By complete serendipity, I came across a 2021 story from the Washington Post and knew I had to share it….
Julia Chinn was born into slavery in Kentucky around 1790, the year after George Washington was elected first president of the United States. The plantation owner’s son fell in love with her. They couldn’t legally marry, so they were joined in an illegal ceremony organized by the other enslaved people of the plantation, at Great Crossing Baptist Church. The son was Richard Mentor Johnson, who eventually became the 9th vice president of the United States.
Johnson openly acknowledged Julia as his wife and their two daughters as his children.
Johnson’s story is not all heroic. Though by all existing evidence he loved Julia and regarded her in every sense as his wife, he never freed her, and she remained enslaved her entire life. Whether she consented to the relationship with him is not known, since none of her letters to him have survived. But during Johnson’s long absences from the household, she was clearly in charge of running the 2000-acre plantation. She hosted the Marquis de Lafayette when he returned to the US to reconnect with his compatriots from the American Revolution. She was by every account an accomplished and brilliant administrator, educator, pianist — a true Renaissance woman. She was also a skilled nurse and healer, ultimately dying of cholera contracted while ministering to Native American children at a school established by Johnson.
After her death, Johnson’s life took a darker turn and he became notorious for his numerous enslaved mistresses. After his death, his brothers burned all of their letters and property records so they could seize control of the plantation from Julia and Johnson’s daughters.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but Johnson inevitably paid a political price for his relationship with Julia. Johnson was Martin Van Buren’s (remember him? I didn’t think so) running mate in the 1836 presidential election:
Johnson’s relationship with Chinn became a campaign issue. Southern newspapers denounced him as “the great Amalgamationist.” A mocking cartoon showed a distraught Johnson with a hand over his face bewailing “the scurrilous attacks on the Mother of my Children.”
Van Buren won the election, but Johnson’s 147 electoral votes were one short of what he needed to be elected. Virginia’s electors refused to vote for him. It was the only time Congress chose a vice president.
I had never heard of Julia, which upset me greatly. When I looked into this, I found threads of her story all over the place, kind of hiding in plain sight. It reminded me that important stories of heroes and heroines can be lost so easily to history. It’s the work of every generation to find our lost heroes and heroines and resurrect their stories.
In her upcoming biography of Chinn, The Vice President’s Black Wife: The Untold Life of Julia Chinn, Dr. Amrita Chakrabarti Myers reminds us that Julia Chinn was simply erased from history. We don’t even know where she was buried. Erasing uncomfortable truths from our history is nothing new, Ron DeSantis, but I believe a new generation will find them. Kudos to Dr. Myers and the WP for resurrecting the herstory of this incredible woman and reminding us of what we have lost by letting it fade from our collective memory.