The Vice President's Black Wife

The Untold Life of Julia Chinn

By Amrita Chakrabarti Myers

The Vice President's Black Wife

Approx. 304 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 20 halftones, 1 map, 1 graph, notes, bibl., index

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  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-7523-7
    Published: October 2023

Ferris and Ferris Books

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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 mixed-race 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 management of his property, including Choctaw Academy, a boarding school for Indigenous men and boys. This meant that Chinn, while enslaved, had substantial control over economic, social, financial, and personal affairs within the couple's world, including overseeing Blue Spring's enslaved labor force. Chinn's relationship with Johnson was unlikely a consensual one 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 church, burial in separate graveyards, exclusion from town dances, and more. Outliving Chinn, Johnson was ruined politically by his relationship with her, 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.


"A meticulously researched biography of a woman who should be better known. Myers shows how a Black woman and her kin contributed to state and national politics but, because of their race, status, and gender, have been purposely forgotten or misremembered by the general public and historians. This work of recovery is a major intervention in terms of sound historical scholarship, methods, and development of possible future directions."—Hilary Green, author of Educational Reconstruction: African American Schools in the Urban South, 1865–1890