by PETER DORFMAN
Dr. Amrita Chakrabarti Myers regards her work as an academic focused on slavery and Black women’s history as a “labor of recovery.” Her subjects, many illiterate, left little behind.
Myers’ second book, The Vice President’s Black Wife: The Untold Life of Julia Chinn, due out in 2022, focuses on the life of Julia Chinn, an enslaved woman in the early 1800s, on the Kentucky estate of Richard Mentor Johnson. Chinn had two children by Johnson, to whom she was married for 23 years. Because Chinn was Black, the marriage was not legal, but Johnson publicly treated her as his spouse. Chinn was literate, and Johnson put her in charge of the plantation (including oversight of the enslaved laborers) when he was away from home. “She was his wife in every sense,” Myers asserts.
Chinn’s story might have been lost to history had Johnson not been a hero of the War of 1812, a congressman and senator, and later, after Chinn’s death, U.S. vice president under Martin Van Buren. Johnson later was notorious for his numerous enslaved mistresses; abolitionists held him up as an abuser of enslaved women. “His white family was horrified and ashamed,” Myers says. “After he died, his brothers took all the property and burned all the records. They tried to erase Julia from history.”
Myers is Ruth N. Halls associate professor of history and gender studies at the Indiana University College of Arts and Sciences. She is faculty fellow for diversity and inclusion, and an associate editor of the Journal of American History.
She discovered Chinn while researching her first book, Forging Freedom: Black Women and the Pursuit of Liberty in Antebellum Charleston, 1790-1860 (University of North Carolina Press, 2011). Over 10 years, she reconstructed Chinn’s life from public records and Johnson’s letters to people outside the family. She also spoke to descendants who were comfortable discussing be their controversial ancestors.
Myers has brought Chinn’s story into courses she teaches at IU, including one she created called “Sex, Lies and Diaries,” an advanced level class focused on interracial sex.
“You can’t understand American history without Black history,” Myers says. “People’s stories were taken from them. Giving those stories back to people is really important work.”