Mothers and Daughters
The intersection of identity and enslavement is one that continues to tell Sarah Ann’s story especially as she grows into womanhood. Blackness negated humanity and therefore Black womanhood was both non-existent and literally defined by sexuality. That sexuality and sexual exploitation then doubled down and defined Black women such as Sarah Ann and Harriet by their motherhood. Black enslaved motherhood was seen as production and continuation of resources for White enslavers, so not only were Black women unable to choose whether to become mothers, when they did give birth, they were robbed of any normal human experience of motherhood. Black enslaved mothers were not like any other mothers of the time, they did not have the privilege to be. Instead, they fiercely protected their children from the brutality they were born into, and when family structures were dissolved, like with Sarah Ann’s, Black enslaved mothers often banded together to keep their children safe from harm and separation. Unfortunately, Sarah Ann’s mom Nancy could not have won that battle, but nevertheless, she equipped her daughters with the tools they would use for survival.
One of the most horrific things to be gleaned from Sarah Ann’s runaway ad is the fact that it was put out by Mary Follin. It is this perversion of womanhood that truly puts Sarah Ann’s experience into perspective. She was literally owned by another woman, enslaved by another woman, brutalized by another woman. Whiteness and the slave society it was born out of dissipated any possibility of community between white and Black women because it placed the former in an exceedingly more powerful social and economic position. Mary Follin continued to place herself there as she tirelessly sought out Sarah Ann and her children when they ran, believing whole-heartedly that she was entitled to the possession of their lives. Not only was Sarah Ann not given the ability and opportunity to be a mother in the same sense as Mary Follin, she was criminalized by Mary Follin as she dared to do the most human thing possible, protect her children.
The ad itself, written by Mary Follin, exemplifies a desire to separate Sarah Ann from humanity and motherhood. Mary was not listed as her daughter, but rather “a bright mulato girl.”[i] This statement, while revealing this intentional separation, also calls Mary’s paternity into question. The description “bright mulato girl” conjures an image of a girl with very very light brown skin, so light she could probably pass for white like she did in New York. So able to pass for white, that she likely was partially white.
We know that John Follin had a total of 30 children, about 19 or 20 with his first wife Catherine, and 9 or 10 with Mary. One of the sons Joseph came to own a portion of his father’s property after his death and continued to live very close to his mother for years following (see below). This is all to say that there were quite a large number of white men living and working at the Follin plantation, including John and Joseph, who could have been responsible for Sarah Ann’s pregnancies. Someone certainly was, and this sexual assault and exploitation almost certainly informed Sarah Ann’s decision to flee at 23 years old.
Very rarely did enslaved women run away from their plantation and seek freedom permanently, especially when they had children, and most especially when they were pregnant. The risks and difficulties associated with running either pregnant or with children were significantly higher and the fact that Sarah Ann fled with only weeks left in her pregnancy signals that she knew it was then or never. Sarah Ann could have left for several reasons, to end her brutalization and trauma at the hands of her enslavers, to save the lives of her young children, even to regain her own reproductive autonomy.
The question of Mary’s paternity certainly does suggest rape, but even if Sarah Ann was impregnated by an enslaved man, that man did not run with them, so we are left again to wonder. Could the birth have been non-consensual? Slave breeding was a common practice on Southern plantations such as the Follins’. Mary’s “bright” skin taken out of the equation, it is very possible that Mary Follin had forced Sarah Ann to procreate with an enslaved man. Perhaps the pregnancies were not forced, what then could have happened to the father? Could he have been sold away or killed?
Regardless, in pondering Sarah Ann’s decision to leave, it is important to return to the concepts of enslaved motherhood and reproductive autonomy. Having children, either at her own or against her will, was to sentence them to a lifetime of enslavement and violent oppression. Pregnancy was forced on enslaved women such as Sarah Ann because it was the only way of securing continual free labor in the slave economy. Sarah Ann’s womb was not her own. Not only was she stripped of the freedom to leave, brutally contained within a system of forced labor, Sarah Ann was also not given a choice when it came to her birth giving ability. Clearly she loved her children very much, she chose to be the best mother she could be once they were born, but it is important to interpret the reclamation of her body present in her flight as well. Sarah Ann used fugitivity as a strategy of reproductive autonomy. She ran, broke the law, escaped under the cover of darkness, layed in the bottom of a vegetable cart for 20 days, and changed her name, all in order to reclaim control of her body.[ii] And she succeeded.
Sarah Ann left the Follin plantation even though it meant leaving her sister Harriet behind. How, after surviving a lifetime of family being split up, could she had made this incredibly difficult decision to flee? It is possible that Harriet had also begun having children, and could not leave with them being so young. Perhaps the boy 6 years older than her named Moses on the inventory of John Follin’s property, was her partner, and they could keep each other safe. Harriet did in fact have a child in later years and name him Moses; Was he named after his father? What security did Harriet have in order for Sarah Ann to justify letting her stay?
[i] Mary Follin. “Fifty Dollars Reward - Feb 28.” Alexandria Gazette, February 28, 1850. America’s Historical Newspapers 1 & 2.