If anyone had doubt about the existence of white slaves, the picture "EMANCIPATED SLAVES, WHITE AND COLORED" in an 1864 edition of Harper's Weekly would have been proof (Frontispiece). The article in Harper's was entitled "White and Colored Slaves." All of these slaves were set free by General Benjamin F. Butler in New Orleans and were attending a school for emancipated slaves when this picture was taken. The article went on to name and describe each individual. The descriptions of the white slaves were as follows: "Rebecca Huger is eleven years old.... To all appearance she is perfectly white. Her complexion, hair, and features show not the slightest trace of negro blood....Rosina Downs is not quite seven years old. She is a fair child, with blonde complexion and silky hair.... She has one sister as white as herself.... Charles Taylor is eight years old. His complexion is very fair, his hair light and silky....this white boy...has been twice sold as a slave.... These three children, to all appearance of unmixed white race, came to Philadelphia last December." Harper's Weekly was very popular, having a circulation of around 200,000 before the Civil War.
Another example involving white slavery made public had to do with the work of Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, who held mock slave auctions of light and white slaves at his church in Brooklyn, New York. The moneys raised were used to purchase their freedom. The choice of skin color was intentional, given that whites could more readily identify with slaves who were themselves white or approaching white. Such slaves also had appeal to those who were only concerned with the enslavement of white people and their plight. In 1848 the Edmonson sisters-- "two respectable young women of light complexion"--were sold at auction. Beecher's son and biographer recorded that "this case at the time attracted wide attention." A young girl named Pinky who was "too fair and beautiful a child for her own good" was auctioned off and also freed with the moneys raised. In 1856 another slave woman was rescued. Beecher's son had "a handful of photographs of children, white and beautiful, who had been set free...white-faced, flaxen-haired children born under the curse of slavery."
The art produced at any given time in any given culture reflects the reality of that particular time and place. The artist as part of that context is in effect a contemporary spokesperson. White slavery was on the mind of the public in the antebellum North, and this was reflected in the fictional literature of the period.
The Slave: or Memoirs of Archy Moore by Richard Hildreth was published in 1836 and holds the distinction of being the first antislavery novel. Archy is a white slave (PLATE 3) who tells his readers early on, "From my mother I inherited some imperceptible portion of African blood, and with it, the base and cursed condition of a slave." Later he laments, "I had found, by a bitter experience, that a slave, whether white or black, is still a slave; and that the master, heedless of his victim's complexion, handles the whip, with perfect impartiality." The novel was greatly enlarged and expanded in 1852 with the new title, The White Slave; or, Memoirs of a Fugitive.
Why was the character of Archy Moore depicted as a white slave? Why was the title changed from The Slave in 1836 to The White Slave in 1852? Art imitates life. Hildreth's choices were in accord with public concern over white slavery. White readers could readily identify with the trials and tribulations of a slave who was as white as they were. Before the first word in the book was read, the impression of the title alone enabled empathetic readers to emotionally experience the words, "The White Slave" (PLATE 4).
The character of Archy Moore as a white mulatto set the precedent for the heroes and heroines of antislavery novels that followed. Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe was published in 1852. Twenty thousand copies were sold in three weeks and around three hundred thousand by the end of the year. George Harris, a slave, is described as "a very light mulatto" who could "pass for a white man." E. Bruce Kirkham has analyzed the novel and called attention to Stowe's change in the description of Eliza from a mulatto to a quadroon. "The change is important because, whereas a mulatto is either a Negro with one white parent or merely a Negro with some white blood, the term 'quadroon' is applied only to a Negro with three white grandparents. Eliza's blood line and therefore, to some degree, her color, education, and social background are more clearly defined by 'quadroon' than 'mulatto'; she is made whiter." Avery O. Craven has studied antebellum culture and concluded that Uncle Tom's Cabin was successful because the "morally confused North had been supplied with concrete stereotypes with which to clarify and simplify its thinking." George Harris, Eliza, and their son Harry were indeed "concrete stereotypes" of light and white slaves. In the words of Harriet Beecher Stowe's contemporary, George Fitzhugh, a Southern writer about whom there is much said in Chapter 6, "To defend and justify mere negro slavery, and condemn other forms of slavery, is to give up expressly the whole cause of the South--for mulattoes, quadroons, and men with as white skins as any of us, may legally be, and in fact are, held in slavery in every State of the South. The abolitionists well know this, for almost the whole interest of Mrs. Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, arises from the fact, that a man and woman, with fair complexions, are held as slaves." Up through 1861 no less than seventeen novels utilized a stereotype known as the "tragic mulatto." The heroes and heroines featured in these novels had light or white complexions and found themselves in such "tragic" situations as the surprise discovery of slave status, death before dishonor, or being sold into slavery. William Bedford Clark has studied this genre and states that a white-looking woman was most often the "tragic mulatto" in such stories. This choice was absolutely intentional. "As students of this tradition note, the fact that the slave protagonist in such novels was to all appearances white and shared the characteristics of the typical white heroine of melodramatic romance helped address the arbitrary nature of racial distinctions in general and therefore short-circuited whatever racial biases the northern audience itself maintained." The Octoroon, a very popular play scheduled to be performed at Ford's Theatre the night after Lincoln attended Our American Cousin there, shows that the "tragic mulatto" character had broad appeal and was not limited to novels. White readers and theatergoers were readily able to identify with white or nearly white characters and their oppression under slavery. This explains the reason they were utilized instead of characters with darker complexions.
There were two distinctly different ways of looking at white mulattoes--socially and physiologically. Socially, a white partus slave looked as white as any white person but was considered a black person because he or she had "one drop" of black blood from a distant black female ancestor who was a slave. Such was the case when Mr. C. was told, "That's not a white girl; she is a nigger, sir." Physiologically speaking, however, white partus slaves were white people because all traits of their remote black ancestry had disappeared. The North saw these white slaves as whites. The South saw these white slaves as blacks. An 1857 issue of the Chicago Daily Tribune commented on racial classification in the South. "The southern census takers, it is notorious, returned all persons as blacks who, were not more than half white. Those who possessed straight hair and Anglo-Saxon features they set down as mulattoes, many of whom were as white-skinned as their owners." The actual number of white mulatto slaves is unknowable because all shades from "one drop" to those showing some discernible degree of black admixture were classed together as mulattoes without any distinction as to color.
Travelers who spoke of white slaves in the South, advertisements for white runaway slaves, newspaper articles about white slaves, and light and white heroes and heroines in "tragic mulatto" fiction all served to validate that there were white people who were enslaved in the South. Disbelievers were shown, in the words of the newspaper article cited earlier, that "Slavery has no 'prejudice against color.'