When you think of white men and black women back in slave days in America the thing that springs to mind is the rape of black slave women by white slavemasters. It is an image so striking and terrible that it is hard to get it out of your mind. In fact, the Mammy stereotype was pushed by the South to counteract it.
It is a fact of history: we have accounts of just such rapes. But while true, it was not as common as you might think. During the civil war when the Union army got to the large estates in the low country of Georgia and South Carolina the northerners were surprised by how unmixed the blacks were.
In our time something like 75% of blacks are part white, but at the end of the civil war fewer than 25% were. Most of the mixing of the races took place after the civil war, after the slaves were freed.
The government used to count mulattoes separately, those who were part black, part white. So we know where they lived and where they came from. They mostly did not come from the big slave estates in the deep South but from the towns and cities of the upper South, in states like Arkansas and Tennessee. As it turns out, these were the places where there was an oversupply of both white men and black women.
And just as we have accounts of rapes and of black children of white slavemasters, so we also have accounts of the opposite, of slavemasters who did not permit such things – not just according to the slavemasters themselves, but even according to their slaves after they were freed and had no reason to lie about it.
In fact, we even have the diary of one slavemaster, a 44-year-old virgin apparently, who complains about the lack of sex in his life – even though he owned slave women. When he thought about where to get it, he did not think about his black slave women but the white prostitutes in town.
Some slave women, called fancy girls, mostly light-skinned, were sold to work in the household with the understanding that they would provide special services.
While some white men did openly live with black women, most hid what was going on as something shameful. As late as the 1970s, more than a hundred years after the civil war, we have court records where it is assumed that having sex with a black woman is so shameful for a white man that none would admit to it unless it was true.
In most cases slavemasters who had sex with black slave women were just using them, but it was not always that simple. From court records we know that sometimes it led to divorce and contested wills. While most white men did nothing to try to free their black children and black lovers, some did.