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“Celia, a Slave” Biography by Melton McLaurin


Slavery is undoubtedly one of the darkest stains on U.S. history, the effects of which can be felt in society to modern day. The slavery institution was cruel and criminal, resulting in the abuse of many fundamental human rights. Women were especially vulnerable, having even less rights and lack of ability to defend themselves. The book Celia, a Slave by Melton McLaurin presents a biographical account of young woman Celia who was sold into slavery at the age of fourteen.

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The events of her short life unfolded as the U.S. was facing significantly growing tension and conflict regarding slavery, both at the national politics level and the communities struggling with their moral anxiety over the horrors of slavery. Recounting the events of slave life in the antebellum South, McLaurin centers the discussion about slave politics as the ongoing events of Celia’s trial occur to demonstrate how corrupt, complacent, and hypocritical society was in supporting the institution of slavery.

Experience as a Slave

While slavery was equally a devastating experience for both men and women, it was potentially even more horrific for women. As slaves, men were inherently more valuable due to their labor potential and strength, which would guarantee a return on investment by the slave owner. Although women also participated in hard labor, they were often placed in domestic work and kept in order to give birth to children, who were immediately born into slavery. Female slaves were cheaper, viewed as disposable, and subjugated to a range of degrading activities including rape from the owners or overseers.

Celia was purchased by a farmer Robert Newsom in 1850, when she was just fourteen years old. That same year he purchased 5 other slaves, 4 adult males and a 5-year-old boy, aimed at increasing farm productivity, current and future, and economic. However, Celia was purchased separately. He was not seeking her as a field worker or even a domestic servant in the house to help his two daughters. Instead, he wanted a slave to fulfill his sexual desires given that his wife had died more than a year ago, and for some unknown reason he chose to never find or remarry another white woman.

It was not uncommon for slave owners to have sexual relations with the female slaves. Rarely was it consensual, and as the case with Celia, it was rape. “What is known is that from the moment he purchased Celia, Newsom regarded her as both his property and his concubine” (McLaurin, 1991, 25). As a slave, Celia had no rights, no defense, she could not say no. As a young girl, Celia was subjected fully to Newsom and faced years of sexual exploitation. As a female slave, this was the additional form of abuse and devastation that she faced, that men did not have to deal with. McLaurin (1991) notes that the rape, “would have been a psychologically devastating experience, one which would have had a profound effect upon her” (27).

Women as slaves were first and foremost valued in terms of their sexuality, partially to be able to bear children for future generations of slaves but also to serve as concubines to their white masters. It did not matter to the slave owners whether it was consensual or not, it demonstrated the dehumanizing effect of slavery and the master-slave relationship where the master had the power to oppress.

Court Case

Given the growing tensions around slavery in the country and clashes between abolitionists and slavery supporters in Missouri and Kansas due to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Celia’s trial in 1855 had the national attention and could have had legal reverberations around the country. The judge presiding the case William Augustus Hall was relatively neutral, it is not known his views on slavery, but he assigned John Jameson as the lead attorney for the case, alongside two junior attorneys.

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Jameson, although a minor slave owner, was a respected figure and part of the Presbyterian movement Disciples of Christ which were beginning to question the morality of slavery in the South. Jameson was the most likely to offer a fair defense for Celia, while Hall ensured that she was provided adequate representation that could not be questioned (McLaurin, 1991).

During the trial, the defense heavily leaned into the fact that Celia was a female slave, positioning her as vulnerable and ultimately having been abused and raped by Newsom for years, even though few witnesses wanted to admit as such despite it being relatively public knowledge. “Jameson had established the fact of Newsom’s continuing sexual relations with the defendant, the fact that she did not willingly consent, and the probability that she had been raped as a fourteen-year-old” (McLaurin, 1991, 77).

The defense mounted the narrative that Celia was afraid for her life, and self-preservation was vital to her as there was a legal precedent even for slaves to use self-defense. “The legal principle that a slave could, in extreme circumstance, resort to the use of deadly force to protect her life was also one that had been upheld in a number of southern state court decisions” (McLaurin, 1991, 81). As a woman, Celia only had the strength to use an object in an attempt to strike Newsom in order to stop the rape as she was heavily pregnant and ill. Jameson argues that Celia had the right to reject sexual advances, but Newsom ignored them and raped her.

Jameson presented his case believing that Celia was morally innocent, but the jury instructions ultimately indicated to view Celia as property, and she could not reject his advances. Judge Hall could not consider the defense’s legal argument, including one of self-defense, as it was too radical and could have been used as a legal precedent for the collapse of the entire institution of slavery by acknowledging that slaves have specific rights that can be used against their masters or controlling their own lives. As a result, Celia was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death.

Community and Life in a Slave Society

The counties of Fulton and Callaway, Missouri were small rural communities by all accounts. Therefore, this trial of national recognition and implication was thrust upon them in the midst of these growing national tensions and discourse around slavery. It is believed that the majority of these white respected community members were slave holders themselves. However, only four of the jurors were known to be slave owners. Therefore, the case directly challenged their way of life and wellbeing. “The arguments of the defense threatened not only the social assumptions under which slavery operated but the economics of slavery as well. The fertility of slave women was of obvious economic value, since their offspring became assets of the mother’s master” (McLaurin, 1991, 92).

That is why many were reluctant to openly admit the knowledge and support the perception of Newman as an immoral man who raped slave girls. It was a classic example of ‘turning a blind eye’ to the misdeeds of someone from a fellow group in order to maintain the status quo. Much of the community is hostile towards Celia, and from the beginning, the investigation is biased since all the persons involved are slaveowners. The local newspapers describe the murder as a premeditated and horrible crime, misrepresenting the events and details suggesting that the murder was committed “without any sufficient cause” (McLaurin, 1991, 45). The white population of local communities and the large cities beyond were concerned with slave violence.

At the same time, as the trial progressed, it became evident that Newsom’s actions made many in the community uncomfortable. This ranged from threats of slave uprisings, fueled by recent news from Nat Turner’s uprising in Virginia and a smaller-scale even in Missouri. Others, were influenced by abolitionists or religious ideologies which challenged slave owners. The trial was also set against the background of major political clashes as Democrats and Republicans fought to decide the future of Kansas and Missouri as slave states. “In Kansas, slavery became the pervasive political issue, overwhelming all other considerations, with proslavery and free state forces both determined to capture the territorial government” (McLaurin, 1991, 78).

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Life in the antebellum South with slavery was a sad and daily reality, for those who owned slaves and those who did not. However, cases such as Celia’s trial demonstrated that it placed both black and white individuals into contexts where they had to make difficult personal decisions, split between societal pressure and moral nature. People had to decide between what they believed is right and wrong knowing that their whole way of life and wealth could be uprooted.

The decisions however stacked up as the moral judgement on slavery itself. Celia’s life and event that led to her sentencing, were a forceful reminder about the morality of slavery to society and were linked to the numerous political and social issues of the day. Eventually, after centuries of being forced into such situations, the U.S. society faced its reckoning point on slavery with the Civil War, a moral dilemma it could not resolve peacefully.


Celia’s life was a short and tragic one, as she along with millions of other slaves over the course the two centuries of American history prior to the Emancipation Proclamation, suffered a horrific outcome. In the introduction to this book, the author notes that although there are great historic people that are remembered through history, sometimes it is necessary to understand the lives of the regular people, the victims of slavery such as Celia, the advocate Jameson who despite being a white man, made all efforts to defend and save his client by attempting to push the legal boundaries of recognition of slaves as inherently human.

It is this humanity which drove abolitionists, which drove the moral anxiety in the Southern communities, and eventually put the country towards emancipation, albeit through a bloody Civil War which was decades in the making through engineering of slave politics. Although the concept of slavery is well-explored in academia, books, and media, it is critical to reflect on the issue through the stories such as in Celia, a Slave, to recognize the far-reaching effects of slavery’s lack of humanity.


McLaurin, Melton A. 1991. Celia, a Slave. Athens, GA.: The University of Georgia Press.

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