What will Kentucky Book Festival visitors find on your table?
The Vice President’s Black Wife: The Untold Life of Julia Chinn (Ferris and Ferris Books, 2023).
My new book tells the story of Julia Ann Chinn (ca. 1796–1833), the enslaved wife of Richard Mentor Johnson, owner of Blue Spring Farm, veteran of the War of 1812, and US vice president under Martin Van Buren. During Johnson’s frequent absences from his estate, he delegated to Chinn, a literate woman, the management of all his property. Chinn thus oversaw Blue Spring’s enslaved labor force, Choctaw Academy (the Indigenous boarding school located on the couple’s farm) and had substantial control over economic, social, financial, and personal affairs within the couple’s world. The pair’s relationship was unlikely to have been consensual, however, given that Johnson never manumitted Chinn.
What makes Chinn’s life exceptional is the power that Johnson invested in her, the opportunities the couple’s alliance afforded her and her daughters, and their local community’s tacit acceptance of the family—to a point. When the family left their farm, they faced steep limits: pews at the rear of the church, burial in separate graveyards, exclusion from town dances, and more. Johnson’s political career was eventually ruined by his relationship with Chinn. It wasn’t interracial sex that led to his downfall, however, but his refusal to keep it—and Julia Chinn—behind closed doors.
Whom do you invite to stop by? Who will benefit from reading your book?
Although deeply researched and archivally grounded, The Vice President’s Black Wife was written for a broad audience. This is a book that will resonate with general interest readers, history buffs, and scholars. It will be particularly appealing to those with a passion for African American history, Black Women’s history, US political history, Kentucky history, and the history of slavery.
Could you please tell us something curious about you and/or your book?
When I first began my research on Julia, over a decade ago, I didn’t care for bourbon. At all. I know, sacrilege! Today, thanks to many a resident of the Bluegrass state, I’m a complete and utter bourbonista. I not only drink it, I mix old fashioneds for my guests, attend bourbon tastings, and love to visit locations on the bourbon trail. I’ve been converted!
Is this your first time participating in Kentucky Book Festival? If yes – what are you looking forward to the most? If you’ve participated before – what was your favorite experience at the Festival?
This will be my first time at the Festival! I’m really looking forward to meeting with readers and discussing Julia’s amazing story with Kentuckians, both Black and white.