Half-hidden in the pages of history is a fascinating tale about race, sex and politics in 19th-Century America.
Let’s begin in the present day with Brenda Gene Gordon, a 67-year-old white woman in Chandler, Ariz. Very nice lady.
Mrs. Gordon is directly descended from a U.S. vice president… but she didn’t discover that fact till recent years. Her ancestor is Richard Mentor Johnson of Kentucky, the ninth Vice President of the United States (1837-1841). He served under Martin Van Buren.
How on earth could Brenda Gordon not have known that her great-great-great-grandfather was Vice President Richard M. Johnson? Wasn’t this fact passed proudly from generation to generation inside her family?
No, it was not.
Why not? Because the woman who bore Johnson’s two children – a woman named Julia Chinn – was, by law, a Negro. And in Johnson’s time (not to mention since), that was scandalous.
“I grew up never hearing the names Richard M. Johnson (even in Kentucky history classes) or Julia Chinn,” Mrs. Gordon wrote to me during a recent email correspondence.
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.
Evidently Julia Chinn was one-eighths black (i.e., she had one black great-grandparent). She was described as a “mulatto” but she was, more precisely, an “octoroon.”
No paintings of Julia are known to exist, but she must’ve been very light-skinned. Her two daughters by Richard M. Johnson – Imogene Chinn Johnson and Adaline (or Adeline) Chinn Johnson – both married white men.
Which means that Imogene and Adaline were bona fide, fully vested white people. Well-off ones at that, because Richard Johnson gave some of his farmland to each of them and their husbands.
Growing up, “Imogene and Adaline Johnson lived in their father's Kentucky home and enjoyed their parents’ undivided attention,” wrote historian Wilma King in 1997. “Johnson, a Baptist known as a humanitarian among his contemporaries, indulged his daughters and provided for their education. … Imogene and Adaline Johnson received instruction ‘until their education was equal or superior to most of the females in the country.’ ”
Especially when you consider that Richard Mentor Johnson was a politician. His career included service 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.
I still can’t figure how he managed to get elected and re-elected – in Kentucky! – when his love life with a Negro slave was pretty much an open secret.
Johnson’s political enemies certainly spread the word about his babies’ mama.
Duff Green, a partisan journalist of the era, is said to have described Julia Chinn as “a jet-black, thick-lipped, odiferous negro wench.” Duff declared it “astonishing” that Richard Johnson had “reared a family of children whom he endeavored to force upon society as equals.”
Prof. Apple, in his email, told me: “Some of the propaganda, i.e. mudslinging said he tried to introduce his wife and daughters into Washington society. I have found no evidence to substantiate that.”
Indicative of the historical fog surrounding Julia Chinn, author Roger G. Kennedy, in his 1990 book “Rediscovering America,” stated wrongly that she “served as the vice president’s official hostess in Washington.”
Prof. Apple points out that “Julia died in the cholera epidemic of 1833”… several years before Johnson became vice president. And during Johnson’s years in Congress, Julia stayed behind in Kentucky, overseeing his large farm.
At least Roger Kennedy knows there’s a story here. He described Julia Chinn as a “deliberately forgotten woman.”
Forgotten indeed. But she lurks in the annals of U.S. political history.
No less a man than Abraham Lincoln made reference to her. And not in a good way. He exploited Richard Johnson’s relationship with Julia Chinn to score a point against Stephen Douglas during the legendary Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858.
Lincoln asserted, to the applause of his audience, that “I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races… nor qualifying [negroes] to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people…”
Lincoln went on to say this:
I do not understand that because I do not want a negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. [Cheers and laughter.] My understanding is that I can just let her alone. I am now in my fiftieth year, and I certainly never have had a black woman for either a slave or a wife. …
I will add to this that 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. [Laughter.]
Is it any wonder that, even among Johnson’s descendants, some historical amnesia took hold?
Which brings us back to Brenda Gordon. She has been researching her family’s history for the past decade. (I stumbled across an old post of hers on a genealogy website and decided to track her down. The first I’d heard of Richard M. Johnson was while reading that passage from the Lincoln-Douglas debates.)
Brenda Gordon’s interest was piqued when she acquired family photos and memorabilia dating back to the time of Daniel B. Pence. He was the man who married Julia Chinn’s older daughter, Imogene, in 1830. (Daniel and Imogene had six children. One of them was Brenda Gordon’s great-grandfather, Daniel Franklin Pence.)
It was an uncle who sent Ms. Gordon pages from the Pence family Bible. He also sent her photocopied pages from a 1932 book, “The Life and Times of Colonel Richard M. Johnson of Kentucky.” This uncle also sent along his own drawing of the family tree.
“I don't recall whether my uncle and I actually talked about Julia being a mulatto, or if I read it in the pages from [the 1932] book,” Gordon wrote to me. “My uncle had a wry sense of humor and when he got to my daughter on the drawn tree, he wrote the following comment: ‘Does this mean Leigh's the first red-haired pick-a-ninny in captivity?’ ”
I’m not crazy about pickaninny jokes, but Brenda Gordon’s uncle highlighted an intriguing thing: the amorphousness of the color line. Usually when a prominent white man snuck sex with a colored girl, and it resulted in a baby, that child was raised among the colored folk… as colored. Such was the case in my own family, just three generations back.
Julia Chinn’s offspring, however, got a passport to whiteness. I mean big-time, because Imogene Chinn Johnson – daughter of a slave – owned black slaves herself after she married Daniel B. Pence.
By the time Brenda came along, the full family story may not have been considered her birthright… but a white identity surely was.
“I really don’t know if the silence came from race issues or not,” Brenda Gordon wrote. “It’s quite possible because my mother (also named Imogene) was shall we say ‘social minded.’ My birthday parties were announced in the newspaper and I went to social dancing school at the right age and on to belong to the Jr. Cotillion. My family didn’t have any money, but we appreciated nice things, were attractive and intelligent. … The emphasis seemed to be on the Pence surname rather than Johnson.”
And now that Gordon has dug up the truth? Well, this happened:
“I haven’t lived in Kentucky for over 40 years, but still have friends there and go back every few years…. However, I do know that race is still a big issue there whether or not they admit it. … A few years ago when I was there visiting friends and doing some research I told them about the family history, as I thought it would be of interest to native Kentuckians. However, one of the husbands definitely didn’t want to read or hear anything about it, and we had all been friends forever.”
Yep. That’s what you get for looking too deep in the woodpile.
“I certainly don’t have a problem with the heritage and just find the whole thing fascinating,” Gordon wrote. “Searching for more information has given me many hours of entertainment.” (I feel you, sister.)
Plus, Brenda has new insight on her middle name, “Gene,” which may be a “watered down” version of Imogene… a direct callback to her quintroon ancestor, Imogene Chinn Johnson. (Yes, “quintroon” is a word. At least it used to be. Times were different back then, you know.)