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Martha Gibbs Was a Southern Woman and a Slave-Master

Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers—

In 1859, after touring the antebellum South, the journalist and New York Tribune editor James Redpath attempted to explain for his readers why white southern women opposed emancipation. He believed that their sentiments were tied to a lifetime of indoctrination, “reared,” as they were, “under the shadow of the peculiar institution.” Slavery was “incessantly praised and defended” virtually everywhere they went, by everyone they knew, and in most of the publications they read. Their consciences, “thus early perverted,” were “never afterwards appealed to,” with the result that they saw no reason to change their views. 

Redpath assumed that white southern women did not know “negro slavery as it is” because their society shielded them from the institution’s horrific realities. Insulated by southern patriarchs, white women seldom saw slavery’s “most obnoxious features”; they “never attend auctions; never witness ‘examinations;’ seldom, if ever, see the negroes lashed.” More profoundly, they did not know that “the inter-State trade in slaves” was “a gigantic commerce.” Southern men revealed only “the South-Side View of slavery,” and if the women of the South “knew slavery as it is,” he was convinced, they would join in the protests against it. 

Redpath’s assumptions represented a commonly held patriarchal view. Yet narrative sources, legal and financial documents, and military and government correspondence make it clear that white southern women knew the “most obnoxious features” of slavery all too well. Slave-owning women not only witnessed the most brutal features of slavery, they took part in them, profited from them, and defended them. 

Martha Gibbs was one of those women. 

Litt Young, one of Gibbs’s former slaves, was interviewed as part of the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), established by the Roosevelt administration in 1935. According to Young, Gibbs was a “big, rich Irishwoman” who “warn’t scared of no man.” She owned and operated a large steam sawmill on the Warner Bayou in Vicksburg, where it emptied into the Mississippi River. She also owned a significant number of slaves—so many, in fact, that she had to build two sets of “white washed” quarters with “glass windows” to house them all. She also built “a nice church with glass windows and a brass cupalo” for their worship. She fed them well, but she worked them hard, too. 

In step with other slave owners throughout the South, Gibbs employed an overseer to make sure that the people she kept enslaved performed the tasks delegated to them, but she also oversaw her overseer. Almost every morning, she “buckled on two guns and come out to the place” to personally ensure that things were running smoothly, and “she out-cussed a man when things didn’t go right.” 

Twice married and once widowed, Gibbs would not permit either of her husbands to interfere with her financial affairs, including the management of her slaves. Even though her second husband was a reputable physician in Vicksburg, he had little influence over her or the slave-related activities on their plantation. Litt Young remembered Gibbs’s husband addressing her after witnessing the brutal whippings her overseer inflicted upon her slaves. He softly interjected, “Darling, you ought not to whip them poor black fo’ks so hard, they is going to be free jest like us sometimes.” Unfazed, she snapped, “Shut up, sometime I believe you is a Yankee anyway.” She was right. During the Civil War, he served the Union forces by treating injured soldiers. 

After the Confederates surrendered, and for reasons that remain unclear, local Union officers arrested Martha Gibbs and “locked her up in the black fo’ks church,” where they kept her under constant guard for three days, “fed her hard-tack and water,” and then released her. After the soldiers set her free, Gibbs freed her slaves, but only temporarily. One day, when her husband had gone to buy corn for his livestock, she gathered up some of her slaves, “ten, sixmule wagons,” and “one ox-cook wagon,” and set off with them. They walked about 215 miles, from Vicksburg, Mississippi, to “’bout three miles from Marshall,” Texas. She hired “Irishmen guards, with rifles,” to make sure that none of her “freed slaves” ran away during the journey, and when they stopped to rest, the guards tied the men to trees. Then, on June 19, 1866, one year after these legally free but still enslaved people “made her first crop in Texas,” Martha Gibbs finally let them go.

From They Were Her Property by Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers. Published by Yale University Press in 2019. Reproduced with permission.

Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers is associate professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the winner of the 2013 Lerner-Scott Prize for best doctoral dissertation in U.S. women’s history.

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