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Law professor McMurtry-Chubb speaks on race issues

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Professor Teri McMurtry-Chubb is no stranger to issues of racial inequalities. She has lectured nationally on topics such as structural workplace discrimination and disproportionate sentencing for African Americans. She is the first African American woman to work as a law clerk for the 5th Judicial District of Iowa. McMurtry-Chubb, assistant professor of law, discussed these issues in her lecture “Race Unequals and Social Betters,” in the President’s Dining Room. / photo by Scott Mirimanian

Branden del Rio
News Editor

Teri McMurtry-Chubb, assistant professor of law and director of legal writing, presented her research in the lecture titled “Race Unequals and Social Betters: The Contractual Construction of Race and Class Among White Overseers and Planters in the Antebellum South.”

On Monday a group of mostly faculty from the main campus and some from the Law School attended the lecture.

McMurtry-Chubb was introduced as a cutting edge scholar in law and history, a description she lived up to in her lecture.

The title of the lecture summed up the point of the lecture which was about the relationship between planters and overseers in the South in the 19th century.

She introduced her lecture by showing a picture of Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler from “Gone with the Wind.”

Next, she asked the audience to close their eyes and think about the film and they did so accordingly.

She then asked them to wipe that image from their minds.

“All right, that’s not the South we’re going to be talking about today,” McMurtry-Chubb said.

She then jumped right into her point saying that planters of the South set up a racial identity for the overseers that worked on their plantations; a sort of proper “whiteness” for them to act by.

She then calmed the anxiety of a clearly confused audience.

“Hang with me it will all be very clear soon,” McMurtry-Chubb said. To ease the audience into her ideas she provided them with definitions of planters, overseers, race and class.

Planters, she said were the perceived to be patriarchal and benevolent, the ideal picture of what a white male was in the Antebellum South.

“Overseers on the other hand were poor yeoman farmers who aspired to have land ownership and independence,” she said.

Overseers were in charge of protecting the planters’ assets, namely his slaves. This duty of protecting, she said, often came in direct conflict with their duty of yielding maximum labor from the slaves by whipping them. The slaves would therefore complain to the planter about the overseer’s harsh treatment.

The job was a tough one which she compared a horrible middle management job.

McMurtry-Chubb then talked about the money that went into owning a plantation.

During the time, one slave cost about $1,500 and a typical plantation had at least 40 of them.

Now, that price is the equivalent of about $60,000, she explained.

She said she spent about two years in a dark room looking at microfilm and found the documents from five families’ plantations and a series of letters sent between the Wood Family, a family of overseers.

Among the documents she found were overseers’ contracts.

These documents exemplified what her research was about.

They showed that overseers were not allowed to host parties, were only allowed to have one female slave to cook and clean for them, and were only given an average of $500 annual salary by the planters.

On top of that, the overseer’s pay was often held for two years and initial living expenses were deducted before they received the money. In the question and answer session, the faculty actively asked questions.

Marc Roark, assistant professor of law, asked if there were any African-American overseers.

This question revealed why McMurtry-Chubb began her research.

The answer was no, she said. However, she also said that there were slave drivers and they were usually upper level slaves.

“I began this study about slave drivers, but the records just aren’t there,” she said.

Later she said that she began her research to find out more about her culture and where her family came from.

“Her research was excellent and her presentation was informative and convincing,” Al Clark, associate vice president for academic affairs, said “I was fascinated by the historical insight and the two very distinct classes of whites in the South.”

Branden del Rio can be reached at

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