Until recently, at least, most historians of this nation have assumed that the American “South” has been the most distinctive region of the United States. Afro-Americans were the majority in American South.
In the antebellum period they were the property of white people. While the integration of southern plantation production into the capitalist economy provided the economic base for this increase, the unique demographic vitality of the slave population of the southern United States also required a social base – stable families that provided physical, emotional, and cultural support for childbirth and child rearing. Traditional historical analysis has regarded the essential element in this framework to be the relationship of mother and child. Yet, despite the most difficult circumstances, the slave family in the South was typically a male-dominated nuclear family (father, mother, children), the prevailing form the world over. Whenever we think of southern families, what comes to mind? Honor, loyalty, pride of place, generations on the land.
For Southerners, family, like community for New Englanders, has a comforting ring to it. Somehow, we believe, families have always brought a measure of certainty and purpose to life even in the most difficult times. However, in the antebellum South, it was a very difficult and often short-lived enterprise.The idea that the slave family did not exist in the South originated with abolitionist attacks on the institution of slavery. In 1839 Francis Pickens noted, “My negroes are nearly all of them family negroes of the very best kind.” In 1850 James Henry Hammond insisted his slaves “Live[d] .
. . in families.
” Slaveowning economics went hand in hand with slaves’ desire for families. After the slave trade was prohibited in 1808, the family became of paramount importance in increasing the slave population. For the slave-owners, slaves represented capital investment, and each slave birth meant an increase in wealth.
Hammond wrote that “marriage is to be encouraged as it adds to the comfort, happiness and health of those who enter upon it, besides insuring a greater increase” (Brawley 12-15).Slave families were also a means of social control for the slave-owner. For example, family ties and responsibilities deterred slaves from running away. From 1831 to 1835 slaves on Hammond’s plantation made fifty-three unsuccessful attempts to escape. Those without kinship ties on the Hammond plantation were the ones most likely to run away; perhaps slaves acquired from other plantations were running away to restore prior family ties. Thirty-five percent tried to run away more than once. Married slaves were sometimes runaways, but much less frequently than single persons.
Male slaves who were married often took their wives in escape attempts, and the women, 16 percent of the runaways, tried to escape only with their husbands (Thorpe 55-56).The age difference between husband and wife was almost the same, and black and white households had about the same number of people in them with approximately the same percentage of children. Age variations between black and white household heads were minor, with the only significant differences appearing in the youngest and oldest age cohorts. These minor differences were even smaller in 1880, and little variation occurred between 1870 and 1880.
Whether they lived on large plantations or on small farms, slaves had marriages and families recognized by the community if not by the law. The marriage ceremony may have varied, but it was always a meaningful event shared with others in the community. Slaves on a plantation forged for themselves a community. When Thomas Green Clemson considered selling his Edgefield plantation, his father-in-law, John C. Calhoun, noted that “the negroes all appear to be much attached to the place and were much alarmed at the idea of its being sold” (White 9) The plantation was home, where friends and kin formed a community. The decision of Bill Lawrence’s family illustrates the strong commitment slaves of a plantation had to each other. Thus, for example, when Clemson wrote Francis Pickens, who served as his agent for the Edgefield plantation, he insisted, because of Anna, “that she [Daphney], her husband, (Bill Lawrence,) and their son Benjamin, should be permitted to choose their master.
” However, the Clemsons were informed that Daphney and her family wanted to stay with the other slaves on the plantation. Thus, the community of slaves was sold together (Thorpe 12).The ambiguities surrounding master-slave power relations are revealed in the contradictory attitudes of white slave owners and their slaves to marriages and wedding ceremonies.
Practice differed from one community to the next as masters and slaves in different locations negotiated these contested grounds. The power to prevent certain marriages or sell away spouses constituted a mechanism of rule for all masters, but although coercion formed the foundation of each slave-owner’s hegemony, most masters preferred to solidify their rule with as little force as possible. By condoning certain unions and sponsoring weddings, masters encouraged loyalty and obedience while reinforcing their own self-image as morally responsible people. Big House weddings, furthermore, magnified white symbols of authority while highlighting the conventional hierarchy by temporarily inverting social roles.
Family social life was centered around the church, but there were also dances, which many saw as evil and contrary to religion. Fiddles and banjos were regarded as instruments of the devil. The musicians were always men, and the narratives of slaves repeated the stereotype that men were “wilder” and “badder,” just as white males were expected to sow their wild oats. The Afro-American family was also reinforced by religion. Religious fervor in the black community dated back to colonial times and helped to give the new Reconstruction independent black churches a solid foundation.The great majority of plantation slaves in antebellum South lived in families with two parents and permanent marriages.
Planters’ records often listed slaves in family units. Francis W. Pickens, James Henry Hammond, Col. Whitfield Brooks all listed their slaves in this way.
Some slaves changed partners, but only to enter into other stable relationships. A slave might live with a woman for ten years and then form another alliance for the rest of his life. If slave cabin listings are considered to be similar to census households, then slave households most often contained a male-headed nuclear family plus other relatives (and sometimes unrelated single individuals or children).
In addition, on every plantation there were extended kin networks and the recurrence of certain slave surnames that differed from the name of the owner. A substantial minority of women, however, had children with unidentified fathers. Having children out of wedlock was not a cause for social stigma, but rather showed fertility and attested to one’s worth as a marriage partner.A stable family, where mother and father shared parental responsibility, made the rearing, nurturing, and disciplining of children easier. Slave parents disciplined children and passed on family and community values. Sylvia Cannon remembered that my mammy tell me don never tell nothin but de truth. A former living in Augusta explained, “De parents teach manners.
And when a boy got in devilment, if his mammy waz’t dere, anybody standing ’round would whup him. If he tole his mammy about it, and that he was bad, she whup him all over again.” In the above case, the mother disciplined and imparted moral instruction to the children, but several former slaves emphasized the male authority in their homes, and indicated that the father had some influence with the white master (Sinha 98).Planters made their power known by devising elaborate rules on family matters, including child rearing. Rule 5 of Hammond’s plantation manual required that “all children be brought in in entirely clean clothes twice a week. It is the duty of their mothers to do it and of the nurse to see that it is done or immediately report it” (Steckel 5). Passively resisting efforts to control their families, slaves demonstrated that their owners were not adequate to the job.
Hammond acknowledged failure: “I am satisfied that I have endeavored to take too much care of the negro children. It has made parents careless. They rely entirely on my management and will not learn to manage themselves. I should do better to feign perfect indifference and force them to scuffle for themselves, taking care to give them opportunity without their being aware of it. I cannot do worse by any system.
”It was common to have a nursery on large plantations. An elderly slave, sometimes aided by older children, was in charge of slave youngsters. Plantation owners’ records and former slave reminiscences confirm that slaves were supervised in a day-care arrangement until they reached the age of ten.
Slave children were placed in nurseries at from one to three months after birth, while their mothers went back to work. During the work day, breast-feeding mothers returned at least three times a day. A former slave remembered, “All the pickaninnies of the plantation were cared for by one woman in a nursery and the women came in from the fields at certain times to nurse them” (Denneen 256).Slave men and women often married to pool their resources by setting up a household in a slave cabin.
All large plantation owners in Edgefield provided slaves with “cabins” for homes, each of which had a garden patch. Residents of cabins were allowed time off from plantation chores in order to tend gardens. Allotments of food were made on an individual basis; each slave laborer generally received three pounds of bacon or pork and a peck of meal for the week. Pickens gave men more than women, and children received about a third of an adult’s share, plus additional vegetables.Husband and wife, as well as their progeny, worked in the family garden. On most plantations each couple, regardless of the number of children, got an equal-sized garden plot.
Individual plots, as opposed to a plantation-wide communal arrangement, gave the family a special incentive to cultivate its own garden. The practice of allowing separate family gardens for slaves exemplifies the flexibility of plantation slavery and foreshadows the sharerenting and sharecropping systems that succeeded slavery. Former slaves testified to the custom. One remembered that “each fam’ly had a garden patch. .
. . What we raised we et.” Another, whose master lived at Court House, remembered that “in slavery time we had extra patches of ground to work for ourselves which we sometimes worked on Saturday afternoons as we had dat time off.” Still another reported, “Our master gave us a small patch of land to work for ourselves and plant anything we wanted.
”Slaveowners continually accused slaves of “stealing” (especially chickens, swine, and potatoes), either to use for themselves or to sell. These activities were carried out by the male slaves in order to supplement diets and obtain goods to trade with whites for liquor or cash for the cabin “economy.” Wives provided the husbands with alibis and doctored them if they were caught. Julia Henderson described one such incident: “My grandmother said my grandfather uster slip off widout askin for no pass. Sometimes de young bucks would bus’ in de smokehouse and steal rossin’ potatoes and broilin’ meat. De overseer come lookin’ and grandfather tore out to git home, but dey whip de res’ whatever dey caught. Yes, dey whip ’em bad” (Clarke 6).Besides providing economic benefits, the family, to some extent, shielded its members from the negative effects of slavery.
Edgefield slave-owners appear to have tried to avoid selling slaves who had families on their plantations. Having a spouse to love, to accompany, and to grow old with was important in the difficult circumstances of slavery. While wives prepared meals and mended clothes, husbands chopped wood, hunted, fished, and worked the garden.
Finally, slave women who were married were probably less vulnerable to sexual harassment.Slaves could be sold to faraway owners or to persons closer to home; either could be devastating to the family life of those concerned. Whereas white commentators tended to minimize the frequency and effects of slave sales, former slave narratives and oral histories reveal the trauma and horrendous emotional costs of being separated from their loved ones. Planters may have been sensitive about slave families they already owned, but often purchased slaves without their families. At Christmas 1846, Pickens bought Big Allen, age twenty-seven, his wife Sarah, age twenty-eight, and their child Silvey, age three. In addition, he purchased twelve-year-old Frederic, nine-year-old McDuffie, eighteen-year-old Brown, twenty-four-year-old Martha, none of whom were related (Blassingame 55).
If the separation of families occasioned some regret on the part of the whites, it seldom brought anything but suffering for the slaves. Slaves tried in various ways to cope with being sold away from families. Some who were sold within the area got passes to go back for visits. A former slave remembered her master allowing her to return and be with her mother and father for a week at Christmas. Many whites left their families or went west, but white family breakups were quite different from those of Afro-Americans, since coercion was seldom, if ever, a factor. While whites could use mail, newspapers, and visits to communicate with friends and family, slaves had to resort to other means.American families existed, and were highly valued by blacks under slavery.
As they struggled for stability and continuity, Afro-American families faced a number of obstacles inherent in their slave condition, obstacles not shared by whites. In fact, the persistence of family patterns and ideals in spite of adversity suggests the opposite, that difficult circumstances reinforced the Afro-American commitment to the family ideal. In the historiography of the slave family, scholars have incorrectly deduced that present-day conditions are the results of slavery, but the slave family does not prefigure the twentieth-century family.;