Woman of Color, Daughter of Privilege: Amanda America Dickson, 1849-1893

Woman of Color, Daughter of Privilege: Amanda America Dickson, 1849-1893

by Kent Anderson Leslie

Paperback(Revised ed.)

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This fascinating story of Amanda America Dickson, born the privileged daughter of a white planter and an unconsenting slave in antebellum Georgia, shows how strong-willed individuals defied racial strictures for the sake of family. Kent Anderson Leslie uses the events of Dickson's life to explore the forces driving southern race and gender relations from the days of King Cotton through the Civil War, Reconstruction, and New South eras.

Although legally a slave herself well into her adolescence, Dickson was much favored by her father and lived comfortably in his house, receiving a genteel upbringing and education. After her father died in 1885 Dickson inherited most of his half-million dollar estate, sparking off two years of legal battles with white relatives. When the Georgia Supreme Court upheld the will, Dickson became the largest landowner in Hancock County, Georgia, and the wealthiest black woman in the post-Civil War South.

Kent Anderson Leslie's portrayal of Dickson is enhanced by a wealth of details about plantation life; the elaborate codes of behavior for men and women, blacks and whites in the South; and the equally complicated circumstances under which racial transgressions were sometimes ignored, tolerated, or even accepted.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780820318714
Publisher: University of Georgia Press
Publication date: 10/01/1996
Series: Brown Thrasher Books
Edition description: Revised ed.
Pages: 248
Sales rank: 629,241
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.72(d)

About the Author

KENT ANDERSON LESLIE is an assistant professor of women's studies at Oglethorpe University.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Exceptions to the Rules

I never should have been a slave for my father was a gentleman. —An unnamed candidate for a postwar constitutional convention

* * *

IF IT IS TRUE that public sentiment, not abstract ideology, controlled the amount of miscegenation that took place in the nineteenth-century South, then what factors combined to create a place where an elite white male could rape a slave child and raise the offspring of that act of violence in his own household? If we include the sentiments of the slave community in this observation, we are left with a complex question. A partial answer lies in the geography, history, and socioeconomic arrangements that evolved in Amanda Dickson's place, a place where she was both protected and trapped. What factors influenced the amount of miscegenation and the kinship relationships that were tolerated? What factors allowed for exceptions to the rules?

    Amanda America Dickson's birthplace, Hancock County, Georgia, is in the fertile so-called black belt of the state, 125 miles south and east of Atlanta, between the pre-Civil War capital of Milledgeville and the river-port city of Augusta (Map 1). The geography of nineteenth-century Hancock County was suitable for the development of a plantation culture based on the production of cotton using slave labor. The land was relatively flat, with gently sloping hills and plentiful water in creeks and rivers. The climate provided farmers and planters with a growing season that exceeded the two hundred daysrequired for cotton. Heavy rainfall in the spring coupled with light showers in the summer and fall months provided adequate moisture. Small accumulations of snow appeared rarely in the winter and quickly melted. The summers in that section of Georgia were sometimes oppressive with long spells of hot, humid weather aggravated by the presence of gnats, which flourished in the southern part of the county, below the fall line. The fall line passes through the county on an east-west axis so that the land is distinctly different on either side of that boundary. In the north, hardwood forests abound, producing fertile land as a result of an accumulation of organic material. In the southern part of the county, the pine barrens, the soil varies from sandy, with occasional granite outcroppings, to bright red clay. Farmers and planters in the nineteenth century had to replenish the soil in this section of the county to produce any crops at all, especially a staple crop as greedy as cotton.

    Before the coming of the Europeans, Hancock County had been inhabited for centuries by Native Americans, whose culture was imminently susceptible to European diseases, technology, and cunning. Native American tribes had established boundaries for their nations and traded, negotiated, and killed one another over who had the right to use, not own, the land.

    In the sixteenth century, wandering Spaniards visited the area in search of gold and the illusive fountain of youth. Led by the powerful chief Ocute, Hernando DeSoto and his band of adventurers tramped across the land, following trading paths created by Native Americans. During this era game was plentiful, if not fountains of youth, and even large animals such as buffalo abounded.

    By the seventeenth century Euro-Americans had established themselves as traders in the area. They remained the only white presence until 1732, when the British established the colony of Georgia. Eventually visitors began to arrive, including the naturalist William Bartram, and then settlers or families who intended to support themselves through agriculture. The first such family was that of Captain Benjamin Fulsam, his wife, one son, and three daughters. In 1773 Creek Indians killed the Fulsams and destroyed their farm. Other land-hungry settlers followed and transformed the wilderness into a frontier. Settlers moved up the creeks and rivers from coastal Georgia and cleared land for agriculture, pushing the boundary between users of land and owners of land farther and farther west. As a consequence, acts of violence between Native Americans and whites were common. The United States government and the state of Georgia began a curious process of justification by negotiating a series of treaties with various cooperative Creek Indian chiefs such as the "tame chief" of the Tallahassee and the "fat chief" of the Cusseta. Although Indians and colonists signed the treaties of Augusta (1782), Shoulderbone Creek (1786), and Colerain (1796), hostilities did not cease until 1828, when the state and national governments declared all claims of the Indians null and void.

    Between the establishment of Hancock County by the state of Georgia in 1793 and the official end of Indian hostilities in 1828, the county emerged from its frontier status and became an "incubator," a place where poor to middling settlers congregated while waiting to move on to land in the middle and western parts of the state. Farmers who had accumulated a surplus of capital bought up the fertile bottomlands of the county and stayed put. The white population of the area reached 9,605 in 1800 and steadily declined thereafter with only slight variations in the trend for the next 150 years, reaching 1,831 in 1990. Conversely, the slave population increased from 4,835 souls in 1800 to 8,137 in 1860, 4,242 males and 3,895 females (see Table 1.1).

    As Hancock County's citizens transformed the area from a wilderness to a frontier and then to a settled community, a parallel process was taking place which profoundly affected the community's economic and social patterns. In the late eighteenth century, Europeans and North Americans wore hot, itchy wool garments. Cotton was not available as a substitute because laborers could not separate cotton seeds from cotton fibers economically. In the last decade of the eighteenth century, Eli Whitney and others invented effective cotton gins, and the cotton market exploded. That explosion was accompanied by the evolution of a plantation regime based on the extensive use of slave labor and the parallel evolution of a racist ideology which justified that regime. The processes of civilizing its inhabitants and the evolving of a plantation regime took place at the same time in Hancock County. Some individuals and families became very wealthy at the expense of others. Between 1802 and 1860 the total number of slaveholders in the county declined from 819 to 410. The average number of slaves held by each slaveholder increased from about 6 in 1802 to about 20 per unit in 1860. In 1802, 656 slaveholders, or 80 percent of the total, owned fewer than 10 slaves while 28, or 3 percent of the total, owned 20 or more. By 1860, 182 slaveholders, or 44 percent of the total, owned fewer than 10 slaves, while 141, or 34 percent, owned 20 or more bondspersons (see Table 1.2).

    By 1830 the county had established itself as a cotton-growing region. By 1840 it produced twice as much cotton as any of its nearest competitors in Georgia. As a consequence of this prosperity for some, in 1860 Hancock County was the home of more slaveholders owning forty or more slaves than any neighboring counties except Columbia, which was located near the urban center of Augusta (Richmond County). By 1860 the leading fifty-six planter families, or 5 percent of the families in Hancock, owned more than half the land and 40 percent of the slaves. The average value of their real and personal property was approximately $70,000. At the end of the antebellum period, based on income per capita, excluding slaves, Georgia was the richest state in the Union and Hancock County was one of its richest counties. In sharp contrast with the relative wealth of the county as a whole, approximately one-third of the white families in the county owned land but no slaves, and approximately one-third owned neither land nor slaves.

    Table 1.3 compares the economic status of planter, farmer, and nonagriculturalist white families in Hancock County in 1860. All of the planters and farmers who were worth more than $10,000 owned both real estate and slaves. In the middle group of agriculturalists, those worth between $1,001 and $9,999, slightly fewer than 8 percent owned real estate but no slaves. These relatively prosperous individuals may represent a segment of the population that refused to buy slaves. Of the poorer farmers, those worth $1,000 or less, all owned real estate, but only 41.6 percent owned slaves. Outside the planter-farmer category, 54.1 percent of the professional people in the county, 45 percent of the merchant families, 7.7 percent of the tradespeople families, and 6.4 percent of the overseer families owned slaves. Of the 1,097 families represented in the table, only 350, 32 percent or approximately one-third, owned slaves in 1860.

    The two-thirds of Hancock County families who owned no slaves were composed of approximately 18 intermediate farm families, 49 lesser farm families, 22 professional, 16 merchant, 107 tradespeople, 131 overseer, 198 farm laborer, 96 factory worker, and 110 "other" families. These 747 families were approximately 68 percent of the white families in the county. Who were the 110 families of "others," those who owned no real estate, owned no slaves, and had no occupation? Certainly some of them were respectable hunter-gatherers who lived on marginal land that no one owned. Others may have fallen into the categories of Bobtails, Sandhillers, and Rag Tags, individuals who were described by Daniel R. Hundley in 1860 as "ignorant, lazy, prone to snuff dipping and of the Hard Shell persuasion" but who might more accurately be described as families who simply lived outside the cash economy.

    Both the cash and the subsistence economies in Hancock were based primarily on agriculture. Some people made a living, and some made a profit. The most important crops produced in Hancock County in 1849 were cotton and corn, with smaller amounts of wheat, oats, peas, rye, barley, and nuts. Cotton averaged 550 pounds per acre, which made Hancock the most productive county in the area except for neighboring Putnam, whose farmers and planters averaged 600 pounds per acre. Land values in Hancock County ran as high as $20.00 per acre, although most sales fell within a range of from $2.50 to $3.00 an acre. These average land prices made Hancock County land the cheapest in the area, at least the land that anyone was willing to sell (Appendix C.1).

    It is clear from this examination of the evolution of an economic order in Hancock County that, given an appropriate climate, available land, and a captive labor force, the inhabitants of this place worked out economic arrangements that were grossly inequitable. By 1860 fifty-six planter families, or 5 percent of the total number of families in the county, owned half the land and 40 percent of the slaves. Two-thirds of the families in the county owned no slaves, and 433, or 39 percent of the total, owned less than $100 worth of personal property. The community vested the planter class with both the control of a disproportionate share of the wealth and with almost absolute legal power over a large segment of the labor force. These slaveholders could buy and sell human beings with impunity. They could separate wives and husbands, parents and children on the basis of economic expediency. They could administer corporal punishment up to the point of death. In fact, the law required that slaves submit without "remonstration," as children submit to punishment by their parents. And they could maintain their labor force at a subsistence level. Herein lay a great deal of power for those who could force labor as opposed to those who were wage earners. It would seem logical to presume that such a disproportionate distribution of wealth and the capacity of planters to command the labor of such a huge work force would combine to place the planter class in imminent danger of rebellion by the rest of the white population. This does not appear to have happened in Hancock County. A partial explanation can be found by briefly exploring the social institutions and social conventions that evolved with plantation slavery.

    In 1849, when Amanda America Dickson was born, Hancock County remained relatively isolated. Three towns were located in the area: Sparta, with a population of 700, Powelton, with a population of 150, and Mount Zion, with a population of 200. No railroad operated in the county at that time. The stagecoach did pass through and stop at the Drummer's Hotel, on its way from Augusta to Milledgeville and Macon, and the mail arrived sporadically at six post offices: Devereaux's Store, Long's Bridge, Mount Zion, Powelton, Rock Mills, and Shoals, in the southeastern part of the county.

    In 1850 Hancock County had a white population of 4,210, a slave population of 7,306, and 62 free persons of color. One-fourth of the white population lived in towns and three-fourths lived in the country; population density was about seven people, or one family, per square mile. The black population of Hancock County was almost entirely composed of slaves, 75 percent of whom lived on farms with 19 or fewer bondspersons. Of the 490 slaveholders in 1850, 56, or 11.4 percent, were women. The average plantation was worked by 15 slaves. Only 113 of the 490 slaveholders were planters with 20 or more bondsmen and women. Of these planters, 11 were women; Mrs. E. E. Bell was the mistress with the largest number of slaves—43. By 1860, the number of slaves had increased to 8,137, while the number of slaveholders had decreased to 410, of whom 51 were women, or 12.4 percent, and 12 were planters. Nancy Watts owned 112 slaves in 1860, Mary Sasnett owned 76, and Mrs. W. E. Terrell owned 74.

    By the last decade before the Civil War, Hancock County had become a settled community with enough surplus wealth to support churches and schools. A visitor described it as a place where "fine breeds of livestock, improved tools, neat horizontal tillage, well-fed slaves, and the genteel quality of its people were the county's well-known assets." In this era social life for the white citizens of Hancock County revolved around the family, visiting friends and relatives, the church, and the educational institutions. Sparta was the home of one Presbyterian, one Methodist, and one Baptist church, plus a male and a female academy. Powelton could boast of two churches and one academy for females, and Mount Zion was the home of the Reverend Nathan Beman's famous school. In addition, in the county at large, there were twenty common schools. Nine Methodist, nine Baptist, two Presbyterian, and one Protestant Methodist church served the religious needs of the people in the hinterland, in some cases both black and white, as was also true in Sparta. Nine of the Methodist churches in the area had mixed congregations ranging from 25 to 46 percent "colored" in 1851 and from 25 to 56 percent "colored" in 1860. In 1860 two of the Baptist churches, Horeb and Darien, had more black members than with (Appendix C.2).


Table of Contents

CHAPTER 1. Exceptions to the Rules15
CHAPTER 2. A Story32
CHAPTER 3. The Dickson Will76
CHAPTER 4. The Death of a Lady105

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