Center for Global Humanities Lecture/Seminar Series

The Vice President's Black Wife

6:00 pm - 7:15 pm
Portland Campus (WCHP Lecture Hall in Parker Pavilion )
Amrita Chakrabarti Myers

Crosley Lecture

In this lecture, award-winning historian Amrita Chakrabarti Myers will share the troubling and complicated story of Julia Ann Chinn, the enslaved wife of Richard Mentor Johnson, who served as vice president of the United States under Martin Van Buren. Johnson never freed Chinn, but during his frequent absences from his estate, he delegated to her the management of his property, including Choctaw Academy, a boarding school for Indigenous men and boys on the grounds. Additionally, Chinn, although enslaved herself, oversaw Blue Spring's slave labor force and had substantial control over economic, social, financial, and personal affairs within the couple's world. Chinn's relationship with Johnson was unlikely to have been consensual, however, since she was never manumitted.

What makes Chinn's life exceptional is the power that Johnson invested in her, the opportunities the couple's relationship afforded her and her daughters, and the local white community's tacit acceptance of the family—up to a point. When the family left their Kentucky farm, they faced steep limits: pews at the rear of the church, burial in separate graveyards, exclusion from town dances, and more. Eventually, Johnson’s relationship with Chinn ruined his greater political aspirations, but, as Myers will explain, it wasn't interracial sex that led to his downfall but his refusal to keep it—and Julia Chinn—behind closed doors.


Amrita Chakrabarti Myers serves as Director of Graduate Studies at Indiana University-Bloomington, where she also serves as the Ruth N. Halls Associate Professor of History. A historian of the black female experience in the United States, her research interests revolve around issues of race, gender, freedom, and power and the ways in which these constructs intersect with one another in the lives of black women in the Old South.

Myers’ first book, Forging Freedom: Black Women and the Pursuit of Liberty in Antebellum Charleston, examines the lives of free black women, both legal and de facto, in Charleston, South Carolina, from 1790-1860. Her most recent book, The Vice President’s Black Wife: The Untold Life of Julia Chinn, will serve as the basis for her lecture at UNE. 

Myers has won several awards and honors, including an American Council of Learned Societies Fellowship, the Phillis Wheatley Book Prize for best monograph in Black Studies, the Julia Cherry Spruill Book Award for best monograph in Southern Women’s History, the Anna Julia Cooper-CLR James Book Award for, best monograph in Africana Studies, and the George C. Rogers Jr. Book Award for best monograph on South Carolina History.

Suggested Reading

Myers, Amrita Chakrabarti. The Vice President’s Black Wife the Untold Life of Julia Chinn. The University of North Carolina Press, 2023.


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