Antebellum Slave Families: The Two Parent Household

The power of master over slave encroached on nearly every aspect of slave life including personal relationships. Marriages, while not legally recognized, sometimes occurred with the blessing of the master. Some occurred without his knowledge. Either way, slaves married and had families but what were the reasons to marry when separation loomed imminent? Why would slaves choose to marry if the marriage was not lawfully recognized? The claim of Brenda E. Stevenson that slaves did not seek a nuclear setup consisting of both parents seems to

disagree with other scholars who claim the desire was there but circumstance dictated different directives. I would like to support the claim that slave families were more than intentionally matriarchal in leadership. Legal authority, master power and sexual exploitation served to go against establishing slave marriages and families. Slave masters’ influence on the life of the slave and their families is undeniable, especially in the antebellum South but masters were still unable to achieve total domination which allowed slaves to engage in emotional, love based marriages and to build families.
Brenda E. Stevenson’s’ book, Life in Black and White, her analyses of slave family life makes the conclusion that most slave families were devoid of the father, intentionally designed by the male slave and lacked the desire for the ‘nuclear’ makeup of a two-parent household. She claims even the initial stages of courtship and romance was commonly influenced by the awareness that “their owners typically had the final say about if and when they could marry, and even who”. In Slave Marriages and Families, Stevenson takes many normal behaviors of both men and women and separates them as distinctively slave oriented. For example, many men consider sexual conquests a sign of virility and strength but this is not a singularly black male slave characteristic unique to only them and therefore not a strong argument for the matrifocality of slave families. I intend to use narrative sources and scholarly research to support the claim that slave marriages were based more on emotional attachments than self preservation or desires for matriarchal households because to the slave, the importance of and desire for familial ties could not be touched by the master. Constant throughout generations and geographies of captivity, the development of the slave family occurred beyond the world of the slave master and assimilated aspects of African traditions with American society.
African families were two parent households, often living with the parents of the husband. The man must purchase his wife from her father as compensation for her future labor in her fathers’ fields. Referred to as “bride service”, the terms may last for years before the man has saved sufficient cash to pay for his wife, once and for all. During nineteenth century wars in Africa, women played non-combat roles by following their husbands into the field mostly to cook for them. “This pattern of family participation in warfare was continued in the West Africa units.” For Africans, families had always consisted of two parent households in which the parents chose to be married. Slavery in America did not change Africans’ attitude toward marriage without the interference from the slave master and there is evidence to support this. Some slave unions were regionally based as well as geographically influenced and those that weren’t faced the potential dilemma of separation due to sale, escape or death. As humans do, slaves had courtships, love and marriage. Knowing separation was likely inevitable, slaves chose to marry and have families anyway.
Slaves developed persistent family ties despite the threat of separation by sale and forced migrations. According to Wilma A. Dunaway, at least half of U.S. Southern slave families were headed by two parent households and another 12 to 15 percent consisted of one part time parent, usually from another plantation who would visit regularly. As a result, nearly two-thirds of ex-slaves may have been raised by both parents. In most Virginia and North Carolina slave families, both parents were present at the time of Emancipation and older couples had lived together in lasting relationships. Slave marriages were broken up generally due to master intervention, usually an act of forcible sale, one half of which involved the separation of parent and child.
Herbert G. Gutman, in Family Life, argues “the slave family was a stable unit with long-standing marital unions and strong kinship ties.” In his examination of a South Carolina slave birth registry of the Good Hope plantation, he found most children lived in two parent households and most adults had lifelong marriages. In 1857 on Good Hope, for example, 175 people made up the slave community and nearly all were related by blood or marital ties going as far back as the 18th century. The idea that a closed community could inevitably show familial ties is nothing new but in the case of Good Hope, the documentation intimates behaviors and beliefs of slaves had a much more definitive impact on the slave family than did those of the master.
Lacking legal protection but outside of the social range of the master, the status of the slave marriage found more recognition within the umbrella of slaves’ religious and traditional beliefs. “Jumping the Broom” was sometimes the only ceremony slaves used to indicate a marital union had taken place. Historians believe this tradition to originate from Africa but are unable to provide indisputable evidence due to associations with slavery.
The master’s involvement in slave marriage was dependent on his involvement within the plantation. A present master had a more active approval of slave unions but the unions were not singularly dependent upon the approval of the master. Many could and did occur without his approval but usually with his knowledge. Unfortunately, sexual exploitation of the slave woman tended to be at the heart of asking permission. The sexual exploitation of slave women, prevalent throughout the slave holding community and evident in birth records, did not deter the slave’s desire to engage in a loving, respectable relationship as much as an exploitive master would have liked. Even in these cases, slave men and women sought loving relationships and marriages outside of the masters’ dominance. Dictated by respect for kinship elders or out of fear of the master, slaves sought approval to marry but generally did not seek approval to court or be courted by a potential mate. Permission to marry usually came after the establishment of a relationship and according to slave narratives, tended to surprise, and could enrage a master. Harriet Jacobs’ master was told of her intention to marry a man of her choosing and his threatening reply included an offer to marry one of his slaves but she stood fast against his will. “Do you suppose, sir, that a slave can have some preference about marrying? Do you suppose that all men are alike to her?…If he is a puppy then I am a puppy, for we are both of the negro race. It is right and honorable for us to love each other.”
Although not legally recognized by slave master, many played very active roles in the slave marriage dynamic. Attempts at interference took many forms; sexual exploitation of the female slaves, sale of one of the two who intend to marry or physical punishment of one or both. Legal issues did not stop slaves from marrying but William Wells Brown has his own reasons for the lack of legal recognition. In this passage, he eludes to the idea that to legally accept slave marriage is to acknowledge slaves’ humanity which, in turn, invalidates their status as property.
As husband and wife through each other become conscious of complete humanity, and every human feeling, and every human virtue…find an image of complete humanity leagued in free love…Not content with depriving them of all the higher and holier enjoyments of this relation, by degrading and darkening their souls, the slaveholder denies to his victim even that slight alleviation of his misery, which would result from the marriage relation being protected by law and public opinion.
Despite legalities such as this, slaves endeavored to seek and court suitable mates to their liking, regardless of the owners’ wishes. Courtship rituals and kinship acceptance recognized by Henry Bibb were not his initial intentions when he came to visit Malinda who would become his first wife. (She became his first wife for reasons I will explain later but are entirely related to enslavement and marital choice.) In his narrative, he titles chapter three “My Courtship and My Marriage”, literary recognition of marital intention. The word courtship, according to Webster’s Dictionary, is the wooing of one person by another and to woo is to seek the favor, affection, or love of, esp. with a view of marriage. Bibb sought Malinda’s company and succeeded in his endeavor to marry her but not without first setting the criteria in which he would choose to marry. “I never will give my heart nor hand to any girl in marriage, until I first know her sentiments upon the all-important subjects of Religion and Liberty. No matter how well I might love her, nor how great the sacrifice in carrying out these God-given principles. And I here pledge myself from this course never to be shaken while a single pulsation of my heart shall continue to throb for Liberty.” In other words, he would not marry a woman who did not have freedom on her mind. His requirement of a mate included acceptance of his present circumstances as a slave but also a shared pursuit of freedom from enslavement.
Many slaves of the era shared desires of freedom, as their ancestors had, and this generation also shared the desire to shape familial ties of their own, under the umbrella of their personal existence. Without legal protection, slave families were subjected to the whim of the master and Bibb knew this. His escape included his family and when he could no longer include them, at risk of danger to all, they separated. It was when Henry decided to find out what had happened to Malinda that, for me, distinctly dictates how much control slaves had over their marital choices within the context of their legal (or non-legal) existence. Henry finds out, on his return to Kentucky, that his wife, Malinda, had been “living in a state of adultery with her master, and had been for the last three years….This was a death blow to all my hopes and pleasant plans.” Henry found another wife, Mary Miles, but this time he married her “not in the slaveholding style, which is a mere farce, without the sanction of law or gospel; but in accordance with the laws of God and country.” It is with her that he ends his days.
Solomon Northup wrote of his wife and children affectionately. He married Anne Hampton, a local colored girl, on Christmas of 1829 and was immediately devoted to her and establishment of their own lives, away from the Big House. On a small plot Solomon had managed to procure through an arrangement of beneficial design, they lived and toiled together on a small farm, and raised three children as a two parent household.
They filled our house with gladness. Their young voices were music in our ears. Many an airy castle did their mother and myself build for the little innocents. When not at labor, I was always walking with them, clad in their best attire, through the streets and groves of Saratoga. Their presence was my delight; and I clasped them to my bosom with as warm and tender love as if their clouded skins had been as white as snow.
Solomon Northup loved this woman and they created a family together, one of the most important aspects of slave life. Research has shown slave families made every effort to stay together and occasionally, masters would try to do the same to keep slaves from being inclined to runaway.
The slave market, arguably the most destructive force of slave families, tore apart established families, separating mothers from children and husbands from wives. Despite this tragedy against humanity, slaves managed to keep track of each other through naming practices separate from their owners. Taken from ancestors or close relatives, names were a way for runaway slaves or free blacks to find family members.
The adversities faced by generations of slaves, designed to keep them chattel and perceived as less than human, did not deter their desire to seek mates, court, marry and have children. Their goal was to be a two parent household. Slaves may have had occasion to arrange some marriages in ways to avoid specific hardships of enslavement but because the humanity of people carries with it the human desire to mate and create families, slaves’ desire to marry and bear children could not be extinguished by law or master.

Primary sources
Bibb, Henry. The Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb:An American Slave. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2001.
Brown, William Wells. “The President’s Daughter.” In The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, 245-269. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1997.
Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. New York: Random House Publishing Group, 2000.
Northup, Solomon. Puttin On Ole Massa. New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1969.

Secondary sources

Dunaway, Wilma A. The African American family in slavery and emancipation. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Gutman, Herbert G. “Family Life.” In Slavery in American Society, by Brown, Rabe Goodheart, 161-166. Lexington, Ma: D.C. Heath and Company, 1993.
Kolchin, Peter. American Slavery. New York: Will and Wang, 2003.
Lan, David. Guns and Rain:Guerillas & Spirit Mediums inZimbabwe. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985.
Stevenson, Brenda E. “Slave Marriages and Family Relations in Antebellum Virgina.” In Slavery and Emancipation, by Rick Halpern and Enrico Dal Lago, 242-264. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2002.
Vandervort, Bruce. Wars of Imperial Conquest in Africa 1830-1914. Bloominton: Indiana Press University, 1998.