Tituba's Race

Black, Indian, Mixed?

Salem Village Map from Upham

Charles W. Upham

Tituba was a major figure in the initial phase of the Salem witch trials. She was enslaved by the Rev. Samuel Parris. She was implicated by Abigail Williams, who lived with the Parris family, and Betty Parris, daughter of Samuel Parris, along with Sarah Osborne and Sarah Good, the other first two accused witches. Tituba evaded execution by making a confession.

She's been depicted in historical writings and historical fiction as Indian, as a Black person, and as of mixed race. What is the truth about Tituba's race or ethnicity?

In Contemporary Documents

Documents of the Salem witch trials call Tituba an Indian. Her (likely) husband, John, was another enslaved person of the Parris family, and was given the surname "Indian."

Tituba and John were bought (or won in a bet by one account) by Samuel Parris in Barbados. When Parris moved to Massachusetts, Tituba and John moved with him.

Another enslaved young boy also came with Parris from Barbados to Massachusetts. This young boy, who is not named in the records, is called a Negro in the records of the time. He had died by the time of the Salem witch trials.

Another of the accused in the Salem witch trials, Mary Black, is explicitly identified as a Negro woman in the trial's documents.

Tituba's Name

The unusual name Tituba is similar, according to a variety of sources, to the following:

  • a Yoruba (African) word "titi"
  • a Spanish (European) word "titubear"
  • a 16th-century name of a Native American tribe, Tetebetana

Depicted as African

After the 1860s, Tituba is often described as a Black person and connected with voodoo. Neither association is mentioned in documents from her time or until the middle of the 19th century, almost 200 years later.

One argument for Tituba being a Black African is the assertion that 17th century Puritans didn't differentiate between Black and Indian individuals; that the third Parris enslaved person and accused Salem witch Mary Black were consistently identified as Negro and Tituba consistently as an Indian does not lend credence to the theory of a "Black Tituba."

So where did the idea come from?

Charles Upham published Salem Witchcraft in 1867. Upham mentions that Tituba and John were from the Caribbean or New Spain. Because New Spain allowed racial mixing among the Black Africans, Native Americans, and White Europeans, the assumption many drew was that Tituba was among those of mixed racial heritage.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's Giles of Salem Farms, a work of historical fiction published just after Upham's book, says that Tituba's father was "Black" and "an Obi" man. The implication of practicing African-based magic, sometimes identified with voodoo, is not consistent with documents of the Salem witch trials, which describe witchcraft customs known in British folk culture.

Maryse Condé, in her novel I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem (1982), describes Tituba as a Black person.

Arthur Miller's allegorical play, The Crucible, is based heavily on Charles Upham's book.

Thought to Be Arawak

Elaine G. Breslaw, in her book Tituba, Reluctant Witch of Salem, makes the argument that Tituba was an Arawak Indian from South America, as was John. They may have been in Barbados because they'd been kidnapped or, alternately, moved with their tribe to the island.

So What Race Was Tituba?

A definitive answer, one that convinces all parties, is unlikely to be found. All we have is circumstantial evidence. An enslaved person's existence was not often noted; we hear little of Tituba before or after the Salem witch trials. As we can see from the third enslaved person of the Parris family, even that individual's name may be completely missing from history.

The idea that the residents of Salem Village did not differentiate on the basis of race—lumping African American and Native American together—does not hold up with the consistency of identification of that third enslaved person of the Parris household, or the records regarding Mary Black.

My Conclusion

I conclude that it's most likely that Tituba was, indeed, a Native American woman. The question of Tituba's race and how it's been portrayed is further evidence of the social construction of race.

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Your Citation
Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Tituba's Race." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/what-was-titubas-race-3530573. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2020, August 26). Tituba's Race. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-was-titubas-race-3530573 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Tituba's Race." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-was-titubas-race-3530573 (accessed March 20, 2023).