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Wichita State's independent, student-run news source

The Sunflower

Wichita State's independent, student-run news source

The Sunflower

Historian pieces together story of enslaved wife of politician in the Old South

Lee Frank
Amrita Myers, an associate professor of history and gender and women’s studies at Indiana University, speaks at the “Words by Women” lecture series on Sept. 7.

Amrita Myers unraveled the untold history of Julia Chinn and her peculiar role as the slave and wife of a prominent politician in the Antebellum/Old South to students and faculty. 

Myers spoke at the “Words by Women” lecture series, hosted by the Department of Women’s, Ethnicity, and Intersectional Studies. The event, which used to be annual, has not been held in almost a decade due to budget restraints followed by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Myers, an associate professor of history and gender and women’s studies at Indiana University, spent over 12 years researching and developing her book, “The Vice-President’s Black Wife: The Untold Story of Julia Chinn.”

“What my work seeks to illuminate is how some Black women were able to use sexual alliances with white men to acquire power in the Old South, while simultaneously revealing the limits of that power,” Myers said. 

Julia Chinn’s life and relationship with power offer a unique twist to a classic American tale. Chinn was born and enslaved on a Blue Springs Farm in Kentucky.

Richard Johnson inherited Chinn after his father’s death; they began a sexual relationship at 15 and 31 after she became his housekeeper. 

The pair then had two daughters and are reported to have married. Although it is questioned whether their marriage would have been legal, it was public and generally “recognized” by the community. Chinn and her daughters were all literate, a rare occurrence for Black women at this time.

Chinn gained a remarkable amount of power on the farm, but her husband never freed her. During their relationship, Johnson represented Kentucky in the House of Representatives, which meant he was away for six months of the year. 

Chinn oversaw almost all of the operations on the farm, including organizing political parties, managing and reviewing slaves and the payroll of white employees, and maintaining upkeep of Choctaw Academy – the first Indian Boarding School built in America – which was located on their property.

She remained burdened with responsibility until her untimely death in 1833, estimated to be in her mid 30s, from a cholera outbreak at Choctaw Academy. 

Audience members remarked that Chinn’s life was intriguing – they couldn’t believe it was a true story – but untold histories are around us at all times, according to Myers. She said that Chinn’s story should matter even if she wasn’t married to a political figure; there are Julias everywhere whose stories are left to be unearthed.  

Myers said that creating her book was difficult. She had limited records to work with, as she theorized that Johnson’s brothers destroyed everything they could that mentioned Chinn, not to mention the local Scott County Courthouse that caught on fire “at least twice” during the nineteenth century.

Myers had to redefine her process of examining history, going beyond archives: looking at the land “where they lived and worked and laughed and loved and cried and died in.”

Robin Henry, the chair of Women’s, Ethnicity, and Intersectional Studies, chose to feature Myers at the lecture because of the recent expansion of the women’s studies program to include ethnicity and intersectionality.

“I wanted the first person to come for the event to be somebody whose work had embraced that intersectional quality, and I think Dr. Myers’ forthcoming book does exactly that,” Henry said. 

Myers’ book, The Vice-President’s Black Wife: The Untold Story of Julia Chinn,” is available for preorder and will be released on Oct. 10.

Henry hopes that the “Words by Women” lecture series will allow students to hear from scholars outside of Wichita State professors and inspire them to consider different majors and areas of research in their future. 

“It’s about the experiences of people who look differently from yourself who have different backgrounds … and whose lives are different, but no less important and no less part of, in our case, the American landscape,” Henry said.

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About the Contributors
Taliyah Winn
Taliyah Winn, Assistant News Editor
Taliyah Winn is the assistant news editor for the Sunflower. She is a sophomore at WSU, double majoring in political science and journalism. In her spare time, Winn relaxes by drawing, weightlifting, and crocheting - usually while listening to music, YouTube videos, or Dungeons & Dragons podcasts. Winn uses she/her pronouns.
Lee Frank
Lee Frank, Former photographer
Lee Frank was a photographer for The Sunflower.

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