Remembering Julia: A Tale of Sex, Race, Power, and Place


ACLS Fellowship Program


History and Gender Studies


This project examines the decades-long relationship between Julia Chinn, an enslaved woman, and US vice president Richard M. Johnson. An analysis of this union reveals where the lines of societal acceptance were drawn for members of mixed-race households in the South of that period and illuminates how location shaped the nature and limits of black women’s power. As they moved further away from their communities, where their ties to local whites could open doors for them, black women’s ability to acquire certain privileges and be treated with a modicum of dignity declined. Using the construct of circles of power, the project begins by highlighting black women’s lives inside the smallest circle, where their power was the greatest: the home. The narrative then moves out, in ever larger circles, interrogating the arenas of school, church, and town, and noting a corresponding decline in black women’s power until the final circle: the nation state.