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Julian Bond’s Great-Grandmother a “Slave Mistress?” How the New York Times Got it Wrong

A portrait of Julian Bon by Eduardo Montes-Bradley

We can honor enslaved women while also telling the truth about what they endured.

Tributes to the late civil rights great Julian Bond have included salutes to his venerable family history. Obituaries heralded Bond for a lifetime of racial justice work. They lauded the contributions his father, Horace Mann Bond, made to African American higher education. But when the New York Times termed Bond's great-grandmother, Jane Bond, a "slave mistress," its tone shifted from respect to denigration.

The Times, as its Public Editor admitted, got this wrong. And social media fired back. Use of the phrase slave mistress sounded to many like a history lesson gone wrong. Yes, Jane Bond was enslaved. She bore two children by her owner. Still, "slave mistress" was misleading.  It bestowed undeserved respectability upon the relationship between Jane and her owner, planter Preston Bond. The paper soft-pedaled the sexual assault to which many enslaved women were subjected. 

Historians bear some responsibility for the confusion. Slave mistress has had two meanings. It is a corollary to "slave master," referring to a slave holding woman who headed a household. It also refers to an enslaved woman who had a sexual exchange with her owner, usually by assault or coercion. When speaking of white women, slave mistress connotes power and respectability. Regarding enslaved women, the phrase alludes to sexual violence. 

When nineteenth-century Americans spoke of the slave mistress they meant a slave holding woman or girl. An enslaved woman might be termed her owner's concubine. Such was the case when journalist James Callendar published a story about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings in 1802. Literature added to the nomenclature. Novelist Mayne Reid distinguished between a  "slave-mistress" and a  "slave-wife" in The Quadroon, published in 1856. The latter, Reid suggested, was impossible.  

The case of Jefferson and Hemings established "slave mistress" in the New York Times's lexicon. Martin Levin used it when reviewing Barbara Chase-Riboud's book Sally Hemings in 1979. The paper has used the phrase ever since.  The Hemings - Jefferson relationship was exceptional for its intimacy and longevity, as historian Annette Gordon-Reed explains. Slave mistress in that case may be an apt characterization. But the Times carried Gordon-Reed's carefully chosen phrase over into generalities. As recently as May 2015, the paper referred in her obituary to pioneering African American weathercaster Dianne White Catto as "a descendant of a Civil War general's slave mistress." 

Julian Bond took care when explaining his great-grandmother's young life: "My great grandmother's owner and master -- exercised his right to take his wife's slave as his mistress." To be taken was for Jane Bond to be treated as property. Her great-grandson avoided the illusion of romance, employing the euphemism "mistress" while letting the underlying sexual violence show through.

When telling the history of slavery we must admit its brutal complexity. The term slave mistress leaves too much unsaid, blanketing over the assault and coercion in many enslaved women's lives. Activist and commentator Shaun King called upon the Times to substitute the word rape to underscore the centrality of sexual violence to slavery. In its obituary, France's Le Monde termed Julian Bond a descendant of slaves, avoiding questions about how to explain his family past. Neither end of this rhetorical spectrum conveys the full humanity of Jane Bond.

No simple phrase can capture the whole of Jane Bond's humanity. She was a mother who raised two children. She purchased her own farm. She was a gifted dress and quilt maker. She was a woman of faith whose preferred text was the Bible. Of her early years, enslaved and bearing two children by her owner, Jane Bond was "in no way satisfied," as historian Wayne Urban put it. To tell her story, however briefly, requires honoring the entirety of her life. No shorthand phrase, like slave mistress, can suffice.