The Vice President's Black Wife

The Untold Life of Julia Chinn

By Amrita Chakrabarti Myers

296 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 20 halftones, 1 map, 1 graph, notes, bibl., index

For Sale in North America Only

  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-7523-7
    Published: October 2023
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-1-4696-7524-4
    Published: October 2023

Ferris and Ferris Books

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Awards & distinctions

2024 Publication Award, Kentucky Historical Society

Award-winning historian Amrita Chakrabarti Myers has recovered the riveting, troubling, and complicated story of Julia Ann Chinn (ca. 1796–1833), the enslaved wife of Richard Mentor Johnson, owner of Blue Spring Farm, veteran of the War of 1812, and US vice president under Martin Van Buren. Johnson never freed Chinn, but during his frequent absences from his estate, he delegated to her the management of his property, including Choctaw Academy, a boarding school for Indigenous men and boys on the grounds of the estate. This meant that Chinn, although enslaved herself, oversaw Blue Spring's slave labor force and had substantial control over economic, social, financial, and personal affairs within the couple's world. Chinn's relationship with Johnson was unlikely to have been consensual since she was never manumitted.

What makes Chinn's life exceptional is the power that Johnson invested in her, the opportunities the couple's relationship afforded her and her daughters, and their community's tacit acceptance of the family—up to a point. When the family left their farm, they faced steep limits: pews at the rear of the church, burial in separate graveyards, exclusion from town dances, and more. Johnson’s relationship with Chinn ruined his political career and Myers compellingly demonstrates that it wasn't interracial sex that led to his downfall but his refusal to keep it—and Julia Chinn—behind closed doors.

About the Author

Amrita Chakrabarti Myers is the Ruth N. Halls Associate Professor of History and gender studies at Indiana University Bloomington. She is the author of Forging Freedom: Black Women and the Pursuit of Liberty in Antebellum Charleston.
For more information about Amrita Chakrabarti Myers, visit the Author Page.

Reviews

"The [fascinating] story of a remarkable woman who experienced freedom and slavery simultaneously . . . . Myers has conducted arduous research, and she ably introduces a little-known yet important figure in American history . . . . A valuable addition to antebellum history."—Kirkus Reviews

"Illuminating . . . . Myers painstakingly pieces together this long-hidden history. The result is a revealing exploration of the intersection of race, gender, power, and property in 18th-century America."—Publishers Weekly

"This book not only focuses on Chinn, but it also presents a complex, contested view of the social and moral ecology of the antebellum South and the nation. Myers extends that story to discuss current racial issues."—Library Journal

"Myers carefully stitches together the story of Julia Ann Chinn, the enslaved wife of Richard Mentor Johnson, Martin Van Buren's vice president, recounting her life on his estate and the public controversy over their relationship."—New York Times Book Review

"Groundbreaking . . . . A deeply researched and elegantly written biography, The Vice President’s Black Wife investigates Chinn’s life at home and within her community to explore how she navigated the racial and social hierarchies of the 19th century."—Ms. Magazine

"[An] impressive biography . . . . an excellent primer for scholars, teachers, and undergraduates interested in the history of mixed-race families and for understanding how enslavers treated Black men and women as both kin and property."—CHOICE