The Secret Life of Bacon Tait
Update, March 4, 2017: I learned Saturday evening that Hank has passed away. He had been candid with those he knew about his illness, and its grim prognosis. He knew back in November that his time remaining was short, and I think he took comfort in seeing The Secret Life of Bacon Tait off to press.
Hank Trent is a researcher specializing in the antebellum period that I’ve come to know through his contributions at Civil War Talk. (He posts there under a different name.) Hank’s posts and comments are invariably deeply-informed and articulate, and he both makes and understands subtle, nuanced interpretations of historical subjects. He gets it, that what we call “history” is made up collectively by people, and people are complicated, conflicted, noble and hypocritical, sometimes all at once. There are many smart and knowledgeable folks who post over at CWT, but I make it a point to read all of Hank’s posts and comments because I know he will have something useful to say. He always does.
So I was happy to see him announce the pending publication of his new book,The Secret Life of Bacon Tait, a White Slave Trader Married to a Free Woman of Color by LSU Press, due out in March 2017. It’s available for pre-order now. If the title is provocative, so is the story:
Historians have long discussed the interracial families of prominent slave dealers in Richmond, Virginia, and elsewhere, yet, until now, the story of slave trader Bacon Tait remained untold. Among the most prominent and wealthy citizens of Richmond, Bacon Tait embarked upon a striking and unexpected double life: that of a white slave trader married to a free black woman. In The Secret Life of Bacon Tait, Hank Trent tells Tait’s complete story for the first time, reconstructing the hidden aspects of his strange and often paradoxical life through meticulous research in lawsuits, newspapers, deeds, and other original records.
Active and ambitious in a career notorious even among slave owners for its viciousness, Bacon Tait nevertheless married a free woman of color, Courtney Fountain, whose extended family were involved in the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad. As Trent reveals, Bacon Tait maintained his domestic sphere as a loving husband and father in a mixed-race family in the North while running a successful and ruthless slave-trading business in the South. Though he possessed legal control over thousands of other black women at different times, Trent argues that Tait remained loyal to his wife, avoiding the predatory sexual practices of many slave traders. No less remarkably, Courtney Tait and their four children received the benefits of Tait’s wealth while remaining close to her family of origin, many of whom spoke out against the practice of slavery and even fought in the Civil War on the side of the Union.
In a fascinating display of historical detective work, Trent illuminates the worlds Bacon Tait and his family inhabited, from the complex partnerships and rivalries among slave traders to the anxieties surrounding free black populations in Courtney and Bacon Tait’s adopted city of Salem, Massachusetts. Tait’s double life illuminates the complex interplay of control, manipulation, love, hate, denigration, and respect among interracial families, all within the larger context of a society that revolved around the enslavement of black Americans by white traders.
Typically, Hank worried that the title may not precisely reflect the complexity of Bacon Tait’s relationship with Courtney Fountain:
I discussed [with the editor] whether “married” was correct for the title, because even though the Taits signed legal papers as Mr. and Mrs. or wife, and presented themselves as married to neighbors and the census taker, they legally weren’t married, and there wasn’t even a common law marriage provision in Massachusetts at the time.
The editor said he thought that was enough, but I still worry…
Be at ease, Hank. I expect this book to be on many, many bookshelves for years to come.