Monday, October 12, 2015

Before Scandal: Race and Sex in Political History

I just finished reading One Drop of Me by Harry Kraus and thoroughly enjoyed it. This novel opens in the present, while the main character, Lisa, is recovering from a traumatic experience. To help herself cope, Lisa starts writing a play about Sally Hemings. As the story progresses, the reader sees parallels between Lisa's life and the life of Sally Hemings. The narrative moves back and forth from the present to the past, so we get a clear picture of Lisa's day to day existence, as well as that of Sally's. This novel was hard to put down! So if you love history, as well as some great storytelling, be sure to check out One Drop of Me.

With that book fresh on my mind, I decided to republish this post that I wrote back in January of 2013. Hope you'll enjoy it a second time around!

The titillating television series Scandal is now in its fifth season on ABCIf you are unfamiliar with the show, it centers around Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), a former media relations consultant who has the power to "fix" things for everyone. Now, she is on her own working for herself with a new law firm but has a huge scandal of her own to contend with.  
While working on a gubernatorial campaign as a media relations consultant, she had an affair with then candidate, Fitzgerald Thomas Grant III (Tony Goldwyn).  Now as a fixer, she is called upon to fix a scandal in the president’s office.  However, the president now residing in office just happens to be Fitzgerald Thomas Grant III, and his affair with Olivia begins all over again.  By the way, did I mention Olivia is black and Grant is white?

Forbidden love is nothing new in politics, but throw race into the mix and it becomes explosive!  According to the Monticello website, “The claim that Thomas Jefferson fathered children with Sally Hemings, a slave at Monticello, entered the public arena during Jefferson's first term as president, and it has remained a subject of discussion and disagreement for two centuries.

“In September 1802, political journalist James T. Callender, a disaffected former ally of Jefferson, wrote in a Richmond newspaper that Jefferson had for many years ‘kept, as his concubine, one of his own slaves.’ ‘Her name is Sally," Callender continued, adding that Jefferson had "several children’ by her.”  Visit the Monticello site for further factual information.  The novel Sally Hemings by Barbara Chase-Raiboud  provides a fascinating fictional account.

Another interesting story revolves around Vice President Richard Mentor Johnson and his mulatto, Julia Chinn.  Johnson served as vice president under Martin Van Buren.  He and Chinn are referred  to briefly  in distinguished historian Thomas Fleming’s novel, The Wages of Fame.

Undercover Blackman says, “How much of a “Negro” was Julia Chinn? Well, she was a slave… a slave Johnson inherited from his father. She was “Negro” enough that Richard Johnson couldn’t have married her legally...Yet she was his mate. His common-law wife, in effect.

“ ‘She was the hostess at his Kentucky home when [French aristocrat] the Marquis de Lafayette visited,’ wrote Lindsey Apple, a retired Georgetown College history professor, in answer to questions from me.”

Johnson served in Kentucky’s state legislature (1804-1806; 1819), the U.S. House of Representatives (1807-1819; 1829-1837) and the U.S. Senate (1819-1829) prior to his becoming vice president.
Richard Mentor Johnson

Abraham Lincoln made reference to Chinn in a rather non-complimentary way. He exploited Johnson’s relationship with her to score a point against Stephen Douglas during the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858.
His words are as follow:

...I have never seen to my knowledge a man, woman or child who was in favor of producing a perfect equality, social and political, between negroes and white men. I recollect of but one distinguished instance that I ever heard of so frequently as to be entirely satisfied of its correctness – and that is the case of Judge Douglas’ old friend Col. Richard M. Johnson.



One of the most recent political indiscretions revealed was South Carolina Senator (and segregationist) Strom Thurmond’s love affair at 23 with his family’s African American maid, Carrie Butler, who was 15.  Newsday mentioned in its obituary of Thurmond that rumors flew for years in South Carolina that Thurmond, while still a segregationist, had a relationship with a black woman that produced a daughter.  Jack Bass, author of the Thurmond biography Ol Strom, says, “Thurmond never denied it, though he kept it under the rug for years...” 

Thurmond’s love child from his relationship, Essie May Washington-Williams, penned her memoir, Dear Senator, in 2005.  She waited until after her father’s death, at age 100, to reveal his secret.

Publisher’s Weekly review  of Dear Senator explains that Carrie Butler died at 38 in a hospital's poverty ward.  Although she rarely appears in the memoir, Ms. Washington-Williams “fashions her a kind of love story: ‘I knew [Thurmond] loved my mother. I believed he loved me, after his fashion.’”

The love story Ms. Washington portrayed in Dear Senator provided the inspiration for my novel The Governor’s Sonsa provocative tale that examines a “politically incorrect” relationship of a young law student who falls in love with his family's hired help, a college age black girl.

Perhaps there are more forbidden love stories hidden in the annals of history just waiting to be discovered. Maybe they'll inspire more novels—or even influence a story line in a TV series.

Are you a fan of "Scandal"? Thanks for visiting and have a great week!

4 comments:

Norma Beishir said...

I always learn something new on your blog. Thanks, Maria!

Maria McKenzie said...

Nothing like a little trivia to start the week;).

shelly said...

This is interesting history facts. But sad,

William Kendall said...

Given Thurmond's political views, I somehow doubt he actually loved the offspring of that relationship.