Celia Newsome: Unveiling the Hidden Side of Slavery

Content Warning: This post contains distressing detail on violence and sexual assault.

In the latest of our posts for Black History Month, Taisha Richards, a student of African American history in the Antebellum South, explores the story of Cecila Newsome, an enslaved woman who violently resisted her exploitation and abuse. 

Image from The American anti-slavery almanac (Boston : N. Southard & D.K. Hitchcock; 1838), https://archive.org/details/americanantislav1839chil (Public domain)

Investigations into the experiences of enslaved African American women during the Antebellum period help us to better understand the nature of violence and oppression, as well as resistance. For example, my research into Celia Newsome is representative. After being purchased at the age of fourteen, Celia was raped by her slaveholder on their way to his plantation. Celia unwillingly became his concubine and house slave who he monitored and controlled every aspect of her life. She was sexually exploited for the next five years until she killed her slaveholder after he ignored her pleas to stop assaulting her. This act of resistance resulted in Celia being tried, convicted and executed at the age of nineteen. Celia’s experiences are pivotal to my research because she helps us to better understand the experiences of other enslaved women. She provides an insight into the hidden side of slavery, including sexual exploitation from a young age, being blamed by a slaveholder’s family for the sexual abuse, baring children for slaveholders, and having no legal recourse for exploitation as the law protected their perpetrators. Celia’s story also exemplified that slavery worked on many fronts to subjugate enslaved women by trying to take away their autonomy; however, enslaved women resisted in many ways regardless of the consequences. Celia is important as she was one of many enslaved women who paid the ultimate price with her life because she refused to continue to be sexually exploited.

We asked Taisha, why is this history important to you?

Slavery in Antebellum America has always interested me. My research focuses on the forms of exploitation enslaved women endured, specifically sexual exploitation and how in the midst of being exploited they resisted utilising different forms of agency. Problematic stereotypes like the Jezebel allowed enslaved women to be sexually exploited as they were represented as over sexualised, absolving slaveholders of blame or consequences. I wanted to know about the experiences of enslaved women in their own words

About the Author

Taisha Richards studies African American history and the experiences of enslaved people in the Antebellum South with a particular interest in the intersectionality of race, gender, sexuality and law. Taisha can be found online @TaishaRich

Annie Jiagge: International Jurist

In this next post by Kate Skinner, Professor of African History at the University of Bristol, we celebrate the life and work of Annie Jiagge, an international jurist, for Black History Month 2023.

Born in 1918, Annie Jiagge (née Baëta) was one of a small but growing number of girls in the Gold Coast (Ghana) to attend school, pass the standard VII certificate, and train as a teacher. With the financial support of her mother, however, Annie soon travelled to London, where she studied at the London School of Economics and Lincoln’s Inn. She returned to the Gold Coast as a qualified lawyer in 1950, working first as a barrister and then as a magistrate.

Annie Jiagge, by kind permission of the World Council of Churches, Wikimedia.

Ghana became independent from British colonial rule in 1957. By 1961, President Kwame Nkrumah had appointed Annie Jiagge as a high court judge – one of very first women in the Commonwealth to achieve such a position. Following her appointment to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, Annie Jiagge drafted a working document which later became the Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. The declaration was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1967.

The International Women’s Year of 1975 gave additional impetus to proposals to develop the declaration into a binding international convention. Work proceeded through the first few years of the United Nations Decade for Women. In 1979, the United Nations General Assembly approved the Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Ghana, along with 63 other states from all around the world, signed the CEDAW in July 1980, at the Copenhagen Conference that marked the mid-way point of the Decade for Women.

The CEDAW proved crucial in defining discrimination, and in setting out obligations on states-parties to enact laws and formulate policies to eliminate discrimination against women. It has spurred mobilisations for gender equality in many countries all around the world for more than forty years.

You can learn more about the remarkable life of Annie Jiagge in the United Nations-sponsored film Fear Woman, and the recent documentary When Women Speak. Both are free-to-view online.

We asked Kate, what drew you to Jiagge?

“Like millions of women around the world, I benefit every day from the international Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. The convention has prompted women in many countries to mobilise against discrimination, and whilst there is still considerable work to be done, important victories have also been won. I am grateful to Annie Jiagge for her role in the initial development of the convention.”

About the Author

Prof Kate Skinner joined the History Department at the University of Bristol in February 2023. She is currently researching the political history of reforms to laws on inheritance, divorce, child maintenance, adoption, and abortion in postcolonial Ghana.

Ona Judge: Enslaved Fugitive, Black Founder

In the latest of our series for Black History Month 2023, Will Comben, a PhD student in the Department of History, shares the history of Ona Judge – an enslaved Black woman in early America who defied George Washington to live out her life in freedom.

Ona Judge, like many enslaved Black women in early America, sought freedom. Enslaved by George Washington, her story lays bare the paradox at the heart of the early American republic: a project conceived in liberty, but committed to slavery.

Judge grew up in Washington’s Virginia home, Mount Vernon. In 1789, she was taken by Washington to New York, and then to Philadelphia as part of the President’s enslaved household staff. Judge likely yearned for freedom from a young age, but her experience in northern cities brought her dream within sight. Philadelphia, in particular, had a large free Black population and a vibrant abolitionist community. On learning of the Washingtons’ plan to gift her to their grand-daughter, Judge resolved to escape. With the help of abolitionist neighbours, she boarded a ship to New Hampshire, where – despite the Washingtons’ relentless attempts to re-enslave her – she built a life of freedom.

Newspaper notice for Ona Judge in the Philadelphia Gazette.

The Philadelphia Gazette & Universal Daily Advertiser, May 24, 1796, p. 1. Reproduced by the Library of Congress, https://blogs.loc.gov/headlinesandheroes/2019/10/runaway-fugitive-slave-ads-in-newspapers/

Judge’s story, told to abolitionist newspaper The Granite Freeman, and subsequently republished in The Liberator, has endured mainly because she was enslaved by George Washington. But Judge was just one of thousands of Black women who pursued freedom in early America. Traces of their stories can be found in contemporary newspaper advertisements (such as that for Judge shown below). Her ingenuity, careful planning and resilience were typical of female freedom-seekers.

It is incumbent on historians to recover and disseminate stories of Black women, who some might regard as ‘founding mothers’ – people who, more authentically than their enslavers, embodied the principles articulated so poetically in the Declaration of Independence.

What drew you to the story of Ona?

My research on enslaved Black women’s fugitivity has revealed the nature and extent of their agency, but also their historical marginalization. Judge, powerfully, told her story in her own words and she remains an important source for historians.

Will is a SWWDTP-funded PhD student in the Department of History (will.comben@bristol.ac.uk)

Christianna Jacques: An Apprentice from Nevis in Bristol

In our continuing series for Black History Month 2023, Christine Eickelmann shares the history of Christianna Jacques – an enslaved Black woman from Nevis who built a life in Bristol

Bristol University’s Special Collections provide a unique and important resource into the experiences of enslaved people. One of the many stories to be found in this collection, is the life of Christianna Jacques (Lewis, Ellis). She was born on 30 June 1780 on Mountravers, John Pinney’s sugar plantation on the Caribbean island of Nevis. She was the first child of an enslaved woman, Mulatto Polly (aka Polly Pinney, Mary Scarborough); her father, evidence suggests, was Gwyn Vaughan Jacques, a white man. Christianna’s seven siblings were fathered by another white man, the planter John Scarborough.

In 1790, at her mother’s request, John Pinney took Christianna to Bristol. At first she was in the Pinneys’ service, working with, among others, Fanny Coker and Pero Jones, two black servants also from Nevis until aged 16 she began a three-year apprenticeship, probably as a seamstress. Mulatto Polly financed her training and sent money for her upkeep. It appears that during her schooling, Christianna did not live in the Pinney household.

Christianna Jacques lived for some time in John Pinney’s house in Great George Street, Bristol, now the Georgian House Museum. Image: Christine Eickelmann/David Small

On 20 April 1803 Christianna Jacques married a 21-year-old joiner, John Lewis, in Portsea, Hampshire, and sometime afterwards lived in Chatham, Kent. Both Portsea and Chatham were closely connected with seafaring; her husband may have worked on the ships.

From Chatham, she travelled to Bristol to meet her mother, who, by then, had been freed, as had Christianna’s siblings. Mother and daughter met up at least once more during Mulatto Polly’s several trips to England.

By then a widow, Christianna married Eli Ellis on 28 June 1813, also in Portsea. He was a jeweller who later ran his business from Goose Lane in Worcester. The couple had two sons, who were both baptised in the Methodist chapel. Her first-born, Eli Joseph, died aged two in January 1817, and it is likely that Christianna died following the birth of her second, unnamed child. Aged 38, she was buried on 2 December 1818 in Worcester.

For more information about Christianna Jacques, Fanny Coker and Pero Jones, see biographies number 445, 334 and 265 https://seis.bristol.ac.uk/~emceee/mountravers~part2chapter4.pdf

What inspired your research? The Pinney Papers in Bristol University’s Special Collections inspired my research into the entire population of Mountravers plantation in Nevis. Christianna Jacques was one of hundreds of enslaved people.

Author: Christine Eickelmann is an Honorary Research Associate in the Department of History (Historical Studies).

Maria W. Stewart: America’s First Black Feminist Political Writer

In the first of our posts for Black History Month 2023, Lumina Kemp shares the history of Maria W. Stewart – a 19th century feminist and activist. 

Many tragically underappreciated Black historical actors have shaped our thinking and lives so much so that our world would look different without their important contributions. Maria W. Stewart is high on that list. A quick Google search will describe her as a 19th century American abolitionist. She was also noted for being a writer, a lecturer, and an activist. However, a quick glimpse will not do justice to her role as the first Black feminist political writer.

Stewart’s lectures and writing examined not only how race, gender, and class systems oppressed Black women, but also held back society as a whole. Having witnessed the abhorrent treatment of African Americans in the North and the South before the American Civil War, she was motivated to become an activist. She wrote and published a political manifesto and spoke publicly (not an easy feat for a woman of any race in the 19th century) about the radical resistance needed to combat slavery, oppression, and exploitation.










This image was found at: Maria W. Stewart (U.S. National Park Service) (nps.gov). Used by permission of the Library of Congress.

Stewart made a name for herself after William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator published her first manuscript, and she gave public lectures that urged Black women to demand political rights and access to education. She spoke boldly to mixed audiences, who were less than thrilled by her assertion that African Americans’ servitude was not only a great injustice to themselves but a waste of potential for all of humanity. As an activist, Stewart taught in public schools and even established a school for children who escaped slavery during the Civil War. Her ability to critically and articulately expose her ideas laid the foundation for many others to build upon a much needed, and still relevant, critique of how capitalism, racism, and sexism adversely affect society.

Why do you think Stewart is such an important figure?

I believe it is important to critically examine history through an intersectional lens. We have great thinkers, writers, and actors like Maria W. Stewart to thank for that.

Author Biography

Lumina Kemp completed an MA in History in February 2023. She now works in the Division of Research, Enterprise and Innovation as a member of Professional Services. She can be contacted at lumina.kemp.2020@bristol.ac.uk