The Trial of Celia a Slave

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The book ‘’Celia a Slave,’’ by Melton McLaurin describes a trial that reveals a lot about race and gender in the antebellum south. The story is about Celia, the slave who killed her sexually abusive master. Celia was an African American woman who lived in Missouri a place that bordered Callaway to the North. In 1850, Robert Newsom purchased Celia at the age of fourteen (McLaurin 14). There is no much known about the woman before she arrived at Newsom farm. For example, it is not known if she was born in the country from which she was picked or had an experience of serving other masters.  In 1855 the woman was brought to trial for murder according to the available reports and was convicted of the crime. The case has over the years brought issues in the manner it was handled among the African America female network focusing on hearings and address. Celia’s life as a slave reveals many aspects of race and gender as demonstrated in the issue of rape by her master and court case.

In the home of Newsom slavery was heavily supported by the citizens for they increased crop production through labor from the captives. Newsom invested in black slaves due to his increased farms to allow him to have more time for relaxation and raise his social status. After the death of his wife, Newsom invested in a young slave girl as a concubine and sexual object instead of a domestic and physical laborer. The commonality of slavery made purchasing of a slave for sex justifiable since the citizens understood the ease of obtaining human property. The master assigned the girl duties of cooking as concealment for his sexual misconduct where he fathered two children with the slave. During the era the issues of slavery were un-discussed and people could gather slaves from different places and use them as they want. Celia developed a relationship with George who was a male slave at the farm (McLaurin 37). The woman had to stop the physical contact she has with the master so that they could fully enjoy their love with George. The case of Celia has much attention since she eventually became weary of Newsom endless sexual abuse and killed him in the process of defense.  

Many female slaves like Celia were raped and threatened. Newsom repeatedly raped his slave for five years, and the act began which while she was very young. The case of Celia exposes the vulnerability of female slaves to sexual exploitation by males within their households. Celia had even appealed to Mary and Virginia who were Newsom daughters to help her during her pregnancy by mentioning that she was sick. The master also brushed aside his slave request when she begged him to leave her. He only emphasized his rights to have sex with her. The master gave her a cabin secluding her from other slaves. The motive of isolating her was to provide him with privacy where he could visit and have pleasure whenever he likes. However, on the night of murder Newsom visited his slave and commanded for sex but she refused and threatened to hurt him if he continued with the demands. Newsom insisted and Celia physically resisted by hitting him with a tree branch she had kept for the event, and when he reached up to grab her, she hit him a second time (McLaurin 42). The kick was fatal resulting in the death of her master. Fear of what could happen to her got into her mind, and she decided to burn his body to hide the evidence that would connect her to the crime. After several interrogations on who could have murdered the master among the slaves in the farm, Celia admitted that she was responsible. Celia maintained that she had no intentions of committing the crime but was instead defending herself from sexual violation of her master. She was sentenced to death as per the law.

The story exposes how female slaves were desperate to have a better life that was free from command and abuse. The experience was close to impossible since the masters were used to misusing them and could not let the go. The females were denied their fundamental rights and separated from their loved ones arbitrarily.  The physical and psychological burden that came with sexual assault and childbearing were enormous among slave women. The slaves were anticipated to put the requirements of the master and his family even before their families. Mothering responsibility was an added responsibility apart from their usual duties. The law did not protect women rights, and they were sentenced for crimes without proper consideration of the motive. The society also demonstrated difficulties in making moral choices on issues of slavery since politics profoundly influenced the matter (McLaurin 56). The decision of the court revealed the imbalance of power in the antebellum south.

The issue of race is revealed where the white male exploited their African American slaves through rape and molestation. Most female slaves were victims of sexual exploitation. The act was so common that the master knew the history of sexual abuse that each slave had experienced. In some cases, a house could have a slave mistress shared by both father and the sons. A master could even sexually exploit two slaves who were mother and daughter. Such issues reveal how white men viewed black slaves as property rather than human beings. The male slaves did not face the same kind of abuse but were emotionally hurt to see those they love being sexually used by their master. The white men could intentionally purchase slaves for sex and would rape and use them whenever they please like the case of Celia (McLaurin 19). The law did not recognize sexual assault for black slaves by the white men but instead considered the act as trespass on his property. The white men were thus able to get away with the case without being charged with committing rape. Black slaves were powerless over white male since they could not legally protect themselves from any form of assault. The law was bias on race since if the black men assaulted white women, they could be charged for committing the crime and executed. The rule against rape applied only to white women, and the defense had a difficult time to argue that Celia was justified in her attack upon her master for she was a black slave. 

Race and gender remain essential factors in the distribution of power even in the modern society. The story of Celia trial is a reminder that people and politics are the same entities with relevant examples in the past. Race and gender of an individual can highly contribute to how the society treats or relate with them.  The court demonstrated how a person’s race and gender could impact the verdict of their trial in Celia’s case. The judge who presided over the case found Celia to be guilty of her master's murder and sentenced her to be hanged (McLaurin 98). The grounds for the judgment were that her attorney could not obtain a direct testimony from his client on perceived threat upon her life. The defense was disadvantaged since the judge refused to allow any references to cases of the Newsom threats leaving them with self-protection as the only argument. The law also prohibited a slave from testifying against a white person. The challenges that Celia faced were common to any black female slave if they were in her position.

In conclusion, Celia’s trial gives a vital insight into how racial and gender persecution changed the way women slaves would handle the issue of sexual exploitation. The case left the women feeling disempowered since their position as slaves denied them the power to refuse the white men. Slaves were all alone in their matter, and no one was there to help them. For instance, Celia never received help from slave’s community, white women, or Newsom daughters. The case describes the moral anxiety that slavery brought during the sectional crisis of the antebellum period. Celia confronts the controversial relations of gender, race, and power as a slave. The case demonstrates how the law was used in the time to appease the moral concern developed between the anti and pro-slavery politics. The judgment was an inevitable decision since she defended herself physically for her owners who had all the rights while she had none. The society termed the act as evil done to a white man by referring to the death of Newsom as a horrific tragedy without consideration of the right of the slave.

Works Cited

McLaurin, Melton A. "Celia: A Slave.". The Journal of American History, vol 80, no. 2, 2013, pp. 18-104. Oxford University Press (OUP), doi:10.2307/2079941.

November 13, 2023

History Literature



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