Enslaved people could not legally marry in any American colony or state. Colonial and state laws considered them property and commodities, not legal persons who could enter into contracts, and marriage was, and is, very much a legal contract. This means that until when slavery ended in this country, the vast majority of African Americans could not legally marry. In northern states such as New York, Pennsylvania, or Massachusetts, where slavery had ended by , free African Americans could marry, but in the slave states of the South, many enslaved people entered into relationships that they treated like marriage; they considered themselves husbands and wives even though they knew that their unions were not protected by state laws.
A father might have one owner, his "wife" and children another. Some enslaved people lived in nuclear families with a mother, father, and children. In these cases each family member belonged to the same owner. Others lived in near-nuclear families in which the father had a different owner than the mother and children. This use of unpaid labor to produce wealth lay at the heart of slavery in America.
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Enslaved people usually worked from early in the morning until late at night. Women often returned to work shortly after giving birth, sometimes running from the fields during the day to feed their infants. On large plantations or farms, it was common for children to come under the care of one enslaved woman who was designated to feed and watch over them during the day while their parents worked.
Slave quarters. Mulberry Plantation, South Carolina. On large plantations, slave cabins and the yards of the slave quarters served as the center of interactions among enslaved family members. Here were spaces primarily occupied by African Americans, somewhat removed from the labor of slavery or the scrutiny of owners, overseers, and patrollers. Many former slaves described their mothers cooking meals in the fireplace and sewing or quilting late into the night. Fathers fished and hunted, sometimes with their sons, to provide food to supplement the rations handed out by owners.
Enslaved people held parties and prayer meetings in these cabins or far out in the woods beyond the hearing of whites. In the space of the slave quarters, parents passed on lessons of loyalty; messages about how to treat people; and stories of family genealogy. It was in the quarters that children watched adults create potions for healing, or select plants to produce dye for clothing. It was here too, that adults whispered and cried about their impending sale by owners.
Family separation through sale was a constant threat. Enslaved people lived with the perpetual possibility of separation through the sale of one or more family members. A multitude of scenarios brought about sale. An enslaved person could be sold as part of an estate when his owner died, or because the owner needed to liquidate assets to pay off debts, or because the owner thought the enslaved person was a troublemaker.
A father might be sold away by his owner while the mother and children remained behind, or the mother and children might be sold. These decisions were, of course, beyond the control of the people whose lives they affected most. Sometimes an enslaved man or woman pleaded with an owner to purchase his or her spouse to avoid separation. The intervention was not always successful. Historian Michael Tadman has estimated that approximately one third of enslaved children in the upper South states of Maryland and Virginia experienced family separation in one of three possible scenarios: sale away from parents; sale with mother away from father; or sale of mother or father away from child.
The fear of separation haunted adults who knew how likely it was to happen. Young children, innocently unaware of the possibilities, learned quickly of the pain that such separations could cost. Many owners encouraged marriage to protect their investment in their slaves. Paradoxically, despite the likelihood of breaking up families, family formation actually helped owners to keep slavery in place.
Owners debated among themselves the benefits of enslaved people forming families. Many of them reasoned that having families made it much less likely that a man or woman would run away, thus depriving the owner of valuable property. Some owners honored the choices enslaved people made about whom their partners would be; other owners assigned partners, forcing people into relationships they would not have chosen for themselves.
Abolitionists attacked slavery by pointing to the harm it inflicted upon families. Just as owners used the formation of family ties to their own advantage, abolitionists used the specter of separation to argue against the institution of slavery.
Frederick Douglass, who was enslaved in Maryland before he escaped to Massachusetts and became an abolitionist stridently working to end slavery, began the narrative of his life by examining "Eliza comes to tell Uncle Tom that he is sold and that she is running away to save her baby. Further, he lived with his grandmother, while his mother lived and worked miles away, walking to see him late at night. In his narrative, aimed at an abolitionist audience, Douglass suggested that slaveowners purposefully separated children from their parents in order to blunt the development of affection between them.
Abolitionists such as Douglass and Stowe argued that slavery was immoral on many grounds, and the destruction of families was one of them. Following the Civil War, when slavery finally ended in America after nearly two hundred and fifty years, former slaves took measures to formalize their family relations , to find family members, and to put their families back together.
During slavery, many people formed new families after separation, but many of them also held on to memories of the loved ones they had lost through sale. Starting in , hundreds of people placed advertisements in newspapers searching for family members. Parents returned to the places from which they had been sold to take their children from former owners who wanted to hold on to them to put them to work. And, thousands of African American men and women formalized marriages now that it was possible to do so. Some married the person with whom they had lived during slavery, while others legalized new relationships.
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I find that the most exhilarating and meaningful discussions occur when students have an opportunity to engage with primary sources. Working with documents helps students to develop analytical and investigative skills and can give them a sense of how historians come to their understandings of the past.
Interacting directly with documents can also help students to retain information and ideas. I offer a few primary sources here that should stimulate discussion and help students to imagine what life may have been like in the past. As English colonists began the process of putting slavery into place, they paid careful attention to family arrangements among enslaved people.
Legislators in Virginia and Massachusetts passed laws in the s making clear that the rules would be different for slaves and that family would not offer protection from slavery.
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Whereas some doubts have arisen whether children got by any Englishman upon a negro woman should be slave or free, Be it therefore enacted and declared by this present grand assembly, that all children borne in this country shall be held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother, and that if any Christian shall commit fornication with a negro man or woman, he or she so offending shall pay double the fines imposed by the former act.
Students will likely find the language of this statute a bit confusing, but will also enjoy deciphering it. Depending on the age and maturity of your students and the strictures of your school district, you may want to cut the last section regarding fornication. You can have an interesting discussion here about the role of the state or colony in this case in determining who would be a slave and who would be free.
Ask students why they think slaveowners, many of whom were represented in colonial legislatures, would have wanted this provision. How did it help them? What concerns were they attempting to satisfy here? What would be the status of a child born to an enslaved mother and white, slaveowning father? What impact might this have had on black men who were being denied the right to determine the status of their children even though they lived in a patriarchal society in which men were generally dominant?
Note for students that because whites were not enslaved in America, the children of a white mother and enslaved father was automatically free, but in some colonies and later states, legislation punished white women and their mixed-race children by apprenticing the children until adulthood and extending the period of service for the white woman if she was an indentured servant.
What were the implications of such punishment? What message did legislatures send about the ideal racial makeup of families?
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A social hierarchy among the plantation slaves also helped keep them divided. At the top were the house slaves; next in rank were the skilled artisans; at the bottom were the vast majority of field hands, who bore the brunt of the harsh plantation life. With this tight control there were few successful slave revolts.
Slave plots were invariably betrayed.
The revolt led by Cato in Stono, South Carolina , in took the lives of 30 whites. A slave revolt in New York City in caused heavy property damage.
The slave revolt that was perhaps most frightening to slave owners was the one led by Nat Turner Southampton, Virginia, in Before Turner and his co-conspirators were captured, they had killed about 60 whites.
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