In David Blight’s biography of Frederick Douglas, he explains the young Frederick witnesses several violent beatings and or rapes by the age of 7 or 8.

It’s also unclear weather or not the head of the plantation or his sons has been Frederick’s father via rape.

How common was this practice? What % of enslaved women were raped at least once?


Given some of the comments, I’d like to point out this is not a legal question. Yes, the word “rape” is, in the strictest sense, an illegal sex act. Perhaps in the antebellum south it was not illegal in all jurisdictions for a slave owner to force his slaves - even children - to have sex. Given the depravity of the overall southern society at the time, it wouldn’t surprise me if such laws didn’t exist.

But, this misses the point entirely. For example, Southern Senators fought against federal anti lynching laws all during the Jim Crow era. So, lynching was not a federal crime for decades. Does that mean there weren’t lynchings? Murder is also, strictly defined, a legal word. Yet, if I asked how many slaves were murdered each year and one responded, “None, as it was not illegal to kill one’s slave,” the point of the question would be missed.

From a historical perspective, on a history forum, is it really necessary get into the semantics about what strike me as obvious facts: American slaves were raped and murdered by their owners, even if those acts weren’t specifically prohibited by law.

If it’s easier for some of you, I’ll rephrase the question here: what % of slave owners had sex with their slaves who - I feel the need to point out - were not able to freely decide whether to consent.

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    How would we know? I imagine most of this would be unrecorded. Commented Dec 17, 2018 at 3:38
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    You will unfortunately be disappointed if you are expecting answers in exact percentages. Rape statistics remain controversial even today, with intense disputes over definitions and severe underreporting in many jurisdictions across the world; it's all but nonexistent in this era. Although, @suchiuomizu yup, but it might be possible to very roughly estimate a prevalence. Not sure if anyone has ever tried though.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Dec 17, 2018 at 6:12
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    See @JMS' comment below; given slaves legal status, consent was not possible, so sex with a slave should be classified with rape. I'm uncomfortable with this question because failure to examine consent runs the risk of an incomplete understanding of the situation. If the answer were limited to the focus questions provided above, I believe it would lead to an incomplete understanding. On the other hand I don't have any constructive suggestions to lead to a better understanding of the problem.
    – MCW
    Commented Dec 17, 2018 at 11:50
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    @sofageneral No. That would not be a better question. Were the whippings not whippings because they were slaves? The owners didn’t live in a moral vacuum. They were aware of abolition movements and moral arguments against slavery. They ignored those arguments for a number of reasons. Slave owners, it would appear, engaged in systematic torture and rape of their fellow human beings. I want to know how often they engaged in the rape bit. I recognize the data might be sparse, imprecise or both. Commented Dec 17, 2018 at 17:01
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    @dwstein well... if that's how you feel.. . then my point stands.. the more important question is: did society back then believe it was even possible to rape a slave. And then a follow on question would be when did that belief change? And how did the change in perception and societal norms impact the historical assessment of the Founding Fathers. Commented Dec 17, 2018 at 18:26

2 Answers 2


What % of slave owners in the anti bellum south raped their slaves?

Short Answer:
The best modern scholarship marks white rape on female slaves wide spread and systemic. Beyond that rape perpetrated upon female slaves in the antebellum south was so prevalent it could be termed endemic.

Detailed Answer:
My answer is indirect to your precise questions and thus probable unsatisfying but let me try to put a scope on both white rape upon female slaves and rape in general perpetrated on female slaves.

Without giving you the percentage you asked for I have found suggestive data on the topic. Two modern genetic studies measuring European DNA found in a statistically significant sample of African Americans as well as African DNA found in a sample of Americans of European descent.

The first study's conclusion is given be low. It finds that the genetic markers from African Americans are unlike those of native Africans and that the mostly likely reason for this is the proportion of European genes in the population.

Characterizing the admixed African ancestry of African Americans
These results are consistent with historic mating patterns among African Americans that are largely uncorrelated to African ancestral origins, and they cast doubt on the general utility of mtDNA or Y-chromosome markers alone to delineate the full African ancestry of African Americans. Our results also indicate that the genetic architecture of African Americans is distinct from that of Africans, and that the greatest source of potential genetic stratification bias in case-control studies of African Americans derives from the proportion of European ancestry.

A second study which came out in 2009 included 5,269 self-reported African Americans, 8,663 Latinos, and 148,789 European Americans. This study made note that the 2000 US Census shows that 95 percent of African Americans and 97 percent of whites acknowledge only a single ethnic identity. Using modern Genome analysis this study showed that the percentage of non African DNA varied widely by state with the average African American possessing 24.0% European DNA.

Given men have X-Y chromosomes and women have X-X chromosomes, comparing the statistical traits on different chromosomes in the same population set, as well as specific characteristics of the different segments of DNA further interesting details were brought out. That African and European Races were mixing six generations ago with significant mixing prior to 1860. That approximately 5% of ancestors of African Americans were European females and 19% were European males. That more than six million Americans who self identify as European descendants carry African ancestry.

The Genetic Ancestry of African Americans, Latinos, and European Americans across the United States
Our estimated rates of non-European ancestry in European Americans suggest that more than six million Americans, who self-identify as European, might carry African ancestry.
We used the lengths of segments of European, African, and Native American ancestry to estimate a best-fit model of admixture history among these populations for African Americans (Figure S3). We estimate that initial admixture between Europeans and Native Americans occurred 12 generations ago, followed by subsequent African admixture 6 generations ago, consistent with other admixture inference methods dating African American admixture. A sex bias in African American ancestry, with greater male European and female African contributions, has been suggested through mtDNA, Y chromosome, and autosomal studies.6 On average, across African Americans, we estimate that the X chromosome has a 5% increase in African ancestry and 18% reduction in European ancestry relative to genome-wide estimates (see Table 1). Through comparison of estimates of X chromosome and genome-wide African and European ancestry proportions, we estimate that approximately 5% of ancestors of African Americans were European females and 19% were European males

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That the higher the state proportion of African Americans, the more African ancestry is found in European Americans from that state, reflecting the complex interaction of genetic ancestry, historical admixture, culture, and self-identified ancestry.

Broadly Female Slaves and Rape.

To quote Curtis Harris:
Much like believing an underage person could consent to sexual relations with an adult, the notion that an enslaved person could consent to any sexual relation with a master is perilously fraught. The plantation system dismantled any notion of consent by the enslaved. Indeed, if there is a central tenet of slavery it is depriving agency from one human and placing it in the craven hands of another.


The rape of female slaves was systemic, prevalent and is one reason slavery was self sustaining and profitable. Given the importation of slavery was ended in the United States Jan 1 1808, slavery was thus by Fredrick Douglas's definition an institution based upon rape for nearly six decades prior to emancipation. Female slaves were systemically bred to produce more slaves.

Thomas Jefferson to John Wayles Eppes I know no error more consuming to an estate than that of stocking farms with men almost exclusively. I consider a woman who brings a child every two years as more profitable than the best man of the farm. what she produces is an addition to the capital, while his labors disappear in mere consumption.


Women and the Domestic Slave Trade in the Antebellum South
In this same manner, the domestic slave trade confined slave women’s roles to this traditional sphere of motherhood. Fueled by the demand for more slaves, slave traders realized the potential of a female slave’s reproductive abilities to bring a profit. ... By the end of the eighteenth century, “a woman’s reproductive ability had clearly become part of her appraised value” (28). Meanwhile, single men and women who could not have children were sold before couples who produced children (270). At auctions, a woman’s reproductive abilities could be “assessed” by looking at her genitals and examining her breastfeeding abilities (264). This clearly shows that the domestic slave trade placed value on slave women in accordance with their ability to reproduce.

As for empirical evidence

  • We know Elizabeth Keckly, a slave for 3 decades who won her freedom for herself and her son and then later became a famous seamstress famous for providing dresses for Lincoln's wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. Ms. Keckly wrote in her autobiography, "Thirty years a slave", that she was repeatedly raped in her youth. ... Keckly’s mother, Agnes, was an enslaved woman assaulted by Armistead Burwell, her master. The sexual exploitation was generational and resulted time after time in white men owning their children in bondage just as Chesnut described.


The Loathsome Den Sexual Assault On the Plantation
In 1868, Elizabeth Keckly published Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. The memoir detailed the 50-year old Keckly’s three decades as a slave, how she secured freedom for herself and her son, and her friendship with the Lincolns during the Civil War. Also within the pages of her book was Keckly’s public revelation that she had been routinely raped by a white man when she was a young woman. Although revealing the abuse, Keckly chose to “spare the world his name.”

THE LOATHSOME DEN– SEXUAL ASSAULT ON THE PLANTATION white Southerner Mary Chesnut in 1861 as “the thing we cannot name.” Chesnut continued by noting the delusion needed to ignore sexual misconduct: “[E]very lady tells you who is the father of all the Mulatto children in everybody’s household, but those in her own, she seems to think drop from the clouds or pretends so to think.”

Fredrick Douglas
“My father was a white man. He was admitted to be such by all I ever heard speak of my parentage. The opinion was also whispered that my master was my father; but of the correctness of this opinion, I know nothing; the means of knowing was withheld from me.”

Solomon Northup in "twelve years as a slave".
The plight of Patsey is a central part of his memoir. Edwin Epps, master of Northup and Patsey in Louisiana, routinely assaulted Patsey sexually, physically, and emotionally. Master Epps’s abuse of Patsey brewed an intense jealousy on the part of Mistress Epps, who was effectively powerless to stop her husband’s behavior. She futilely begged him to end the rapes. Reaching that dead end, Mistress Epps herself began to physically abuse Patsey as the only retaliatory recourse against her husband. As Northup summarized, “The enslaved victim of lust and hate, Patsey had no comfort” as she endured the status of abused pawn in the Epps’s marriage.

Harriet Jacobs in her memoir, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Jacobs would lament that it was “criminal” for “a favorite slave…. to wish to be virtuous.”

Systemic Evidence

Slave auctions had an entire class of slaves suitable for exploitation by their purchaser. These "fancy" slaves were purchased at a premium.

historians like Walter Johnson, who have researched slave auctions. Johnson identified that “favorite” or “fancy” female slaves sought for sexual exploitation could make handsome profits for slave dealers. A trafficker named Phillip Thomas in Richmond, Virginia, described one such purchase: “13 years old Girl, Bright Color, nearly a fancy for $1135.”

Important Statistics with regard to Slavery

from Slavery, by the Numbers

  • From Jan 1 1808 when importing slaves was ended to 1860 African American population in the United States jumped from 400,000 to 4.4 million of which 3.9 million were slaves
  • In the US, on average a slave mother gave birth to between nine and 10 children. twice as many in the West Indies according to the Gilder Institute of American History.
  • In 1860 less than 10 percent of the slave population was over 50. only 3.5 percent was over 60.
  • According to historian Ira Berlin in "Slaves Without Masters" fully 40% of Southern free Negro population were classified mulattoes.
  • The United States went from being a country that accounted for 6% of slaves imported to the New World to one that in 1860 held more than 60 percent of the hemisphere's slave population.
  • In 1860, according to the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, 75 percent of white families in the United States owned not a single slave, while 1 percent of families owned 40 or more. Just a tenth of 1 percent of Americans owned 100 or more slaves.
  • 1860, 31 percent of all slaves in the U.S. were held on plantations of 40 or more slaves, while a majority (53 percent) were held on farms of between 7 and 39 slaves, - Gilder Lehrman Institute
  • of the total African-American population in 1860, nearly 90 percent were slaves. And, while blacks made up only 13 percent of the entire country, in the South one in three people was black.
  • In 1860, slaves made up 57 percent of the population in South Carolina, the highest of any state in the union. Coming in second was Mississippi at 55 percent, followed by Louisiana at 47 percent, Alabama at 45 percent, and Florida and Georgia, both at 44 percent. NY Times: Visualizing Slavery
  • In terms of absolute numbers, Virginia had the highest slave population of any state in the country in 1860: 490,865
  • As for the slave labor force, the Gilder Lehrman Institute indicates almost “a third of slave laborers were children and an eighth were elderly or crippled.
  • A majority of free blacks in the South were female (52.6 percent of them were women in 1860), because, according to Berlin, free black men had a greater tendency to move out of the region.
  • Free black people also were older than the average slave, because they often had to wait to earn or buy their freedom, or, in not uncommon cases, be “dumped” by their owners as weak or infirm (in 1860, 20 percent of free blacks were over the age of 40 compared to 15 percent of slaves and whites).

**Related Question:**

Why did LBJ, a staunch segregationist, champion and sign the 1964 Civil Rights Bill?


**Answers to Comments**

@Eff and part of it even contradicts a systematic breeding rape as is suggested by "The rape of female slaves was systemic, prevalent and is one reason slavery was self sustaining and profitable", e.g. "Meanwhile, single men and women who could not have children were sold before couples who produced children" indicates that couples that reproduce on their own were preferred over singles that you'd need to rape for them to reproduce. That's not saying there wasn't rape or that slavery doesnt "makes it easy" and thus 'systemically allows it and/or supports it', but the answer seems a bit flawed. – Darkwing


I read that as men and women who's breeding was unsuccessful were sold off before men and women who's breeding was successful, because successful breeding couples were more valuable.


Even more, these genetic markers are from the present, after perhaps another ~150 years. This admixture is clearly higher today because of continued consensual interbreeding. Let's say, fairly generously to the claims in this answer, that the admixture was ~15% in 1850. If you actually make a calculation, you will note that this is consistent with a very low interbreeding rate. – Eff

The study doesn't make a judgement on whether the admixture is higher today than in 1850 or not. I will note that minority genome types are more likely to dissipate over time not accumulate given all things being equal.

@JMS: morally, consent was absolutely possible, because morally it depends upon what they wanted. What isn’t possible is to say there was consent, no matter what it appeared like from the outside. – jmoreno

Consent is about free will. No free will existed under slavery. the entire institution existed to prohibit free will

I don't think what you are asserting is accurate. I don't think slavery was really about what the slave "wanted".

@JMS You completely misunderstand everything I said about genetics. I never claimed any evolutionary advantage. I stated that over generations with interbreeding at every generation, the populations will tend to mix up and admixture increases. Eff

I apologize for my misunderstanding. Observing that African Americans possess as a population 24% european genome is an example of genetic diversity. Genetic diversity does not come from "inbreeding". Genetic diversity only comes from new genes being introduced into a population.

This is a very basic population genetics concept.

No such concept is contained within the cited study. Please name the concept as I am not familiar with it.

It is not difficult to estimate the implied level of interbreeding given a few basic assumptions.

I think we just disagree on that and should relegate our comments to citations of scholarly works.

I don't know enough about the laws of the time & place to say whether legal consent was either necessary or possible, but recall that until relatively recently the same was true for married "free" women. Morally?

I would think it extremely dangerous, and mistaken to equate the experience of free women and all the injustices they experienced with slave women in the antebellum south and assume some Moral equivalence. If you wanted to narrow down your assertion to a specific era where free women as a population were sold at market, had no protections under social nor institutional law and were raped by anybody who could afford the fee to purchase them. Again where this era to your mind these free women were able to still form consent. I will entertain your more specific comparison.

Of course there could be situations in which a slave could give moral consent to sex jamesqf

Do you believe their could be a situation where a minor, such as a 8 or 9 year old girl could morally give consent to sex? If not, why is it so hard to understand Fredrick Douglasses point? That 8 or 9 year old today enjoys dramatically more rights under the law and in society than a female slave in the antebellum south. The disparity of power is the point.

Really interesting, very good answer, but, as you pointed, I don't think it answers my question. – dwstein

Oh by the way... Great thought provoking question, even if the answer is beyond me. I think it was an excellent challenging thought provoking question.

As for my answer, I know my answer isn't what you asked, but I think it's the closest I could come. The act was large enough to account for 24% genetic diversity in the entire African American population, 150 years after the institution of slavery was abolished. Thats with slaves outnumbering slave owners in 1860 by 12-1 in the South. I'm going to add some more statistics to my answer above.

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    ref "Given the importation of slavery was ended in the United States Jan 1 1808, slavery was thus by Fredrick Douglas's definition an institution based upon rape for nearly six decades prior to emancipation." : is that a proof by itself ? Besides importation and rape by Whites, more slaves could have been 'produced' in the plantation by sex in between slaves, couldn't it ? I suppose that slave women's childrens circa 1830 were fathered sometimes by an owner (through rape) and sometimes by a slave (through rape or consented sex) ? The proportion of each being part of the question...
    – Evargalo
    Commented Dec 17, 2018 at 10:34
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    @Evargalo Legally in the Antebellum South consent for slaves was not protected, required nor recognized. Morally, the point was no consent was possible for an enslaved person. Just like no consent legally or morally possible for a minors having sex with adults. The parties are so disparate in power it by definition excludes the powerless party to consent. Slaves were breed to other slaves not by consent of the slaves but by the will of the master who kept women to breed as Thomas Jefferson so eloquently stated, as profit centers.
    – user27618
    Commented Dec 17, 2018 at 11:07
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    I added some thoughts to the end of my post under comments.. I will revisit this after work. Interesting post. I would say if you want to refute the study, use words in the study. What I posted in my answer, was right out of the studies mostly from the conclusions.
    – user27618
    Commented Dec 17, 2018 at 14:46
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    @JMS: I think you are failing to distinguish between moral and legal. It's certainly possible for a minor or a slave to morally give consent to sex (or withhold it), regardless of the legalities.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Dec 17, 2018 at 18:54
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    @jamesqf I disagree. Morally, if the power dynamic is such that you don’t really have a choice, then you can’t consent. Commented Dec 17, 2018 at 19:27

Without limiting oneself to North American slavery, it seems that throughout history the rape of slaves has been pretty much endemic in cultures that had slaves. It was certainly a common practice in ancient Rome, and Frankopan's Silk Roads mentions that in the early Middle Ages the Rus' would rape their female captives one last time before handing them over to their purchasers in the slave markets. So it would be pretty remarkable if this were not common in North America.

In fact, although one doesn't do this in practice, it almost seems that sexual exploitation is the easiest way to tell the difference between a slave and a serf. A lord would not have expected to be able to rape or castrate serfs as a matter of course and get away with it.

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    This does not answer the question.
    – MCW
    Commented Dec 18, 2018 at 12:14
  • @JMS what does that have to do with the question? In fact the very article you copied verbatim from, has the following passage: "Numerous historians have studied the subject and the result is that it turns out there is no solid evidence of this practice happening in reality at all." Commented Dec 19, 2018 at 0:12
  • @JMS - the link you posted is fine, but says But did it really ever happen? Numerous historians have studied the subject and the result is that it turns out there is no solid evidence of this practice happening in reality at all
    – user8690
    Commented Dec 19, 2018 at 9:57

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