In the late 1820s, an industrious Black woman from Mississippi was living in Coahuila as a free woman and a business owner. By November 1833, she had an established butter business at the local market that opened daily on the western part of Monclova, then the capital city of Coahuila, Mexico and a town located about 135 miles northwest of Monterrey and 155 miles south of the present-day Piedras Negras/Eagle Pass crossing. She concocted delectable butter, an unusual commodity in those parts of Mexico. Her products captivated both locals and foreigners who stopped to sample and buy the handmade butter. She also sold a wide variety of other dairy items, some of which were produced out of cow’s or goat’s milk, or likely both. To understand the significance of this Black American woman and her business in Mexico, we must situate her presence and her transnational mobility in the context of the Black Diaspora and the liberation processes that connect the United States and Mexico. The record left about her, and her butter business offer us insight into what her life in Mississippi may have entailed, her skill and craft, and her life in Mexico. It unequivocally prompts us to ask questions to better understand her experience and the freedom (or freedoms), even if fragile, she secured from Mississippi to Coahuila.1
Was she enslaved in Mississippi? Was she free? We may not know those answers but we do know that enslaved and free Black persons in antebellum Mississippi, from whence this businesswoman fled, particularly those held in large plantations, were forced to produce up to five hundred pounds of butter in any given year for their enslavers.2 She may have been enslaved on a large plantation in Mississippi where she may have perfected her trade and utilized it to fund her journey south, and out of US slavery. She may have been either born free in Mississippi or secured her freedom there before exiting the state. Both, enslaved and even free Black persons, were limited in the extent of the prosperity they could attain in geographies such as Mississippi, even when they were the constructors and developers of those spaces, especially as the United States (and its frontiers) kept encroaching west and southwest. Yet even if free in Mississippi, this Monclova businesswoman’s freedoms would have been hindered by the laws, statutes, and regulations governing that state.
In the 1820s, chattel slavery was decidedly an institution consolidated and protected on Mississippi soil. Mississippi had existed as native land inhabited by many indigenous tribes since time immemorial. As European empires vied for land across the continent, Natchez, Biloxi, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and many other indigenous communities saw their homes across this region encroached and refashioned as French, Spanish, and as British Natchez Territory through the mid to late 18th century. By 1798, these European settlers created the Mississippi Territory and it later joined the United States, on December 10, 1817, as a slave state. The many changes and new laws introduced during Mississippi’s early statehood were likely those that deeply shaped the formative years of this businesswoman, who by the 1830s, had settled and crafted a new home in Mexico.
In the early 1820s, thousands of Black women, men and children were enslaved across the state of Mississippi. As a slave state, its economy thrived upon their forced labor while slaveholders took the credit, revenue, and benefit of the state’s rapid transformation into “the credit importing, cotton-exporting leading edge of the global economy of the nineteenth century,” a substantial “field of national development.” And although freedom was hard to claim and secure in Mississippi, Black people maneuvered ways to wrestle it from their enslavers and from the legal architectures of control slaveholders set in place.
Once Mississippi joined the Union as a slave state, approximately 458 former slaves secured freedom there. Free Black persons in Mississippi, however, faced violent “and increasingly restrictive laws and attitudes” that pushed many to journey elsewhere. Additionally, Mississippi implemented numerous Black codes including anti free-Black laws and legislation that made it virtually impossible for any enslaved person to purchase or petition for their freedom.
In 1822, a set of key legislation was passed to return free people back to enslavement. While a few were given legal permissions to remain in the state, the Mississippi state law of 1822 required all free Black women, men, and children to leave the state at once and banned emigration. If they returned to Mississippi, they would be re-enslaved. Children born to free mothers or parents were allowed to petition for the purchase of their freedom, but only those approved by the state legislature could submit their petitions. These approvals often revolved around having state legislators appoint white “respectable freeholders” as their legal guardians.
It is not hard to acknowledge the various reasons that may have led this businesswoman to leave Mississippi and make her way to Mexico, particularly as the newly minted Mexican Republic had been consistently paving the road to the abolition of slavery since its establishment. By September 1829, freedom was legally available and easily accessible to Black women, men, and children who arrived on Mexican soil.3 Furthermore, thousands of Black Americans exerted courageous acts of abolitionary resistance to claim and secure freedom in Mexico.
This businesswoman turned border-crosser engineered a life in Mexico. She traversed over nine hundred miles to not just survive, but also take advantage of the various liberties and levels of protections that existed in Mexican spaces for Black Americans. Her life there was anchored through her own pursuits, self-liberation, and claims to the various levels of freedom she accessed in Mexico. However, freedom in Mexico was always as fragile as freedom was elsewhere in North America for Black Americans.
Once in Monclova, this woman set up her own shop. Her choosing butter-making as her business plan was undeniably strategic and a very ingenious selection. She likely saw the gap in the local market, one that at the time was primarily flooded with other shortenings such as manteca, (lard).4 Butter was not a widely utilized product across that frontier region. During the mid 1800s, butter was considered a luxury product that had to be brought in “firskins [sic] from New York,” and one often and only found in the households of the upper-class and elite who consumed it only during special occasions and holidays like Christmas.
This businesswoman may have been the first person to introduce butter and butter-making to Monclova (and to Coahuila). In the early 1830s, butter was not readily available in local markets or consumed by ordinary citizens in northern Mexico. Reports from travelers reveal that Anglo colonists in Stephen Austin’s settlements in Texas, located approximately 700 miles northeast from Monclova, consumed butter during the early 1830s even when it was not a popular or common product to make in those colonies. Butter consumed there was often one of the “articles” regularly packed and taken by the [Anglo] “Emigrants” who moved or were moving to Texas. Several Anglo families in Texas would even pay dealers to bring them “Irish butter” from Europe instead of crafting it in their households. Yet, while many settlers imported their butter, a few did produce it on Texas soil. Enslaved persons held by these Anglo settlers were conceivably its principal producers in those colonies.5 The first recipe on how to make the spreadable condiment was published in an Anglo-settler newspaper in Texas on March 13, 1830. This recipe catered to colonial settlers offered detailed instructions and showcased the skill, hard labor, time, and process required to produce “good butter.”
Few scholars highlight the origins of butter-making in the United States’ South and Texas, or the roles of Black people in that industry. Enslaved persons in the United States were not only major producers of their own butter, but also producers for the US market. In “Work and Resistance in the New Republic,” Lorena S. Walsh explains that when slaveholders did not pursue butter-making themselves, enslaved persons forged spaces within the plantation to pursue this endeavor and “manage as they [saw] fit,” producing it for personal consumption and commercial sale. Walsh argues that at the turn of the nineteenth century, “production of dairy products, especially butter rose in the Upper South.” More research and understanding into that industry could yield important revelations on the Black experience in Mexico and across the borderlands.
Although the industrious businesswoman’s name is silenced in the archive, her experience offers us much food for thought and reconsideration. Her story demonstrates a mobility little recognized, one endeavored in pursuit of freedom, and one fought and attained in a place rarely considered a space where Black Americans could secure their liberty. What little we know offers us one perspective of the lives Black women engineered and the mental, physical, and metaphorical lengths they had to travel (and endure) to be free. Laws, statutes, and decrees offered freedom and possibilities for Black Americans outside of the United States. In Mexican spaces, as well as in any other freedom destinations for that matter, freedom was not something gifted to enslaved persons or easily attained. History and the diasporic archive have clearly shown us that Black Americans had to fight to secure their freedom across the US, as equally as they had to also maneuver to do so in Canadian destinations. In Mexican geographies, their stories are not much different. Yet, their stories and legacies in the context of Mexico remain today in dire need to be better known, studied, disseminated, and reclaimed.
How long had this empowered Black femme resided in Monclova? What route or pathways did she traverse to get there from Mississippi? What actions did she take to secure her life away from US bondage? Was her experience claiming freedom in Mexico successful? Did she have a family in Mexico? Did she access citizenship in Mexico? Did she live the rest of her life in Mexico? While I don’t offer answers to these questions yet, these inquiries have guided me to reconsider the consequential aspects of her experience that can be acknowledged and highlighted—aspects invaluable to understanding more fully Black mobility, pursuits of liberation, and the meanings of freedom in North America as well as the Underground Railroads that were crafted leading towards and into Mexico. The presence, industry, and contribution of this woman to the history of Mexico is foundational and this brief essay is only the beginning of the retelling and recentering of her story. It’s also time we all recognize that Black history is Mexican history too, and what better way to start than in celebration of #BlackHistoryMonth.
- Felix Haywood, interviewed in the summer of 1937 in San Antonio, explained that it was common knowledge that enslaved persons could go to Mexico to be free. He stated, “Sometimes someone would come ’long and try to get us to run up north and be free. We used to laugh at that. There wasn’t no reason to run north. All we had to do was to walk, but walk south, and we’d be free as soon as we crossed the Rio Grande. In Mexico you could be free. They didn’t care what color you was black, white, yellow or blue. Hundreds of slaves did go to Mexico and got on all right.” ↩
- Although there are few historical references regarding the skilled trade of butter-making by Black women in Mississippi in the 1830s, we do have references to the fact that enslaved persons were the major producers of butter. For instance, enslaver Joseph Davis established a plantation in Vicksburg Mississippi in 1827 on 5,000 acres, where he held more than three hundred enslaved persons who not only grew corn, sweet potatoes, buckwheat, peas, beans, and cotton for his profit, but also produced over five hundred pounds of butter for him every year. ↩
- Decreto de la Abolición de la Esclavitud, Septiembre 15 de 1829, Documento 6, Expediente 18, Caja 640, Gobernación sin Sección, Archivo General de la Nación, Ciudad de México, México. ↩
- In the early 1850s, butter makers in San Antonio would sell the product (and advertise it) for around fifty cents per pound. It is, therefore, without doubt that in the early 1830s Monclova, where the commodity was still a novelty, it could turn a decent profit especially if it was a high-quality product. ↩
- Travelers regularly noted that as they journeyed to Texas in the 1830s “settlers from the United States” had an abundance of items they brought with them, and among these articles was butter, which they will then get to enjoy as they (the travelers) would seek lodging along the way. Some also reported that Anglo settlers would import those articles, including butter, to the Texas colonies to sell. ↩