Julia Chinn watched Richard M. Johnson ride off to war in the Spring of 1812, not knowing if he would return. Johnson had resigned his seat in the US Senate as soon as the country had declared war against Britain. He left behind a baby daughter, and his teenaged black wife. Julia was enslaved, but thousands of acres of prime real estate, and close to one hundred other slaves, were now under her authority. Her mother, Henrietta, wasn’t there to give her advice, although her brother, Daniel, was at Blue Spring with her. Still, with Richard gone, the brunt of running the planation fell on the shoulders of the fifteen-year old mother. Farming, disciplinary issues with the slave labor force, making clothes, cooking, cleaning, paying the bills, and raising her daughter, along with a thousand other things, were her responsibility. Julia was now the mistress of Blue Spring Farm.
While Richard did return from the War of 1812 in the late Fall of 1813, he didn’t stay for long. Although badly injured, he left as soon as he was able to ride a horse, determined to retake his seat in Congress. He stayed long enough to leave Julia pregnant with their second daughter and then rode for Washington in early 1814. Julia thus continued to run Blue Spring Farm, adding to her other work hosting large parties for famous visitors like the Marquis de Lafayette and President James Monroe when Richard was home. A politician, Richard lived in D.C. for half the year, and during his absences he always left Julia in charge of Blue Spring. This became the pattern of Julia’s life with Richard for the next twenty years.
Despite the public nature of the Chinn-Johnson household, there was little open hostility towards Julia or her daughters by local whites. They did business with Julia when Richard was gone, the couple’s daughters played the piano for famous guests like Lafayette, and Julia regularly entertained her neighbors and visiting celebrities. The Johnsons’ daughters were educated by a prominent, white tutor and later married local white men. Both girls also inherited land and laborers from their father after they wed. On the surface, at least, the women appear to have been accepted by the whites in their community.
This talk focuses on the lives of Julia Chinn and her daughters at Blue Spring Farm, revealing how enslaved women in interracial families, even in rural areas, had surprising authority within their households, a wider range of rights and privileges, and more acceptance from white persons in their local communities than might have been imagined, given their race, gender, and legal status.