At 10 p.m. on Tuesday, June 23, it will be exactly 165 years ago to the very day and the very minute that 19-year-old Celia in 1855 displayed astonishing bravery by successfully defending herself against another brutal rape.
As soon as 60-year-old Missouri “slaveholder” Robert Newsom had purchased then 14-year-old Celia in 1850 at an Audrain County auction- in fact, on the way back to his Calloway County plantation- he began raping her inside his horse-drawn covered wagon. And he continued raping her repeatedly for five years.
As pointed out in his book, “Celia, a Slave,” Melton A. McLaurin, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina, wrote, Newsom wanted “more than a hostess and manager of household affairs; he required a sexual partner... [and] seems to have deliberately chosen to purchase a young slave girl to fulfill this role....”
I need to pause for a few minutes right here because I’m seething with rage. As unimaginably horrific as a lifetime of rape is for a little girl, it wasn’t the exception. It was the rule. Dirty old white men, middle-aged white men, and young white men during slavery legally did whatever they wanted to do sexually to enslaved Black women and girls (as well as enslaved Black men and boys) whenever they wanted to do it. And the white wives and white daughters of these white rapists and pedophiles were complicit, which is why, as McLaurin added, many of those white women would blame “Celia [and any other Black rape victim] as the dark, sensual temptress who seduced” white men.
Also, continued McLaurin, “In the antebellum South, the rape of slave women by white men, if not expected, was condoned by the law or, more precisely, by the lack of it.”
Moreover, in editor Merril D. Smith’s voluminous “Encyclopedia of Rape,” published in 2018, Yale University archivist and librarian Dannell Moon pointed out that slavery in this country encompassed wide-ranging rape and sexual abuse.
Why? Because white “slaveholders” were violently perverted beasts. And their own laws prove it. For example, when a white man (or woman) raped an enslaved Black person, not only was the sexually ravaged victim not legally permitted to file criminal charges, that victim also was not legally permitted to sue in civil court for personal injury or emotional distress or mental anguish or anything else. However, assuming the “owner” wasn’t the rapist, that owner could (if preferred) sue the rapist for “property damage.” WTF?!
By the way, the “slave-owning” rapists of yesterday weren’t exclusively the stereotypical creepy hillbilly sort like the degenerates in the movie “Deliverance” (although many, if not most, probably were). They also included politically influential people with power similar to that of alleged sexual criminal deviant Jeffrey Epstein who died under patently suspicious circumstances in jail last year.
Speaking of politically influential, no one is more so than a U.S. president. And during their lifetime, the following twelve presidents enslaved Black people (and the last eight did so while in office): Martin Van Buren with one, Ulysses S. Grant with five, Andrew Johnson with eight, William Henry Harrison with eleven, James K. Polk with 25, John Tyler with 70, James Monroe with 75, James Madison with approximately 100-125, Zachary Taylor with approximately 150, Andrew Jackson with approximately 150-200, Thomas Jefferson with 267, and George Washington with 316.
And what do you think many or most of those creepy old powerful white men did to those powerless young Black women and girls? You certainly don’t think that George Washington raping Venus and fathering her child West Ford was the exception or that Thomas Jefferson raping 14-year-old Sally Hemings and fathering her six children was the exception, do you?
Furthermore, it wasn’t just presidents actually or probably raping enslaved Black women and girls. It was likely many or most of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence since 41 of them were enslavers. And of the 55 signers to the U.S. Constitution, 25 were enslavers. So what do you think?
Let’s get back to 19-year-old Celia. The rapes continued to occur even while she was pregnant with the child of her enslaved fiance George who lived on the same plantation with her. In addition to raping her, Newsom had impregnated her twice. And since George was unable to stop the rapes because he had no access to guns or sheriffs or laws, Celia pleaded with Newsom’s 19- and 36-year-old daughters to tell their father “to quit forcing her while she was sick” (meaning she had morning sickness resulting from her pregnancy). But they refused.
During the daytime on June 23, 1855, Newsom told Celia, “I’m coming to your cabin tonight.” She begged him not to. But at 10 p.m., which was his usual time, he arrived there and backed her into a corner to again rape her.
However, this time, she wasn’t having it. She couldn’t take it anymore. So she reached for a large stick next to the fireplace and, as McLaurin notes, “Afraid that an angered Newsom would harm her, Celia raised the club with both hands and... [twice] brought it crashing down on Newsom’s skull. With the second blow, the old man fell, dead, to the floor.”
Shortly afterward, knowing she obviously wouldn’t get a fair trial, she intelligently and quickly attempted to destroy the evidence by incinerating the pedophile serial rapist’s body.
Unfortunately, following the filing of a missing person’s report by Newsom’s daughters, a meticulous sheriff’s department investigation throughout the entire county and a relentless interrogation of Celia ultimately led to her- despite the fact that the only evidence unknowingly and unavoidably left by her were Newsom’s burned buckle, burned buttons, and burned bone fragments.
Just as the inquest jury consisted exclusively of six white men from the large “slaveholding economy-based” Calloway County, so did the trial jury.
Celia’s court-appointed lawyer argued that Missouri law permitted a woman to “defend her honor” by defending her body and her dignity against violent assault, especially rape or murder. Accordingly, stated the attorney, the judge must instruct the jury about that legal mandate and the jury must apply it. But the judge rejected it, claiming that it pertained only to white women and then declaring that “the defendant had no right to kill [Newsom] because he came into her cabin and was [simply] talking to her about having intercourse with her....” He said that. He really said that.
Additionally, the judge understood that, taking the defense lawyer’s argument to its logical conclusion, such a human right by Blacks to self-defense would have interfered with the “slave-owners’” property right, thereby inevitably destroying the entire southern, hence American, economy. No southern judge or jury would ever allow that, even though they knew that their heartless decision would continue to promote the widespread and systemic rape of Black women and girls.
In the case captioned “State v. Celia, a Slave, File Number 4496,” she was found guilty on Oct. 10, 1855, and sentenced to death. And to make this racist judicial abomination even worse, sometime before Nov. 11 while she was awaiting execution, her baby was stillborn.
On Dec. 14, Celia’s appeal was denied and a week later, on Dec. 21, 1855, at 2:30 p.m., she was, as the judge had ordered, “hanged by the neck until dead.”
On June 23, pause for 165 seconds, which is a little over two-and-a-half minutes, while celebrating Celia’s courage by meditating and silently chanting, “Never forget. Always avenge.”
Say her name: Celia. And tell today’s white women who have commandeered the Me Too movement- and who are the descendants (and privileged beneficiaries) of the complicit white wives and white children of the white “slaveholding” rapists and pedophiles- to say her name, too.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. They are not necessarily intended to reflect the views of the Philadelphia Tribune.