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.

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