Never a secret: The Black wife of a vice president
Ferris and Ferris, University of North Carolina Press

Never a secret: The Black wife of a vice president

In a new American biography, Amrita Chakrabarti Myers, a multi-award-winning author and director of the graduate studies history department at Indiana University Bloomington, uncovers the hidden story of the wife of Richard Mentor Johnson, the ninth vice president of the United States, serving under President Martin Van Buren.

“The Vice President’s Black Wife: The Untold Life of Julia Chinn” from Ferris and Ferris explores the lost account of Chinn — a woman with no official portrait, no legal record of her marriage and no surviving letters or diary to expose her own thoughts or feelings. What we do know: Chinn was a Black woman born into slavery in Scott County, Kentucky; trained as a household domestic worker from a young age; and taken as Johnson’s common-law wife as a teenager when Johnson was 15 years her senior. Chinn was never legally freed from slavery, but she would also come to wield significant authority over the management of Johnson’s property, overseeing the slave labor she was born into, now from a position of power.

On Sunday, Feb. 25, at 2 p.m., staff from Martin Van Buren Park will lead a talk on Chakrabarti Myers’ book at the Kinderhook Library in person and over Zoom.

“Sex across the color line began [in America] the moment various ethnic groups came into contact with one another on this side of the Atlantic. Those interactions were varied and complex, ranging from one night of mutual pleasure to intricate business transactions, from violent assaults to more compliant relationships,” Chakrabarti Myers said at a talk held recently at the Filson Historical Society in Kentucky. “What my work seeks to do is illuminate how some Black women were able to use sexual alliances with white men to acquire a modicum of power in the Old South while simultaneously revealing the limits of that power. How much autonomy did Black women in these unions really have? What were the societal limits of their privilege? Did Black women have any choice when it came to participating in these relationships?”

In a conversation held through the University of North Carolina Press with Randal Maurice Jelks, author of “Letters to Martin: Meditations on Democracy in Black America,” Chakrabarti Myers discussed the purposeful erasure of Chinn’s life following her and Johnson’s death by the vice president’s surviving brothers. The brothers conspired with a probate judge in Scott County to declare that Johnson had no living will, had never wed and had no children or grandchildren — despite his mixed-race descendants being present at the hearing.

Johnson was hardly an outlier at the time for having an intimate, long-standing interracial relationship, so why was the legacy of Chinn perceived as so threatening in the eyes of the family? As Chakrabarti Myers said to Jelks: when we look to historical examples like President Thomas Jefferson or Kentucky U.S. Senate Representative Henry Clay, “The men who were having ‘outside relationships’ and children with enslaved women didn’t publicly flaunt it. Most of them were married to white women. Jefferson did not begin his relationship with Sally Hemings until after his wife had passed away — and even so, he did not flaunt her as his wife. She did not entertain guests as the mistress of Monticello. It was gossip, but he never said, ‘Yes, this is my family.’ But Julia was Richard’s only wife. Adaline and Imogene [Johnson’s mixed-race daughters] were his only children. They lived together, he educated his daughters, and his wife was standing by his side when he was visited by former presidents.”

Chinn was head of the household, the mistress of the parlor, the overseer of the labor force, and the manager of Johnson’s Choctaw Academy, an American Indian boarding school located on Johnson’s Blue Spring Farm. “She carried the keys to the farm,” Chakrabarti Myers said, both metaphorically and literally. In her new life, one a woman of her birth was never meant to ascend to, riding through town in a carriage, Chinn wore the status and position of a vice president’s wife with great public spectacle. As we have more presently witnessed in the media treatment of Meghan Markle, a Black woman usurping marital power supposedly “meant” for a white woman is a dangerous love story to live.

Latest News

Thru hikers linked by life on the Appalachian Trail

Riley Moriarty


Of thousands who attempt to walk the entire length of the Appalachian Trail, only one in four make it.

The AT, completed in 1937, runs over roughly 2,200 miles, from Springer Mountain in Georgia’s Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest to Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park of Maine.

Keep ReadingShow less
17th Annual New England Clambake: a community feast for a cause

The clambake returns to SWSA's Satre Hill July 27 to support the Jane Lloyd Fund.


The 17th Annual Traditional New England Clambake, sponsored by NBT Bank and benefiting the Jane Lloyd Fund, is set for Saturday, July 27, transforming the Salisbury Winter Sports Association’s Satre Hill into a cornucopia of mouthwatering food, live music, and community spirit.

The Jane Lloyd Fund, now in its 19th year, is administered by the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation and helps families battling cancer with day-to-day living expenses. Tanya Tedder, who serves on the fund’s small advisory board, was instrumental in the forming of the organization. After Jane Lloyd passed away in 2005 after an eight-year battle with cancer, the family asked Tedder to help start the foundation. “I was struggling myself with some loss,” said Tedder. “You know, you get in that spot, and you don’t know what to do with yourself. Someone once said to me, ‘Grief is just love with no place to go.’ I was absolutely thrilled to be asked and thrilled to jump into a mission that was so meaningful for the community.”

Keep ReadingShow less
Getting to know our green neighbors

Cover of "The Light Eaters" by Zoe Schlanger.


This installment of The Ungardener was to be about soil health but I will save that topic as I am compelled to tell you about a book I finished exactly three minutes before writing this sentence. It is called “The Light Eaters.” Written by Zoe Schlanger, a journalist by background, the book relays both the cutting edge of plant science and the outdated norms that surround this science. I promise that, in reading this book, you will be fascinated by what scientists are discovering about plants which extends far beyond the notions of plant communication and commerce — the wood wide web — that soaked into our consciousnesses several years ago. You might even find, as I did, some evidence for the empathetic, heart-expanding sentiment one feels in nature.

A staff writer for the Atlantic who left her full-time job to write this book, Schlanger has travelled around the world to bring us stories from scientists and researchers that evidence sophisticated plant behavior. These findings suggest a kind of plant ‘agency’ and perhaps even a consciousness; controversial notions that some in the scientific community have not been willing or able to distill into the prevailing human-centric conceptions of intelligence.

Keep ReadingShow less