who were in long term relationships with white men, and how complicated those relationships were, and how, you know, Black women were able to utilize those relationships to forge not necessarily completely free lives for themselves, but much, much better lives for their children and grandchildren. So it was about sort of a long term vision of freedom for their for their descendants. And so it was really a combination of that original sort of stumbling across this paragraph in a textbook, and then later this conversation with Dr. Snyder. So I kind of, by that point, I was finishing my first book, and I had the freedom to sort of think about whether or not I really wanted to get into this, you know, next next project, and I eventually came back to Christina and I said, "You know, I don't think there's going to be too much overlap between our two projects, because your she does need American Indigenous History. I'm a scholar of slavery and Black women, you know, I said, "Would it be okay with you if I kind of ran with this?" And she was like, "Absolutely, I think you should do it." And so here we are, how it all kind of came to be.

Kelly Therese Pollock  13:40  
Yeah. So when you were mentioning Jefferson and Clay earlier, I noted that Richard Johnson, of course, didn't see himself as being the same as Jefferson and Clay, thought that that he was doing something different in his relationship with Julia, but we can't know what she thought. Right? So can you talk some about what sort of what we can know and can't know about what the relationship was like?

Dr. Amrita Chakabarti Myers  14:07  
I'm so glad you asked me that question. And it's one of the things that I really unpack and talk about a lot in the book over and over again, because there are, you know, there are some people in, there are some people who I've met over the years who really would like for this to be a love story. Right? Because they were together for almost a quarter century, they being Johnson and Chinn. They had two daughters together. They lived together openly, in Scott County, Kentucky. Johnson didn't have a white wife. He never married a white woman. Julia was his only partner for almost 25 years. They lived together, you know, in, you know, on his plantation at Blue Spring Farm. He openly acknowledged her as his wife. He acknowledged the two girls Adaline and Imogene as his daughters. He raised, you know, they raised the girls together that you know, the two young girls were educated very, very well like, like the equivalent of private school education, like the way white women would have been in the 19th century, a classical education. They eventually grew up to inherit, like large large numbers of enslaved laborers cash as well as huge amounts of acreage, plantation property. They married white men from the local area. They became very well established, you know, sort of elite people. And this was so nothing about these relationships, in terms of his children, his relationship with Julia, nothing about it was secretive. It was very open, people, visiting dignitaries, like the Marquis de Lafayette came to visit. There were huge galas and parties at Blue Spring and everybody from the local area would come to these to these parties where the wine flowed. And, you know, the barbecue was like the people were eating and drinking till all hours of the morning. Former presidents came to visit, right? Julia was the hostess. She was the mother. She was the wife. She wasn't hidden in the back in the slave quarters. So it was everywhere. And so and and Johnson kept being elected to public office, term after term, congressman, Senator, Vice President of the United States; 44 years in public office. Now this is a very different scenario from someone like Henry Clay, who has a white wife and a white family and white children installed in the big house, and then is carrying on with enslaved women in the quarters secretly behind closed doors. And when his wife catches him, in the act with an enslaved woman and loses it, he sells the woman and their children together down river to New Orleans to hide the, you know, this, this the evidence of his crimes. And you know, he sells ,he sells them, right, in order to keep the peace with his wife.

It's also different from Thomas Jefferson, who, whose relationship with Sally Hemings doesn't occur until after he's a widower, and who never publicly acknowledges Hemings or their children. Even though people talk about it and gossip about it, even though it's somewhat of an open secret, Jefferson doesn't acknowledge it. He doesn't admit it. Sally's not upfront hosting parties at Monticello. He's not acknowledging their children and educating them in quite, you know, in the classical mode. He's not freeing them. He's not doing any of these things. And so it's not the same in either scenario, when you look at Clay or Jefferson, right, how Hemings is not the, you know, the mistress of Monticello, whereas Julia Chinn is known to be the mistress of Blue Spring Farm. When when Johnson is in DC for six months of every year, she runs the plantation, she runs the businesses. He has a tavern, she writes contracts, engages with vendors, she buys, she sells, she she's literate herself. So she's signing contracts. She's engaging in all of the business for the farm, she handles money, right? He trusts her to be right, just like a wife with a white wife would be she is, right, the overseer, the mistress like which is the not not a sexual mistress, but that's the word for a wife, right? She's doing all of the work that a legal wife would be in his absence. And so that's not Sally Hemings'  role. And that's certainly not the kind of role that the enslaved mistresses or concubines, for lack of lack of a better word played in Henry Clay's life. It's a completely different kind of scenario. But we don't know how Julia felt emotionally about her, about this relationship, right? What we can what I can observe and what I can talk about is the power she had, the role she played, the work she did, and how she was able to utilize their her relationship with Johnson to make a better life for her daughters, who ended up with a lot of things she did not. Julia was never formally freed. She was she was enslaved until the day she died. Her daughter were freed. Julia was never legally married to Richard Johnson. Her daughters had formal church ritual marriages to their husbands. Julia did not die with property in her own name. Her daughters have notarized deeds of property transferred to them, that the land acreage that I spoke about, the enslaved laborers' cash, right. So in Julia was informally educated, you know, by perhaps Richard's parents who owned her before they transferred her to Richard. Her daughters were formally educated by Thomas Henderson, who was the headmaster of Choctaw Academy. Everything that Julia did not obtain for herself, her daughters did; education, legal marriage, legal freedom, legal, you know, all, you know, all of these things,property. They became everything she was never able to get for herself, because of the sacrifices and negotiations that she engaged in over the course of her actually quite short life. Right, she probably died no more than 36 or 37 years of age in a cholera epidemic in 1833. But by the time she left, both of her daughters were legally married and established in very comfortable estates of their own, that could not be taken away from them. 

Kelly Therese Pollock  21:30  
Yeah. So let's talk about the the frustration, even the heartbreak of not being able to know how she felt. She, as you mentioned, she's a literate woman. She's writing letters, you know, what, so what happens here? Why, why can't we know? And, you know, and what do you as a scholar do, then to sort of try to fill in whatever gaps you can fill in?

Dr. Amrita Chakabarti Myers  21:54  
No, that's really the frustration with anyone who does early African American history, and especially Black women's history, from the period of the Atlantic world and, you know, 18th, 19th century certainly. My, my colleagues and friends who work on the 20th century have less trouble. Some of them complain about having too many sources and not knowing what to do with themselves. And I look at them, and I give them the side eye. I'm like, I really don't want to hear this. But I think that it really, I mean, I did the same kind of work in my first book. And having to I tell my students all the time that I really feel like that I am a historical private detective. You know, I cannot rely on or I cannot count on having a lot of direct first hand testimony from the women on whom I'm actually shining the light, who I'm trying to bring in from the margins to the center, on whom my narrative is actually based. And it can be it can be frustrating, it can be heartbreaking, it can also be very dangerous, because one of the things that we talk about a lot is the dangers that are inherent in trying to tell the stories of enslaved Black women through the sources of those who owned them and did the most violence against them, which is white men, especially. Right and so that that's where we have to be really, really careful. But we have to do the best that we can with what we have. And so it's I vacuum the archives clean of what I can get. But then we have to be willing to use more than just what the archive holds because the archive was never meant the archives were never meant to tell Black women's stories. They were never meant to tell enslaved people's stories. The fact that there are even remnants of Julia's voice in the archive is almost by accident. You know, Julia was literate she and Adaline and Imogene were all literate. They wrote copious letters back and forth between Blue Spring In Scott County, Kentucky and Washington, DC. And so I expected that I would have their voices. And yet I don't. Not one of their letters remains because Richard's white relatives went out of their way to do everything in their power to destroy those letters because they did not want one shred of evidence to remain because they were embarrassed and humiliated and disgusted by their brother, nephew, uncle's behavior over the course of his life. And so they literally tried to erase Julia and her daughters' very existence. But what they couldn't do is they couldn't erase church records. They couldn't erase newspapers. They couldn't erase other people's letters that went back and forth between Richard and Thomas Henderson, for example, the headmaster of Chocktaw Academy, or Richard's letters between other politicians of the day like Thomas Jefferson and Henry Clay, and Martin Van Buren, the President that he served under. They could not get rid of they so you know, between the newspapers, the church records, and also things like wills, and mortgage records, and land records, all those kinds of things, I have been able to very carefully, you know, public records, piece together, you know, Julia's life, like wrested from the archives. And I've also been very fortunate that some of the descendants of the family, I've been able to meet them, and work with them. And they've had some records and materials that they very graciously have turned over to me. But I've also had to learn to do a different kind of work, and say, "Since the archive was never meant to house Black women's stories, where else can I hear them?" So that means interviewing the descendants and talking to them about what they know of their family and using oral histories and testimonies. It means going to the land where Julia and her daughters lived 200 years ago, and looking for any remnants that might remain in terms of buildings, and looking at those buildings and thinking about geography and thinking about architecture. It means other homes that belonged to the Johnson family, visiting those sites. It means visiting the church that Julia and her family used to attend and looking and going to the graveyards that many Johnson family members are buried at, and looking at inscriptions on the gravestones. It means having a larger methodological understanding of sources. Because if we limit ourselves to strictly the written word, we are going to have a much narrower understanding of Black women's lives. And so that so it forces us to actually be much broader in our understanding of sources. And we have to be methodologically creative if we want to recreate the world in which Julia lives. We have to think about clothing, and what women and men who were enslaved in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries would have worn. We have to think about the food that they would have eaten. We have to think about the homes they would have lived in. And we have to therefore recreate the world that Julia would have lived in and think and her mother Henrietta and her brother Daniel and her sister-in-law Patience, and the work they would have done. So because because just because we don't have her voice doesn't mean that we can't recreate as best to our ability that we can the world that her and her family would have lived in, and thicken that context to the best of our abilities, so that we can bring 18th and 19th century rural Kentucky to life. And so that we can talk about Great Crossing Baptist Church and Blue Spring Farm, and Georgetown, Kentucky, and Louisville and Lexington so that we can actually vividly see it as best as we can.

Kelly Therese Pollock  28:29  
And so you mentioned that the church, Great Crossing Church. And that's one of the ways that you have fleshed out this world. And you have an article in Journal of African American History, I believe, where you talk some about that and the church records that you were able to find. Can you talk a little bit about that, about sort of looking at religion and church and understanding, not just the world, but very interestingly, the relationship between the whites who are running the church and the both enslaved and free African Americans who go to the church, and how that sort of changes over time and goes back and forth. And you know, it's a very interesting relationship there.

Dr. Amrita Chakabarti Myers  29:12  
I'm actually revising that chapter of the manuscript right now. So it's so fresh in my mind, I was just working on it. So I'm really glad that you asked me about it. You know, when I first came across the ledgers, which are housed at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and I started reading I mean, they're long, tall, tall, tall, ledgers and they go back. The Church was founded in 1785 by 16 people and two of those 16 people were Richard's parents, and the ledgers date back to 1793. So we have almost and right up until the present moment. So we have almost the entire run of the church's existence. We're missing the first eight years. But there's a little bit of historical information at the beginning, that kind of goes back and recalls the founding of the church and who was involved and where it happened. So even though we don't have the first eight years, we still know the 16 people who founded the church, and that it had happened in Richard's parents' house. But as I started reading through these ledgers very carefully with gloves, turning these pages very carefully, you know, I was it's basically the board minute meetings, right? It's board minute meetings, but in the board, minute meetings, they cover everything, including all of these infractions, right, all of the sins that people have committed, and how they are brought into the church to be disciplined, and expelled, or not expelled, and who's being disciplined, who's being charged, who's being expelled, who's being forgiven? What are the punishments? And so I read the first two entire volumes of the, you know, of the church's history that took me all the way through past the Civil War, which is, you know, of course, my time period. So I was completely full, I didn't actually know what I had while I was reading it, because as you read, you're just kind of absorbing all this information. And I'm just kind of transcribe, I'm trying to read the handwriting, and just transcribing it into my computer. Because I'm like anything that had anything to do with  the Johnson, the family at all, white, Black or otherwise, if it said, "Johnson," I put it into the computer. If it was Julia, certainly into the computer, if it had anything to do with a Black person, an enslaved person, whether they were related to the Johnsons or not, I put it into the computer, because I wanted to get a holistic sense of how this church was dealing with their enslaved parishioners. And then later, I kind of put it all, so I had bits and pieces. And then I started putting it all in order. And then I started reading about church life in Kentucky. And then I started reading more about the Second Great Awakening, which of course, I had a handle on, but I kind of wanted to say so it kind of came in stages.

And as I'm putting it all together, I'm thinking to myself, "Oh, this church, this church is really, really struggling." This church is struggling on a whole host of levels because it has the Johnsons at the heart of it, one of the one of the founding families, and the church is built on land that  Richard's parents donated. They not only helped found the church, they said, "We're going to donate land to you from our own holdings where you can build the meetinghouse on." So there you go, you see how important that his parents are to the church. And this is why the church that founded the church board is so willing to extend Richard and Julia and their daughters all kinds of privilege. They're like, "Okay, we will let you do all kinds of things that other churches aren't going to let you do. You know, even though it's illegal for interracial marriage to happen, we will met we will marry your daughters to white men, even though that's illegal in the state of Kentucky." Right? "Even though you and Julia are really engaging in what the Bible clearly states is fornication, we're actually not going to haul you in front of the church morals board for fornication, ever, even though other people are being dragged in for fornication all every week, right?" Every week, especially Black people, right? But never never are the Johnsons dragged in for fornication. Never is Julia dragged in for fornication. And even though enslaved people have to sit segregated in the gallery, which is on the second level, Julia and Richard have special seats on the floor just for them. Now, mind you, they're at the very back of the church. Like at the very back where nobody will have to kind of look at them. So it's kind of like see no evil like, but it's still on the floor. So it's sort of with the white people but at the very back of the floor, but it's not up in the gallery with the Black people with the enslaved people. So they make they make all kinds of accommodations because of who Richard is because of who his family is. But this is a church that has, right it struggles with "Are we all family in Christ? Are we all brethren in Christ?" That's the language that they use because they extend certain privilege to their other, you know, enslaved and free Black members of the Church, allowing them to have separate religious worship services, services and meetings, in addition to the regular Sunday services that everybody attends. Right, Black people are allowed to hold their own separate meetings, which is really amazing. Right? This is, this is a real, you know, sort of sign of, you know, hey, we we have some, there's some flexibility here. There's some privilege here for Black members that even though everybody comes together on Sunday, we're also going to let Black members hold their own separate, you know, separate meetings, but then there's times where they take that privilege away. Right? No excuse or explanation given, they just didn't take it away. It's like a way of saying "Look, it's not a universal right. We're still in charge here." We being white people, we being your slave, you know, your owners, your masters, you know, we still have the right to take this away from you. So there's this, there's this sort of weird kind of, but there's also men like Thomas Henderson, Headmaster of Chocktaw Academy, who preaches, right, on a rotating basis at Greater Crossing. And he's someone who believes that everybody, including Black people, should know how to read and write, and that they should know how to read the Word of God. And he spends time in the evenings after he gets off of work at the academy, teaching Black people how to read because he wants them to know how to read the scriptures. So there's these elements of progressivism in the church. Right, enslaved people go to the church, which is very normal for white churches, right in Kentucky and throughout the country throughout the South. But people from Chocktaw Academy also go to this church. During the revivals, during the Second Great Awakening, Native Americans are converted, Black people are converted. Julia Chinn has a conversion experience and is baptized during the revival of 1828.

Silas Knoll, one of the main preachers in 1828, baptizes, Julia, baptizes, dozens of Native Americans from Chocktaw Academy. He doesn't care that Julia is quote, unquote, living in sin with, you know, with Richard. He baptizes her upon her profession of faith. He baptizes many Native Americans, and he actually, you know, says some of these Native American students are so advanced in their understanding of the Scriptures, they should actually become preachers of the gospel. So this is a church that actually, in some ways, is very typical of its of its time, in terms of its, you know, various sort of discomfort with race. But it's also very progressive in other ways, because of people like Silas Knoll, and  Thomas Henderson, and because of its proximity to Blue Spring Farm, and the fact that Richard and Julia are such central characters in its congregation. And so it becomes a, you know,  the parish ledger books, people are like, "Oh, you read these ledger books? Like, what are you going to learn in these ledger books?" I said, "an astounding amount." And when you put that into the context of the larger Second Great Awakening, and what's happening in Black churches in Lexington and Louisville, at the same time, you learn a tremendous amount about, you know, religion and church life in Kentucky, and what it would have, what life would have looked like, what religious life would have looked like, for enslaved and Black people in Scott County, and for Julia and her daughters. That's how you build the context.

Kelly Therese Pollock  39:05  
Yeah, that's fascinating! So I don't want to take up too much of your time. But I do want to make sure we talk about the political impact for Richard. And both during Julia's life and then continuing after Julia dies. You know, he does eventually become vice president, But there's clearly a political cost for him of having a wife, what he calls a wife, who is Black.

Dr. Amrita Chakabarti Myers  39:33  
Absolutely. And this is really what I talk about in the second half of the book. The way the book is structured, it's really what we call private spaces, and then public places. And in the private spaces, right, home, Chocktaw Academy, and even to some extent, the church which is sort of sort of a liminal space, where you sort of transition through from private to public, there's a lot of almost acceptance, a lot of toleration right, a lot of privilege and power for the Johnsons, and for, you know, for Julia and her daughters. But when you move out into thoroughly public places, into Georgetown, which is the seat of  Scott County, into Lexington, right, or into Frankfort, which is, of course the state capitol, and then if into Washington, DC. There, the power and the privilege for Julia and her daughters declines sharply, and it's going to really decline for Richard, you know, after a certain point in his life, and that is after he runs for the vice presidency. It was, everybody knew about this relationship. They knew about it in Scott County. They knew about it in Kentucky, and they knew about it in DC. It was what we call an open secret. People gossiped about it, it was pillow talk, right? But, you know, publicly they were like, "Oh, he's a bachelor." Right. But he was certainly they all knew he was not a bachelor. Everybody knew that he had a Black wife and two, you know, biracial children back home in Kentucky. But when he but he lived by himself in Washington, he lived in a boarding house. He made the rounds of all this, you know, social parties in DC and people wrote about him. And you know, as if, no, they said, "Oh, we know he was a bachelor, right?" But everyone sort of knew he was not. The issue was, but he was fine. When he was a senator. It was fine. He was a congressman. He was not fine when he ran for the vice presidency, because then all of a sudden, even within his own party, there was a great division. Martin Van Buren did not want him as a running mate. Van Buren wanted someone else. Van Buren went to Jackson, Andrew Jackson, who was the you know, outgoing president, and head of the Democratic Party and said, "Please, No!" Andrew Jackson says, "Johnson is my guy." And so if Jackson says Johnson is his guy, what is  Van Buren gonna do? Yeah, right. I mean, Andrew Jackson is extremely powerful. He's really the head of the Democratic Party at this point. So Van Buren has to kind of put up, shut up, right. But it causes a gigantic rift in the Democratic Party.

People are very unhappy because Johnson was, it was not the fact that he had a relationship with a Black woman or was sleeping with a Black woman. It was the fact that he was open about it. It was the fact that he was public about it. Jefferson is having sex with a Black woman, Clay is having sex with Black women, plural. There are many enslaved, you know, many plantation holders across the country who are sleeping with, having sex with, coercive, rape scenario, you name it, etc, with Black women, but they lie about it. They hide it. They do not acknowledge it. They have white wives, and white children and white families. And what they're doing with Black women is hidden behind closed doors in the quarters. And when they're caught like Henry Clay, they, you know, they say they deny it, they sell those women, they sell those children, you know, so that's fine. And in fact, that that's preferred. So, again, see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil. The problem with Johnson is that he was totally open. He had no white wife. Julia was his only wife. Those were his, Adaline and Imogene were his kids. And that, white people were like, "No, no, no, no, no! If he only could adhere to decorum, and politeness, but he keeps shoving these women in our faces. He keeps making us try to accept them. He can, he keeps bringing his daughters to public functions, the town Fourth of July barbecue. He has the nerve to let this Black woman ride around in a carriage. That's for white women only." It's the problem of boundary breaking behavior. If they had stuck to the farm and to the church, people could have just lived with it. But they crossed the boundary into public places. They try to engage in behavior that is socially unacceptable meaning "Black women try to behave like white women." And they are, they asked for the same privileges and social respectability as white women. He wants people to accept his family as his family. And he barely gets elected. He barely gets put on the ticket because internal to his own party, there's this division in terms of getting him put on the ticket. And then of course, the election happens. And even though he's elected, it's by the hair of his chinny chin chin because he is the first and still only vice presidential candidate that gets elected only because, I mean, it has to go into the house. Right? Even though right when when it goes to the Electoral College, right, even though nationally, Van Buren and Johnson's ticket wins. But when it goes to the Electoral College, the electors from the great state of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson's state, refused. They cast their ballots for Van Buren, but refused to cast their ballots for Johnson. Do you believe the hypocrisy? These people were completely fine with Jefferson and his relationship with Sally Hemings. But they have the nerve to not cast their ballot for Johnson. Why? Because he was so openly flagrant about his relationship with Julia Chinn. So it left Johnson like one vote shy of having enough Electoral College votes to become VP. So the vote had to be thrown into the house. And the balloting in the House took several days and multiple votes. And then one lonely electoral ballot, one lonely congressman from the great state of Delaware, switched his vote. And Richard became, Richard became vice president.

It is a political nightmare but it great it totally destroys the Democratic Party from within. It shows you how divided even they were. I mean,  the parties voted on strict party lines. And Richard is voted in. But the dissension even within the party is so great. And over the next four years, Richard presides, that he presides over the Senate, but he makes no friends. And by the time, Van Buren, and Johnson's four years is up,. even Jackson is is just not like he can't he's like, "You know what, I can't even support him anymore at this point. Because it's, it's just not going to help the party." And, um, you know, Van Buren, when he runs again, for a second term, he runs alone with no vice presidential candidate, because the party can't coalesce around one candidate, because they are so divided. They can't even pick somebody to they can't collectively pick one VP candidate. There's like four guys who tossed their hat into the ring. Richard runs alone, like independently, you know, he's like, "I'm still gonna run again." But like,  I mean, it's terrible. It's just a horrible situation. But from this point onward, he's like, on a political decline. He never holds national federal public office ever again. Because of his relationship with Julia, who by the by the top, by the way that at this point is dead. Yeah, she dies in '33. He takes office as VP in late '36. And he begins serving as vice presidential term in '37. Yeah, she's been dead since 1833, but it doesn't matter. They dig up her corpse just to put her on the cross and crucify her in order to politically destroy him. They're like, "Do you want an amalgamationist as your vice president? Because what if Van Buren dies, then he'll be president!" And they said, "Do you want him bringing his quote unquote, yellow and mongrel children into the White House?" His children are fully grown women with children of their own by this point; but whatever, the race, the race baiting tactics they use are disgusting. It really we talk about how evil and mudslinging politics are today. 19th century politics were worse.

Kelly Therese Pollock  49:12  
Yeah. Well, I can't speak for the listeners. But I'm getting pretty excited about your book. So tell us the plan for the book.

Dr. Amrita Chakabarti Myers  49:19  
Well, it is slated to be out in 2023. I am deep into revising the manuscript, and I have two chapters left to revise. And then I'm going to and then I have to revise the introduction and write an epilogue. So my editor and I just spoke last week. It's under contract with Ferris and Ferris Books, which is the Trade Division for University of North Carolina Press. So I'm really excited to be working with a wonderful editor, Debbie Gershenowitz at Ferris and Ferris UNC. It's a it's a great house because they're really really strong in African American history, Black women's history, Southern history all the way across the board. They also worked on my first book, "Forging Freedom," and so I mean, they, I mean, they just are a wonderful press all the way across the board. But I'm super excited. So if every I mean, there's there's no reason why you shouldn't see "The Vice President's Black Wife" out in 2023. That's, that's what we're aiming for.

Kelly Therese Pollock  50:17  
Excellent. I am super excited. So Professor Meyers, thank you so much for speaking with me. This was a fantastic conversation. I'm so thrilled to learn about Julia Chinn.

Dr. Amrita Chakabarti Myers  50:27  
Well, thank you. I mean, I'm really happy to, you know, be coming to the, to the finish of this book. I mean, I'm kind of sad in some ways, because I've been working on it for so long, but I'm excited to get her life story out and have, you know, have other people learn about her, read about her, and about Adaline and Imogene, who are, you know, equally important to the story, and about the other enslaved men and women who worked at Blue Spring Farm and who went to Great Crossing Church, and who helped to sustain Chocktaw Academy. Because they were, you know, incredibly important to the life of the farm, the church, and the school.  You know, they just nothing in that area would have run without the labor of enslaved men and women. And so they're equally important to the book. And I tried my very best to, you know, scrape as much information as I could, from all of these various sources. And I'm so grateful to the people of Scott County, Kentucky and Georgetown, who have just given so much. They've been so generous with their time and energy over the last decade, helping me you know, really put this book together. Without, without the help and support of people like you know, Ann Bevins and Ellie Caroland and others, this book could have never been written. So I'm really excited and just grateful that I can do this.

Kelly Therese Pollock  51:54  
Yeah. I've always said that I think movie producers should start listening to this podcast, because there's so many great stories that they're not telling yet. And this is definitely one of them. So if there's any movie producers out there...

Dr. Amrita Chakabarti Myers  52:06  
 That's there's a lot of people that have said that to me. And I would love I mean, I would just be amazed and floored and grateful if Julia's story made it onto the big screen. I think I think it deserves to be. 

Kelly Therese Pollock  52:21  
Yeah,I agree. All right. Well, thank you so much.

Dr. Amrita Chakabarti Myers  52:25  
Thank you again for having me on the show. It's really been a pleasure.

Teddy  52:29  
Thanks for listening to Unsung History, you can find the sources used for this episode To the best of our knowledge, all audio and images used by Unsung History are in the public domain or are used with permission. You can find us on Twitter, or Instagram @unsung__history, or on Facebook @UnsungHistorypodcast. To contact us with questions or episode suggestions, please email Kelly@UnsungHistory If you enjoyed this podcast, please rate and review and tell your friends.

Transcribed by

Amrita Chakrabarti MyersProfile Photo

Amrita Chakrabarti Myers

I am a historian of the black female experience in the United States, and my research interests revolve around issues of race, gender, freedom, and power and the ways in which these constructs intersect with one another in the lives of black women in the Old South.

My first book, Forging Freedom: Black Women and the Pursuit of Liberty in Antebellum Charleston, (UNC Press, 2011) examines the lives of free black women, both legal and de facto, in Charleston, South Carolina, from 1790-1860. At its heart, the project analyzes the tactics that black female Charlestonians utilized to acquire, define and defend their own vision of freedom, methods which included the acquisition of wealth, networking with people in positions of power, and utilizing the state's judicial apparatus. Examining life, liberty, and ideas about civil rights from the perspective of those invested with the least formal power in the Old South, this study concludes that antebellum black women used all the resources at their disposal to enjoy a freedom of their own design as opposed to one that was shaped for them by white southerners. Drawing on family papers, legislative documents, probate records, parish registers, census data, tax lists and city directories, this project restores black women to their rightful place as social, economic, and political actors in the pre-Civil War South.

My second book, which will be published in 2019, is currently titled, "Remembering Julia: A Tale of Sex, Race, Power, and Place." This project examines the decades-long relationship of Julia Chinn, a woman of color, and U.S. congressman, senator, and one-term Vice President Richard Mentor Johnson, a white man. The couple openly lived together in rural Kentucky during the 1810s, 20s and 30s, despite public disapproval of interracial sex, and Julia and her daughters acquired a fair amount of social and financial power due to their connection to Richard, who never married a white woman and who referred to Julia as his wife. The limits of Julia's power was clearly marked, however, and the privileges of white kinship declined for black women the further they moved from the source of their power, which radiated out from their homes and local communities. Black women also discovered that any attempt to acquire many of the social niceties and respect extended to white women would often bring swift and unpleasant retribution.