A Tragic Reality
In the most recent episode of Mercy Street, a disturbing new layer was added to the already tragic and tense atmosphere within Mansion House Hospital. Aurelia Johnson, the young, so-called contraband slave woman, is coerced and then raped by menacing hospital steward Silas Bullen. Johnson had struck a deal with Bullen, who had agreed to work to bring Johnson information about her family, still trapped in slavery – for a price. Johnson brings Bullen a trinket, but that’s not what he had in mind. Instead, he assures her he only wants to help her, then leads her into a storage room and rapes her.
Aurelia Johnson’s situation was all too common in the slaveholding South. The institution of slavery was built upon a system of violence and terror, part of which was the sexual abuse and rape of female slaves by their white masters. Indeed, raping ones’ female slave could potentially benefit a master, who stood to gain an additional slave should the rape produce offspring. The fact that masters often counted their own children among their slaves was the open secret of slavery, as Southern diarist Mary Chesnut noted: “like the patriarchs of old, our men live all in one house with their wives and their concubines, and the mulattoes one sees in every family exactly resemble the white children….” Masters wielded rape as a tool to terrorize both male and female slaves, as enslaved men were powerless to protect the women and girls of their family from the predation of white men.
Rape in the Old South, though ever present, was constructed within the framework of the white supremacy that ruled social relations. Few white men would have been tried, let alone convicted, of Bullen’s crime – trials were generally reserved for the rape or abuse of black girls under the age of twelve. When Bullen tells Johnson, menacingly, that she need his help and friendship, he is reminding her that as a white man, he has a right to her body. At the same time, white Southerners adhered to the notion that black women, unlike white women, were promiscuously sexual creatures, always available and always desirous. Pro-slavery Southern legal scholars like Thomas R. R. Cobb argued that black women could not be raped because they were never not consenting to sex. To Bullen’s mind, Johnson doesn’t need to actively consent to sex — her very blackness speaks for her. Indeed, when Southerners thought of rape, both before and after emancipation, they thought only of one thing, and it wasn’t the predation of white masters on enslaved women – it was the ever-present threat of black men raping white women, an excuse that was used to justify many a lynching.
Aurelia Johnson’s rape was a jarring, disturbing scene – as was Bullen’s sweaty, breathless later reappearance in the kitchen afterwards. While it left me a bit tired (last year, after all, was a year where rape seemed to appear on every television show), I also felt it was important. Many television and film depictions of slavery are romanticized, and gloss over the visceral, individual horrors that enslaved men and women faced. I don’t know what the rest of this season of Mercy Street holds for Johnson, but I hope she does reunite with her family – and that she gets some justice.
About the Author
Sarah Handley-Cousins is a PhD candidate in history at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Her scholarly interests include medicine, gender, disability, and war studies. She is also an editor at Nursing Clio and producer of The History Buffs Podcast.
 C. Vann Woodward, ed., Mary Chesnut’s Civil War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981), 27.
 Diane Miller Somerville, Rape and Race in the Nineteenth Century South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 66.
 Thomas R. R. Cobb, An Inquiry into the Law of Negro Slavery in the United States of America (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1999), 100.Tags: Aurelia, Episode 2, Rape, Sarah Handley-Cousins, Sexual Assault Posted in: Mercy Street PBS