The Vice President's Black Wife

The Untold Life of Julia Chinn

By Amrita Chakrabarti Myers

The Vice President's Black Wife

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

Ferris and Ferris Books

Hardcover Available October 2023, but pre-order your copy today!

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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.


"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

"A brilliant and important work of historical recovery—deeply researched and elegantly written. In Myers's skillful hands, the previously unknown story of Julia Chinn comes to life. This book powerfully illuminates the complexities of race, gender, and politics in American history."—Keisha N. Blain, coeditor of Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619–2019

"In this engrossing book, Myers sheds light on an open secret in US history, the relationship between Vice President Richard Mentor Johnson and his enslaved wife, Julia Chinn. Meticulously researched and powerfully narrated, Myers's work carefully unearths the ghosts of our interracial past that continue to haunt us today."—Manisha Sinha, author of The Slave's Cause: A History of Abolition

"Myers has told the most American of stories about an American family whose members walk the lines of demarcation that govern American life. Her irresistible narrative traces the edges of slavery, Blackness, whiteness, safety, public life, sex, marriage, wealth, and power itself. That this story has a Black woman in Kentucky at its center is irrefutable evidence for the inescapable imprint of so-called marginal people on our national heritage."—Anastasia C. Curwood, author of Shirley Chisholm: Champion of Black Feminist Power Politics

"A riveting and dramatic narrative, almost novelistic in quality. Mining skeletal sources and conducting meticulous research, Myers constructs a compelling account of the yearslong relationship between Richard Mentor Johnson (a white slaveholder) and Julia Chinn (the Black woman who was his property). Capturing with nuance the blurry tensions between slavery and freedom, gender and power, public and private, Myers gives flesh and substance to a story long erased from the historical record. In the process, she illuminates the disdainful national attitudes toward Black women both during and after slavery, as well as the tangled genealogies constituting the 'American family.'"—Deborah E. McDowell, Alice Griffin Professor of English, University of Virginia