"Slave Marriage and Family Relations."
Life in Black and White:
Family and Community in the Slave South.
Stevenson Brenda E.,
York: Oxford University Press, 1996: 226–257, 399–406.
African American romance and marriage within the context of the institution of slavery could be the most challenging and devastating of slave experiences. From the initiation of a romance, black men and women had to confront and compromise with their masters about control of their intimate lives, aware that their owner typically had the final say about if and when they could marry, and even who. Even after a slave's marriage, his or her master still commonly decided when slave husbands and wives could see each other, if and when they could live or work together, the fate of their children, and sometimes even the number of children they had.1
Slaves nonetheless had their own way of doing things, refusing to concede too much, sometimes refusing to concede at all. If the slave master's interference in the slave's personal life was interminable, so too was the slave's resistance to this kind of intervention. Like their owners, slave attitudes and decisions about courtship and marriage were shaped by gender convention and community concerns, but not necessarily the same conventions or concerns. The matrifocality of many slave families, for example, meant that the realities of slave manhood and womanhood differed substantially within the context of family life from those whose familial experiences were nuclear and patriarchal. Likewise, extended families and slave communities were important, not just
because they monitored slave behavior and maintained slave values, thereby protecting the integrity of the community. Members of slave communities also actually played substantial physical, material, and emotional roles in the lives of slaves. To a large extent, they were the slave's family. The presence of meaningful kinship ties embodied in the extended family or community, therefore, allowed slaves to take on a variety of marital arrangements and familial structures. One's master might have had the final authority, but there also were other slaves and slave institutions that exerted influence, perhaps more influence than masters realized. Within the broad contours of slave life that masters insisted on designing, slaves found spaces of their own, choosing what lines to and not to cross as they constructed their own domestic terrain.
It was a terrain structured by diverse, yet nonetheless respected rules and standards. Those who wanted to marry, for example, had to consult their parents or other black authority figures first. The man usually initiated the process, asking for permission from the would-be bride, her kin, and their owners. "First you picks out de gal you wants, den ax her to marry up with you," Levi Pollard explained. "[D]en go to Mars en ax him ifen you ken have her. If Mars like dat couple den he says yes."2 Pollard's recollection suggests that male slaves and owners controlled much of this process, but mothers and elderly women also held power in certain slave quarters, particularly in relation to younger slave women. They could control vital aspects of a woman's courtship and marriage, sometimes even to the exclusion of owners or slave men.
The predominance of matrifocality and the large percentages of slave women in smaller holdings, therefore, had significant impact on slaves' domestic lives, giving slave women great influence in their families and communities. It was an influence not recognized in the larger society's hierarchy, but nonetheless functional in the slave's world view. Elderly slave women who had lived in the quarters for years, particularly where adult females were in the majority, were accorded great respect. Their long lives and the wisdom assumed derived from it, their years of service to their families, and their knowledge of their community's history were the basis for their authority. Likewise, mothers who raised their children without paternal input commanded their children's obedience and deference.
Female power in slave families and communities was not power that they took lightly or used sparingly. Ex-slave Philip Coleman, for example, admitted that "there was a likely girl" that he "took a great fancy to" and wanted to marry. According to Coleman, his owner approved of the match and the young woman did too, but the girl's mother "put up so strong [an] objection that the wedding . . . was called off." Caroline Johnson Harris explained of her courtship and marriage that "Ant Sue," and not her master, had to give permission to the slave couples in her quarters before they could marry. As an elder and a holy woman, "Ant Sue" especially compelled communal respect.
Harris recalled that when she and her prospective husband approached the powerful woman for her blessing, "She tell us to think 'bout it hard fo' two days, 'cause marryin' was sacred in de eyes of Jesus." Having followed her directions carefully, Caroline and Mose (the would-be-fiancˇ), returned to "Ant Sue" and told her that, after much consideration, they still wanted to marry. The elderly woman then assembled the other members of the slave community and asked them to "pray fo' de union dat God was gonna make. Pray we stay together an' have lots of chillun an' none of'em git sol' way from de parents." A broomstick ceremony followed her prayer, but not before "Ant Sue" queried the couple again about the certainty of their decision.3
"Ant Sue's" and the discriminating mother's control carried considerable weight in their slave communities. Masters who where unaware of or disinterested in slaves' distribution of social power within their world claimed that their authority as owner took priority. If the couple had the same master, there usually was no problem in gaining his or her permission, although sometimes an owner would question each about their feelings before giving consent. If the couple had different owners, both masters had to give their permission and usually the husband and wife continued to live separately after their marriage. "My father was owned by John Butler and my [mother] was owned by Tommy Humphries," Loudoun slave George Jackson explained. "When my father wanted to cum he had to get a permit from his massa. He would only cum home on Saturday. He worked on the next plantation joinin' us." A few owners bought a favorite slave's spouse. William Gray of "Locust Hill" just outside of Leesburg, for example, purchased Emily, the wife of his male slave George, after their first child was born in 1839. The couple had five more children during the next eight years. Gray later sold the slave family to a local farmer in 1853, "all at their own request" for $3200.4
Emily and George, as most slaves, probably had a brief, "informal" wedding. Despite its brevity and seeming informality, however, slave weddings and the commitments they symbolized were extremely important events for black families and communities. William Grose, for example, was appalled when a new master insisted that he marry again simply because he had been sold far away from his first wife. He was equally distressed when the owner presented him with a new wife without any "ceremony."5 Slave marriage rituals varied considerably. "Jumping the broom" was popular among some. Georgianna Gibbs remembered that when the slaves on her farm married they had to "jump over a broom three times" before they actually were considered married.6
The act of "jumping the broom" as part of slave marriage ritual is important to consider, not only because it was a popular practice, but also because of its cultural and sociopolitical implications. Although many contend that "jumping the broom" had African origins, evidence suggests otherwise. "Jumping the broom," in fact, was a popular practice in early Anglo-Saxon villages where a
couple jumped together across a broom placed at their family's threshold in order to signify that they entered the residence as husband and wife. Jumping backward across the broom to the other side of the threshold meant the end to a marriage. Since "jumping the broom" was a pre-Christian ritual in much of western Europe, it probably passed down to later generations as an amusing, perhaps quaint, relic of their "pagan" past. By imposing this cultural albatross on slaves, southern whites suggested the lack of respect and honor that they held for their blacks' attempts to create meaningful marital relationships. The slave's acceptance of this practice, on the other hand, demonstrated the ability of slave culture to absorb, reconfigure, and legitimize new ritual forms, even those masters imposed out of jest or ridicule.7
Those slaves who did not "jump the broom" solemnized their marriages in other ways. Slave masters sometimes participated, reading a few words from the Bible or giving their own extemporaneous text. Tom Epps recalled that he had heard of "jumping the broomstick," but "us never did nothin' like dat in our place." Instead, the slaves participated in a ceremony whereby the "Marsa would hol' a light, read a lil' bit an' den tell 'em dey was married."8
On very rare occasions, local ministers actually officiated. Ex-slave Fannie Berry remembered with delight her wedding to a free black man named John Taylor. Because she was a favorite of her owners, she was able to have the ceremony in her mistress's front parlor, a minister perform the service, and many slaves and local free blacks attend. A festive reception followed with "ev'ything to eat you could call for."9 Berry's husband worked on the railroad, and she saw him only occasionally until after general emancipation. Her abroad marriage was typical even if her lavish nuptials were not.
Fannie's owner let her marry the man she chose. Yet inevitably some masters refused to respect the choices that their slaves made about their private lives. Despite family or community support, those slaves who defied their masters paid a high price. Still slaves willingly, and sometimes willfully, chose to marry in spite of their owner's wishes. Martha and David Bennett, for example, married without her master's permission. David belonged to Captain James Taylor and Martha was a slave of George Carter. Taylor seemed not to resent the union, but evidence suggests that Carter felt otherwise — Martha reported that Carter had had her stripped naked and "flogged" "after her marriage."10
Whether or not Carter rejected the marriage, however, is only part of this puzzle. What is perhaps more intriguing is why Martha married David in the first place. Why would Martha, a member of a slaveholding that boasted a large and equal number of men and women, choose a man with whom she could not live and whose children she would have to raise without their father's daily input? Why would she commit to an abroad marriage and a functionally matrifocal family style when she did not have to do so? Why didn't she choose instead one of the men on Carter's plantation? Certainly for her to do so would have added some measure of security to her marriage and family. It also would have pleased her owner. Martha's marriage begs a number of important questions not only about the reasons why slaves married who they married, but also about the kinds of marriage and family styles they deemed acceptable.
Slaves so frequently married persons belonging to other masters that Martha's behavior does not seem odd. But Martha was not confronted with the kinds of conditions that usually are attributed to abroad marriage. Neither the demographic conditions nor residential patterns of Carter's plantation mandated that Martha marry abroad. Neither did the domestic slave trade nor slave rental business, for Carter did not routinely sell or rent out his slaves. Martha's marriage to George Bennett, therefore, suggests that there may have been other reasons why so many slaves had abroad marriages and matrifocal households.
While this question may never be completely answered, there are some partial explanations. Complex rules of exogamy, notions of slave manhood and womanhood, and a desire to extend one's social world beyond one's residential community were significant considerations. So too was the slaveapos;s psychological need to establish some "emotional distance" between oneself and one's loved ones, to say nothing of the slave's cultural heritage. All these factors contributed to what "choices" slaves made about their domestic lives within the context of the rigid constraints that masters imposed.
The slaves' great concern about marriage to a close blood relation, for example, could have influenced greatly the numbers of abroad marriages that existed even among quarters like those of George Washington, William Fitzhugh, or George Carter where there were many men and women from which to choose a spouse. In generations-old quarters such as these, long years of intermarriage and procreation created intricate and complex kinship ties, ties that may have been discernible only to slave community members. While older quarters housed particularly stable communities because of extended family networks, they also contained closely connected kin (first cousins, for example) whom slaves would consider ineligible as marriage partners. Unfortunately, this kind of avoidance is practically undetectable by scholars who have to rely on slave lists produced by owners or overseers who had different rules of exogamy. Even so, many masters seemed to have realized that their slaves were upholding stringent rules of exclusion. Georgia Gibb's recollection that her master "never sell none of his slaves, but he'd always buy more . . . dat keeps de slaves from marrying in dere famblies" suggests her owner's knowledge of operative rules of exogamy.11
Martha Bennett, therefore, may have looked for a husband outside of Carter's slaveholding because his quarters presented her with a preponderance of male kin. There also may have been other reasons why she agreed to marry abroad. Growing up in communities filled with matrifocal slave families, it is not surprising that slave women like Martha were socialized to function in
such. Slave women may have foreseen other benefits as well. Having abroad husbands and matrifocal households, for example, allowed them a kind of management of their children and day-to-day domestic life that live-in husbands may not have. As such, matrifocality had the potential to define effectively slave womanhood in ways that were quite distinct from free womanhood. Likewise, abroad marriages could give women greater domestic power, ideally affording them the moral sanctity of marriage, but also lessening some of their responsibilities — physical and emotional — to their husbands.
Slave men like David Bennett would have had other motives for choosing an abroad wife, some linked to African American conventions of manhood and leisure. Nineteenth-century black men, as white, often viewed travel and "adventure" as a "natural" desire and activity of a "man." "In the year 1827, a spirit of adventure, natural to most young men, took possession of me, and I concluded to leave Virginia and go to Ohio," John Malvin, a free black reared in the Loudoun vicinity, confessed.12 Abroad marriage also had other implications for slave men. The slave husband's sense that his "manhood" in part hinged on his ability to protect his wife and children inspired some to marry abroad — at least he did not have to witness his family's daily abuse. When local slave Dan Lockhart's wife was sold to a man who lived eight miles away from him, he believed it was "too far" and he managed to get his owner to sell him to someone who lived closer. He stayed with his new master for more than three years before he decided to run away to avoid seeing his wife and children being whipped. He explained that he "could not stand this abuse of them, and so I made up my mind to leave." 13
Abroad marriage also meant an extended social world for slave men. "Slaves always wanted to marry a gal on 'nother plantation cause dey could git a pass to go visit 'em on Saddy nights," ex-slave Tom Epps recalled. These descriptions and others not only suggest the delight slave men gained from "travel" to their wives' homes and the opportunity those excursions afforded them to broaden their community. It also allowed slave husbands a "break" from their daily physical and psychological routines, a "break" which enhanced their leisure time.
Love and romance were as important reasons as any that slaves insisted on choosing their spouses even if it meant a long-distance marriage. The story of Loudoun slave William Grose and his free black wife is instructive. Grose's owner never approved of his abroad marriage to the free woman, for he feared that she would find some means to help William escape. Eventually he decided that the best way to protect his investment was to sell William to a long-distance trader. Sent to New Orleans, he was sold again, this time as a domestic to a creole widower. Grose's new owner, who seemed to have several slave wives himself, insisted that William marry another woman. "He sent for a woman, who came in, and said he to me, 'That is your wife,'" William
explained. "I was scared half to death, for I had one wife whom I liked, and didn't want another. . . . There was no ceremony about it — he said Cynthia is your wife."14
It is not certain from Grose's autobiographical account whether or not he and Cynthia ever lived as husband and wife, but he continued to care deeply for the Loudoun free black woman he had married. Remarkably, the two managed to remain in contact. A year later, Grose's Virginia wife arrived in New Orleans and managed to get a position as a domestic in the same family in which he worked (an American family he had been hired out to serve), and the two secretly carried on their marriage. Grose's master eventually found out about their relationship and she was forced to leave New Orleans. But this was not the end of their story. "After my wife was gone," William confessed, "I felt very uneasy. At length, I picked up spunk, and said I would start." William finally managed to escape to Canada where he, his Loudoun wife, and their children finally were reunited.15
The history of William Grose, his free black wife, and their struggle to remain married in spite of his owners' opposition is an incredible and rare one. Yet the kind of determination they demonstrated was more common than one might imagine. Unfortunately, few were able to triumph, but many made admirable attempts. Willis Garland, for example, requested permission to marry Martha Brown even though she lived some forty miles away, and he would be able to see her and any children they had only a few times a year. His master agreed, but clearly laid out his restrictions. "He will be allowed to visit . . . as often as can be spared — at least three times annually," Garland's owner informed Scott's mistress.16
The kinds of decisions about their intimate lives that slaves made, even given the many restrictions which encumbered them, were very important to their sense of individuality, control, and self-esteem. For those slaves like the Groses, Willis Garland, Martha Brown, and even the Bennetts, therefore, it obviously was just as important, if not more so, to marry the person whom they "chose," even when they knew they would have to live apart, as to marry someone simply to please their master or because they could expect to share a home with that person on a daily basis.
"Marsa used to sometimes pick our wives fo' us," Charles Grandy complained. "Wasn't no use tryin' to pick one," he added resentfully, "cause Marsa wasn't gonna pay but so much for her. All he wanted was a young healthy one who looked like she could have children, whether she was purty or ugly as sin." Most slaves knew that their owners preferred that they marry within their own holding. To do so allowed masters to claim as property all children born to these cohabitative couples, usually considerably more in number than those born of abroad marriages. Slaveholders also believed that couples who resided together reduced security problems, eliminating the need to give passes for
conjugal visits and providing masters with the potent threat of selling or hurting slave family members in order to insure obedience.17
The large numbers of abroad marriages, the substantial incidence of serial marriages, even the rare examples of polygamy, therefore, can be linked both to the slave's lack of control over his or her domestic life and to his or her resilient assertion of control. Jo Ann Manfra and Robert Dykstra's survey of late antebellum slave couples who resided in the southside of Virginia indicates that serial marriages often resulted from the 10.1 percent of slave marriages that ended with mutual consent and another 10.8 percent that ended because of spousal desertion. John Blassingame's analysis of slave couple breakage in Mississippi, Tennessee, and Louisiana suggests similar conclusions. One of the most compelling examples of slave choice and its impact on slave marital structures and relations is that offered by ex-slave Israel Massie. Massie insisted that slave men and women not only "understood" polygynous marital relations, but some sought them out. His insistence helps to further establish the premise that slaves adopted a variety of marriage and family styles and that they were comfortable with that variety. According to Massie, slaves sometimes made a conscious choice to create certain marital arrangements and family structures which were not monogamous and nuclear.18
"Naw, slaves didn't have wives like dey do now," he began his explanation. "Ef I liked ya, I jes go an' tell marster I wanted ya an' he give his consent." "Ef I see another gal over dar on another plantation, I'd go an' say to de gal's marster, 'I want Jinny fer a wife.' . . . Hit may be still another gal I want an' I'll go an' git her. Allright now, dars three wives an' slaves had as many wives as dey wanted." Massie insisted that the multiple wives of one slave man "didn't think hard of each other" but 'got 'long fine together." He illustrated antebellum slave polygyny with an example from his own farm. "When Tom died," he continued, "dar wuz Ginny, Sarah, Nancy, an' Patience." According to Massie, all of Tom's wives came to his funeral and publicly mourned for him. "Do ya kno' . . . dem women never fou't, fuss, an' quarrel over dem men folks? Dey seemed to understood each other."19
Polygyny, or something akin to it in which a slave man had longstanding, contiguous intimate relationships with more than one woman, probably was a much more popular alternative among slaves than heretofore has been realized. The unavailability of marriageable slave men in smaller holdings and the scarce number of men in those slave communities hit particularly hard by the domestic slave trade provided the physical conditions for polygamy, particularly when coupled with pressures (internal and external) on women to "breed." Moreover, at least scarce knowledge of ancestral domestic arrangements (in Islamic or many traditional African religious groups) and a continual tradition of matrifocality among slaves provided cultural sanction for polygamy. Still few actual accounts of slave polygyny remain. This probably is because polygynous marriages could not be legalized after general emancipation. Given the general predilection of local churches, northern missionaries, teachers, and the Freedmen's Bureau to establish monogamy among freed slaves, polygynous or polygamous relationships after emancipation may have been largely ignored, or given some kind of culturally bound, misleading label such as "promiscuous couplings," "immoral" behavior, or adultery that have hidden from view the practice of polygamy among freed slaves.
Federal, state, and private agencies coerced freedmen and women to change this aspect of their lives, or at least to camouflage it from public scrutiny. Massie again is instructive, alluding to the reasons why polygyny ended with emancipation: "Now, out of all dem wives, when Lee surrendered, ya choose from dem one 'oman an' go an' git a license an' marry her. Some turned all dey wives loose an' got a new wife from some t'other place." Massie, and probably many other ex-slaves, was aware that it was illegal for "free" people to have more than one spouse. Former slaves, hoping to legitimize their domestic world through acquisition of the marriage "license," had to publicly abandon polygyny. Regardless of the reason for this postbellum change, however, it is clear that Massie, and the slaves he referred to, acted as if monogamy, even serial monogamy, was not the only marriage alternative or ideal they had as slaves.20
It is not unreasonable to assume, therefore, that even when demographic conditions theoretically could provide a high incidence of monogamy and nuclear families among the slaves of a particular holding, black men and women sometimes made other choices based on a complex combination of reasons; choices that, on occasion, resulted especially in abroad marriages and functionally matrifocal families, sometimes serial marriages, or even polygamy. Operative extended kin networks of various description undoubtedly allowed slaves some assurance that these kinds of decisions would not result in dysfunctional marriages or families.
Slave marriages, like those of any group, varied in terms of their internal dynamics, longevity, and the ways in which the couple acted out their roles as husband and wife. Given the variety of conditions under which slaves married and the numerous forms of marriage and family households they formed, it is difficult to discuss conclusively the various ideals which guided their domestic behavior. Yet one can begin to comprehend these roles if one has an understanding of operative adult sex roles among them.21
The emphasis on gender-specific behavior became an important part of child socialization as slave youth grew older. Slave females, who were more likely than males to remain in their families of birth through adolescence, received most of their gendered socialization from their mothers, other female kin, or community women. Usually by the time slave girls reached their teens, these women already had prepared them to take on the most important commitments of their adult lives — motherhood and marriage. Slave women taught their girls that as adults it would be their responsibility to cook, clean, bear, and rear children for their families, all this despite the labor demands of masters. They were supposed to take pride in their "womanly" skills and service they rendered their families.22
Clara Allen, for one, placed great esteem on the domestic arts that her mother taught her and her service to her family. Contrasting the skilled talent and familiar commitment of slave women with the carefree, unsolicitous attitudes of early twentieth-century black women, Allen openly disapproved of the abandonment of domestic skills that had been so important to Virginia slave women; that had, in fact, helped to define them as women. "Nowadays, do you think any dese girls w'd set still long enuf to WEAVE?" she asked rhetorically: "No sir, dey cyan't set still long 'nuff to thread a darnin' needle . . . dey cyan't weave, nor cook, nor do up a silk mull dress, nor flute de curtain ruffles, nor make pickle an' p'serbs, nor tend a baby liken it oughter be tended. Dey doan know nuttin'!" Allen added coolly, with a sense of female pride and purpose, "I could take the wool offen the sheep's back an' kerry it thru ter CLAWTH. Wash it, card it, spin it, weave it, sew it inter clothes — an' (with a laugh) wear it, when I gotter chance."23 This sphere of domestic labor that Allen specified — taught, supervised, and performed almost exclusively by females — reinforced within slave girls and women a sense of their "femaleness" while helping them to maintain strong bonds across generational, cultural and occupational boundaries.
A woman's role as head of a matrifocal family mandated that she make some of her family's most vital decisions and suffer the consequences if her master or her abroad husband disagreed. It meant that she had to act protectively and aggressively for the sake of her dependents, often in open conflict with her owner. Slave mothers, for example, routinely rebelled against the poor material support owners provided, especially the amount and quality of their food. Few hesitated to steal, lie, and cheat in order to guarantee their physical survival or that of their children. Marrinda Jane Singleton, for example, remembered that as a single mother she stole food — vegetables and meat — in order to feed herself and her children. Speaking of one particular incident, she explained: "Dis pig was now divided equally and I went on to my cabin wid equal share. All de chillun was warned not to say nothin' 'bout dis. If dey did, I tole 'em I would skin 'em alive, 'cause dis pig was stole to fill their bellies as well as mine." "Negro Bet," a Loudoun slave woman belonging to Leannah Jenkins, who was accused of hogstealing, probably felt the same. Fortunately, she was acquitted; many others were not.24
The challenges of slave matrifocality, therefore, inspired idealized behavioral traits of self-protection, self-reliance, and self-determination among many black women. It was these ideals, in turn, which contextualized their physical and psychological resistance to white authority and shaped their roles within their families.25
Slave women across age, cultural, and occupational lines were forthright in their appreciation of self-reliant, determined black females who had the wherewithal to protect themselves and theirs, confrontationally if need be. Of course, most women were not able to act in any openly confrontational manner for fear of severe retaliation. But it is clear that slave women held great pride and esteem for those who did so. These were the women whom other slave females spoke most often about in "heroic" terms, attributing to them what seem like (and may have been) fantastical deeds and attitudes. Thus, while white southern society believed that this kind of female conduct was unfeminine, if not outright masculine, slave women utilized aggressive, independent behavior to protect their most fundamental claims to womanhood; that is, their female sexuality and physicality, and their roles as mothers and wives.
True stories about slave female rape and physical abuse, for example, abound in the records produced by slaves. Most slave women found no way to fight back (and win). Those women who found some manner to resist emerged in the lore and mythology of slave women as both heroic and ideal. Slave mothers, in fact, often told stories of these women to their daughters as part of their socialization. Virginia Hayes Shepherd, for one, spoke in glowing terms of three heroic slave women she had known personally or through her mother's stories — one successfully avoided the sexual pursuit of her owner, while the other two refused to be treated in the fields like men, that is, to be worked beyond their physical endurance as childbearing women.26
Seventy years after her emancipation, Minnie Folkes still felt the pain of witnessing her mother being whipped by her overseer. Yet her explanation of the older woman's suffering (that she had refused "to be wife to dis man") and her description of how her mother had taught her to protect herself from sexual abuse ("muma had sed 'Don't let nobody bother yo principle; 'cause dat wuz all yo' had'") are tinged with pride and respect. The elder Folkes was determined to have control of the physical attributes of her womanhood even if it meant routinely withstanding brutal beatings. Her resistance was a powerful lesson to Minnie.27
Fannie Berry told many accounts of female slave resistance to sexual abuse, including her own. But she was most proud of Sukie Abbott's daring rebuff of both her owner's sexual overtures and the slave trader's physical violation. Both Berry and Abbott rightfully linked the two as equally dehumanizing.
Sukie was the Abbott house slave who, according to Berry, had been the target of her master's unwarranted sexual advances. One day while Sukie was in the kitchen making soap, Mr. Abbott tried to force her to have sex with him. He pulled down her dress and tried to push her onto the floor. Then, according to Berry, "dat black gal got mad. She took an' punch ole Marsa an' made him
break loose an' den she gave him a shove an' push his hindparts down in de hot pot o' soap. . . . He got up holdin' his hindparts an' ran from de kitchen, not darin' to yell, 'cause he didn't want Miss Sarah Ann [his wife] to know 'bout it." A few days later, Abbott took Sukie to the slave market to sell. The defiant woman again faced sexual abuse and physical invasion as potential buyers stared, poked, and pinched her. According to Fannie, Sukie got mad again. "She pult her dress up an' tole those ole nigger traders to look an' see if dey could fin' any teef down dere. . . . Marsa never did bother slave gals no mo," Berry concluded with relish.28
Many witnesses at the slave market that day no doubt thought Sukie vulgar and promiscuous, a perfect picture of black "womanhood." Fannie Berry concluded something altogether different. In Berry's estimation, Sukie had exacted a high price from the men who tried to abuse her. It was true that the slave woman had lost her community when Mr. Abbott sold her in retaliation for her resistance; but she still managed to deny her owner his supposed right to claim her "female principle." She also demanded that her new buyer see her for what she was, a woman, not an animal, by insisting that he acknowledge her female sexual organs. Perhaps most important, Sukie's response to Mr. Abbott's attempted rape deterred him from violently pursuing other slave women on his plantation. The moral of Berry's story of Sukie Abbott lies, therefore, not only in Sukie's ability to sacrifice her "privilege" as a domestic and her permanence in a nurturing community in order to protect her female body and her humanity, but also in the good that sacrifice did for others. Fannie Berry's rendition of the Sukie Abbott biography, whether true or embellished, is an important example of the kinds of stories of female heroism and humanity that slave women told and retold as a kind of inspirational socialization and legitimizing process.29
Thus the story had to be told within a certain context to give the desired effect. Neither Fannie nor Sukie probably would have approved of a woman baring her sexual organs publicly if the circumstances had been different. Slave women usually frowned on blatant female sexual exhibition or promiscuity. This is not to say that they were ashamed of their sexuality. Nor were they shy about the promise of sexual pleasure and human procreation that they as women embodied. There were rules, however, which guided their sexual expression, rules which many of them respected and tried to incorporate in their social lives.
Sex in the female slave world, for example, was part of the culture of adults. As girls grew older, it was acceptable for them to become more aware of the significance and value of their sexual power, to realize that women, through their sexuality, provided great service to their families and communities.30 A woman's body in the world of slaves was an important, complex symbol. Her body, therefore, was a sign, in the face of heart-wrenching tragedy and oppression, of human pleasure, immortality and future security. Many expected that much about a young woman should suggest the sensuality and immortality that she (as a sexual, procreative being) held. A single women's dress, hair, walk, dance, and language could and sometimes were supposed to be sexually suggestive. Yet girls and adolescents still were not supposed to yield to the temptation of sexual intercourse out of a sheer desire for sexual pleasure. That right and responsibility was reserved for married women, those who were soon to be married, or those who wanted to bear children.31
The diverse cultures of slaves produced varying guidelines about a woman's sexual behavior and responsibility. Some mothers, for example, went to great lengths to shield their daughters from sex until after they were married. Others acted differently, expecting young women to marry after they became pregnant or gave birth to their first child. Usually, however, sex was communally sanctioned only for those women who were ready to marry, to have children, or both. Matrifocality was such a widespread phenomenon among slaves that many slave elders did not always demand marriage before intercourse or even before the birth of a first child. Extended families and operative slave communities were good support networks for single mothers and children. A woman with a child, regardless of her marital state, however, had to be willing to take that responsibility seriously. If her family and community came to her aid, the community expected that she, and later the child, would give back in kind.
Of course the conditions of life for slave females often made any social rules difficult to maintain. Moreover, rules of sexual expression differed for slave men and women. To complicate the matter even further, black men often were not the only ones that slave women had to respond to and negotiate sexual contact. When assumptions of male sexual prerogative and female submission shared by both black and white men influenced their relationships with slave women, men of either race might have used whatever advantage they had to seduce or even to exploit and sometimes abuse these women.
Of course terms like sexual seduction, exploitation, and abuse are relative to one's time and place. Slave women probably would not have chosen contemporary language or their definitions to describe their sexual relationships with slave men, particularly their husbands. Slave wives, even abroad wives, were expected to submit to their husband's will, particularly those who had regular contact. A woman's submission to her man went hand in hand with her service to her family and community. Minnie Folkes's mother, for example, taught her that a woman should not only "cook, clean up, wash, an' iron" for her husband, but "please" him because it was her "duty as a wife." William Grose's free black wife routinely traveled on foot twelve miles to bring her slave husband clean clothes. Nancy Williams affirmed that her father had ultimate control in their family even when her mother thought he was being abusive to their children.32
while many slave couples did not live together on a daily basis and many abroad
wives believed they had to take on an aggressive, protective, somewhat
independent stance with regard to family matters, many slave husbands still
wanted to be their families' protectors and supporters. Thomas Harper, for
example, was a local blacksmith who decided to escape to Canada because he
"thought that it was hard to see . . . [his family] in want and abused
when he was not at liberty to aid or protect them." Dan Lockhart also
decided to escape because he could not stand to see his wife and children
whipped without being able to do anything to prevent it. Numerous Loudoun black
men, such as Samuel Anderson, Peter Warrick, Joseph Cartwright and Cupid
Robinson, managed to secure the freedom of their wives and/or children in order
to insure that they could protect them. Dangerfield Newby, a local mulatto
ex-slave who had been freed by his father, lost his life trying to rescue his
wife and their children from a local slaveholder. Harriet Newby's letters entreating
her husband to "do all you can for me, with I have no doubt you
will," were found on his body after he was killed as part of John Brown's
contingent during the raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859.33
A wife's submission and service to her husband, therefore, was supposed to be rewarded by his efforts to aid and protect her and her children. Sex complicated this brokered balance because it virtually was impossible for some slave women to submit to their husband's desire for sexual exclusivity. Loudoun slave masters who believed that they held sexual rights to their female slave property continued to be an enormous problem for couples. Some masters actually reserved the most attractive slave women for themselves, regardless of the woman's marital status or even their age. Loudoun planter George Carter, for example, was known to purchase female adolescents for his sexual pleasure. Writing to the wealthy bachelor in 1805, William Forbes was explicit about Carter's preferences: "Girls are more frequently for sale than boys — would you object to a very likely one — a virgin — of about 14 or 15." Several years later, Carter's sister Sophia sternly criticized her brother's infamous behavior. Writing in response to her accusations, Carter admitted his history but added by way of an explanation: "My habits like most men are vicious & corrupt," "a Sin" that he was "only answerable for" to his God.34
Indeed, George Carter's declaration that he was only one of many was well founded. Loudoun county census takers in 1860 described 27 percent of resident slaves and 51 percent of local free blacks as mulatto. Miscegenation was frequent, but not spoken about openly. Slaves, threatened with whippings and sale, typically had the most to lose from exposing slave/master sexual liaisons. Once the threat of public exposure surfaced, slaveholding families did not hesitate to blame and punish the slave women. Liz McCoy painted a not unusual scenario: "Aunt Charlotte . . . was sold to Georgia away from her baby when de Chile won't no more 3 months. . . . [She ] had a white baby by her young
master. Dats why dey sold her south." A slaveholder reacted typically to an incident of miscegenation within his family that had become public knowledge. "She had offended in my family," he explained of his son's concubine, "and I can only restore confidence by sending her out of hearing [to Georgia]."35
Miscegenation is a sterile, emotionless term that often shrouds acts of sexual submission characterized by violence and degradation. The women and their biracial children clearly were the true victims in these situations; but slave men also could faced grave consequences. Many often found themselves in the precarious, if not dangerous, position of competing with slaveholding men for the same slave women. 36 Slave beaus and husbands could suffer brutal physical and emotional consequences if a slaveholding man wanted his woman. Undoubtedly when white men raped black women they did so not only to subject these females to a violent and dehumanizing experience, but also to emasculate husbands and male kin. The various reactions of male slaves, therefore, were equally responses to their own sense of powerlessness as they were a recognition of the physical and psychological pain that these females experienced. "Marsters an' overseers use to make slaves dat wuz wid deir husbands git up, [and] do as they say," one ex-slave man noted. "Send husbands out on de farm, milkin' cows or cuttin' wood. Den he gits in bed wid slave himself. Some women would fight an' tussel. Others would be [h]umble — feared of dat beatin'. What we saw, couldn't do nothing 'bout it. My blood is b[o]ilin' now [at the] thoughts of dem times. Ef dey told dey husbands he wuz powerless."37
When slave husbands did intervene, they suffered awful retaliatory actions — sometimes permanent separation from their families, severe beatings, or murder. Many probably felt as did Charles Grandy, who concluded of the fatal shooting of a male slave who tried to protect his wife from the advances of their overseer: "Nigger ain't got no chance." Some slave husbands targeted the female victims of rape rather than the powerful white males who attacked them. Regardless of whomever they struck out at, however, their responses usually had little effect on the abusive white men involved.38
But not all sexual relations between slave women and white men were physically coerced, just as not all sex between slave women and men was voluntary. Masters and slave men had many ways to gain control of and manipulate black women's sexuality. Some slave women responded to material incentives like food, clothing, and better housing that white men offered in exchange for sexual favors. Certainly they were much more able than slave suitors to "romance" slave women with gifts and promises of a better life. Others promised, and sometimes granted, emancipation. The unavailability of marriageable slave men, particularly for those women who lived in small holdings, also could have been something of a coercive factor. It is not inconceivable that some of these women established sexual/marital relations with available white men, just as these kinds of demographic conditions may have enjoined some to commit to polygynous relations with whatever black men were available.39
One also cannot discount the impact on biracial sexual relations of a combination of factors endemic to life in a racialist constructed society, including internalized racism and a desire to identify with and be accepted by the "superior" race. Under these circumstances, some slave women may have agreed to become concubines to, or may have even desired, white men. Racially mixed slave women who were socialized to be more culturally akin to whites than blacks could be particularly vulnerable to the sexual overtures of white men. Ary, for example, was an quadroon slave woman raised, as the favored domestic, in the home of her father's brother. By the time she reached young womanhood, she had become the concubine of her young master, her paternal first cousin. Convinced that she was her father's favorite child, Ary often boasted of her elite white parentage and her young master's love for her. Remembering her lover's pronouncement that she was to have nothing to do with "colored men" because they "wern't good enough" for her, Ary was determined not to associate too closely with any blacks.40
Despite Ary's belief that white men were superior to black, men of both races lived by a double and privileged sexual standard. Tales of male sexual prowess were applauded in the slave community, while female promiscuity was frowned on. Masters followed the same sexual code in their white communities and, therefore, understood only too well the importance of sexual conquest to the male ego. Some undoubtedly used the masculine esteem derived from sexual triumph to help convince slave men to act as "breeders." West Turner was born in about 1842 and remembered well the tales of breeding men: "Joe was 'bout seven feet tall an' was de breedinges' nigger in Virginia," he began one story. "'Member once ole Marsa hired him out to a white man what lived down in Suffolk. Dey come an' got him on a Friday. Dey brung him back Monday mo'nin'. Dey say de next year dere was sebenteen little black babies bo'n at dat place in Suffolk, all on de same day."41
Clearly, Mr. Turner's story expanded the limits of Joe's sexual prowess to that of the legendary. But this does not diminish the evidential significance of Turner's story with regard to the importance of male sexual veracity as a tenet of slave manhood. On the contrary, his exaggeration underscores the point. Moreover, Turner's master's willingness to recognize and reward Joe for such a demonstration of sexual vigor created an even deeper appreciation among slave men — the legendary Joe "[d]idn't have no work to do, jus' stay round de quarters sunnin' hisself'till a [breeding] call come fo' him."42
Slave men traditionally applauded their sexual potency, celebrating it in song, dance, jokes, and heroic tales. Unlike slave women, men did not have to restrict their sexual activity to marital or procreative duties. A man could derive great status from having sexual relations with as many women as possible, or as many times as possible with one woman, without marriage or children being at issue. Even elderly men like Cornelius Garner still spoke proudly of their youthful sexual verve and refused to accept that the possibility of infertility diminished their record of sexual performance or their status as men. Speaking of his three wives, Garner boasted: "Pretty good ole man to wear out two wives, but de third one, ha, ha may wear me out." When asked if he had any children, Garner was quick to answer that he had never had any children, but that that was not his fault : "I did what God tole me. 'Wuk and multiply,' ha ha. I wuked but 'twon't no multiplying after de wuk."43
The emphasis that slave men placed on their sexual prowess had profound impact on slave courtship and marriage, particularly when they treated their women as sexual objects to pursue and dominate, often without a hint of marriage or longstanding commitment. The impact of slavery on the relationships that slave males had with their families, especially the women in their families, may have helped to exaggerate female sexual objectification. Recall from the previous chapter the discussion of slave residence patterns. It was typical for slave boys to be raised in matrifocal households. It also was typical for them to leave these households as they reached puberty. They did so, temporarily, as part of the redistribution of prime males to their owners' more labor-intensive units. They also endured more permanent leave as part of the domestic slave trade or slave rental process, or to take up residence in all-male households in the quarters. This abrupt withdrawal from a social and socializing world of women to one of men was a difficult transition. Unfortunately, this separation experience was only the first of what could be two or three more for slave men. This constant experience and fear of separation, along with the need to be able to adjust, physically and emotionally, to it, may have inhibited some slave men from allowing themselves to construct complex relationships with the women with whom they came in contact, resulting instead in their sexual objectification.44
A song that ex-slave Levi Pollard sang proudly when interviewed summarizes some aspects of slave sexual relations. From the first stanza on, it is a celebration of slave male eroticism, sexual casualness, and female slave objectification.
Black gal sweet,
Some like goodies dat de white folks eat;
Don't you take'n tell her name,
En den if sompin' happen you won't ketch de blame.
Yaller gal fine,
She may be yo'ne [yours] but she oughter be mine,
Lemme git by
En see what she mean by de cut er dat eye.
Better shet dat door,
Fo' de white folks'll believe we er t[e ￼]arin' up de flo'.
When a feller comes a-knockin',
Dey holler Oh, sho,
Hop light ladies,
Oh, Miss Loo. . . .
. . . De boys ain't a gwine,
When you cry boo hoo,
Hop light, ladies,
Oh, Miss Loo. . . .45
Pollard's song not only is about sexual relations in the quarters, but specifies the kind of sexual control that slave and white men joked about or perhaps hoped to have over slave women. The significance of this text is that it documents, in the words of slave men themselves, many of the popularized perspectives they held about sex and the female slave. It is replete with allusions to vital issues of slave sexuality, including: competition for slave women across and within racial lines ("Some like goodies dat de white folks eat;" "She may be yo'ne but she oughter be mine"); questions of paternity and sexual responsibility ("Don't you take'n tell her name,/ En den if sompin' happen you won't ketch de blame"); the voyeuristic essence of slaveholders' interest in slaves' private lives ("Better shet dat door/ Fo' de white folks'll believe we er t'arin' up de flo'"); female promiscuity ("When a feller comes a-knockin',/Dey holler Oh, sho"); and the ways in which slave women used their sexual attractiveness and femininity to manipulate slave men ("De boys ain't a gwine, /When you cry boo hoo/ Hop light, ladies").
Particularly interesting, in relation to the continuing discussion of matrifocality, is the text's suggestion that some slave men avoided taking responsibility for children born of casual sexual liaisons ("Don't you take'n tell her name,/ En den if sompin' happen you won't ketch de blame"). If this is true, then the impact on the lives of those slave women involved, their children and their communities could have been significant. Did single and married slave men in fact contribute significantly to the numbers of matrifocal slave families by refusing to acknowledge their children by women to whom they were not publicly tied? This song suggests that a woman's family or community might hold a man accountable if his identity could be documented.
The contours of slave society, however, diminished the opportunity for a woman, or her family, to authenticate such paternity claims. Since most slaveholders were much more likely to give their slave men, rather than their women, passes to travel from one farm to the next, it was not difficult for these men to avoid sexual accountability. Recall, for example, Israel Massie's description of polygynous practices in which slave men had the opportunity to "marry" several women who resided at different places in their neighborhood. Certainly these slave men had just as much, if not more, opportunity to pursue casual sexual relations with a variety of women who did not live in their quarters. This kind of behavior, in turn, might have led to the creation of numerous matrifocal households.
Slave girls and women recently separated from the "protection" and advice of their kin as pawns in the domestic slave trade must have been especially vulnerable to the sexual and romantic advances of local dandies. For those females whose families and communities demanded that they remain sexually inactive until after marriage, or at least marry once they became pregnant, the decision of a slave man not to admit paternity could mean a lowering of a woman's esteem within her kin network.46
Casual sex in the quarters, therefore, rarely had casual consequences. When casual sex translated into adultery, stakes were very high. Slave men were jealous not only of the sexual attention that white men paid their wives, but also of the flirtations and seductions of other black men. Slave women were equally intolerant. Records from the era, however, indicate that both slave men and women would stray. As early as May 1774, for example, records of the local Broad Run Baptist Church documented that the church excommunicated the "Negro Dick" for "having lived in Adultery." Several years later, they excommunicated "Negro Grace belonging to Mr. Colbert for adultery." Over the next fifty years, the church ousted several other slave worshippers, the majority for adultery.47
Few Loudoun slave masters held great concern for the complex and diverse conventions of gendered behavior, beauty, marriage, or family that slaves respected and tried to maintain within their families and communities. Even if they had wanted to know, and do, more about these aspects of black life, slaves were quick to shelter the less obvious details of their personal lives and choices from their masters' control. Records indicate, therefore, that only sometimes did slave owners betray a curiosity about a slave child's paternity or the ways in which slave men and women might have manipulated each other sexually. This was not likely to happen unless some event threatened their slave property's economic potential or behavior or, if as fellow church members, their slave property's actions violated established religious mores. Broad Run Baptist Church, for example, excluded the slave woman Polly from membership in September 1840 for "fornication"; ousted the slave man Joe for complaints given by the slave woman Sally in February 1843; and turned away the slave Gabriel, who was charged with "immoral" conduct in July 1850. Overall, however, slaveholders usually did not promote slave marriages, families, or related values unless they believed it would benefit themselves in one way or another. For the slave master the slave family had two important roles: it gave an owner
the opportunity to manipulate for the owner's benefit a slave's concern for his or her family; and it was the center of slave procreation.48
Some masters undoubtedly promoted long-term slave marriages if the couple proved to be amply fertile. Betsy and Henry Jackson, for example, had fifteen children. Although they lived on neighboring farms in Loudoun, Mrs. Jackson's owner seemed to have had no objection to Henry's conjugal visits every Saturday and Sunday. Loudoun planter William H. Gray bought his slave woman Emily in 1839 along with her small child Lizzie. At that time Emily, who was married to Gray's slave George, was pregnant with another child. By 1853, Emily and George had increased Gray's slave property by an-other four children. Although there is no evidence to suggest that the Jacksons' owner or William H. Gray pressured their slaves to have children, there are testimonies from other slaves as well as documentation within planters' papers which indicate that slave breeding was a concern of many slaveholders. "The masters were very careful about a good breedin' woman. If she had five or six children she was rarely sold," one ex-slave explained, as did several others. Likewise, owners and traders did not hesitate to advertise young female slaves as "good breeding wenches" and buyers interested in purchasing female adolescents and adults routinely inquired of their general health and specifically their ability to bear children."49
Sometimes slave owners promised female slaves material rewards such as larger food allowances, better clothing, or more spacious cabins if they would consent to have many children. Some undoubtedly accepted these incentives, while others resented their masters' attempts to control their bodies. A slave woman's sexuality and her reproductive organs were key to her identity as a woman and she claimed a right to have power over that identity. "Muma had sed 'Don't let nobody bother yo' principle'; 'cause dat was all yo' had," Minnie Folkes explained of her reticence to have sexual relations even after she married. Some female slaves in fact may have taken the matter of reproduction into their own hands, secretly using contraceptive methods in order to maintain control over their procreation. One slave woman, for example, indicated that she was able to regulate her childbearing when she explained that she used to have a child every Christmas, "'but when I had six, I put a stop to it, and only had one every other year.'"50
Masters often suspected slave females of using contraceptives and inducing miscarriage, but rarely were able to prove it. Eliza Little, for example, spoke of her owner's attempts to discover information about "a slave girl who had put her child aside." He beat several of the slaves and inquired of the incident, but was unable to get the details of this carefully guarded secret of the female slave community. A few slave mothers went so far as to commit infanticide. The Loudoun Democratic Mirror reported on November 11, 1858, for example, that the court had found a slave woman named Marietta guilty of infanticide and ordered her deportation to the lower South.51
Sometimes what slaveholders might have construed as a slave woman's resistance to bearing children, however, was a result of temporary or permanent female infertility. Given their overall poor physical condition due to heavy work loads, regular harsh treatment, nutritionally deficient diets, and limited access to proper medical attention, it is not difficult to understand why many black women were unable to reproduce as quickly as some of their owners might have wanted. Even though slave women usually began having children earlier than white women, they eventually had fewer, and the space between their live births was lengthier and more erratic. The average age at first birth of Loudoun area female slaves was 19.98 years, while the spacing of their children was approximately two and a half years.52
Local white women, on the other hand, usually married between the ages of twenty and twenty-two and gave birth to their first child during the next twenty-four months. Moreover, the spacing of white children, approximately two years, was shorter and more regular compared with those born to slave women. It was not unusual, therefore, for white Loudoun females to give birth to eight or ten live children during their lifetimes. Loudoun slave women, however, generally only had between five and six, and only then when they had a history of long-term marital relations. The same was true for most slave women in Virginia. A review of slave lists from across the state inclusive of birthing patterns from the 1760s through 1860 verify that the average age of first birth for these women was 19.71 years; the average number of live births was 4.94; and the average spacing between live children was 2.4 years.53
Certainly these statistics reveal much, in a general sense, about the domestic lives, marital relations, health, and labor of adult female slaves. A "typical" slave woman might begin to have occasional sexual relations during her mid-to late teens. She usually conceived her first child when she was almost nineteen; her second when she was almost twenty-one. If by then she had settled into a marital relationship that allowed her to have conjugal sexual relations at least once a week, she might have four other children who would be born alive; and perhaps four to five miscarriages or still births before she reached menopause.
Keep in mind, however, that there were many slave women who did not fit this pattern at all, and for several reasons. The availability of men — a condition which varied greatly for women who lived in large or small holdings — could be an important deterrent. So too could be the impact of sale and displacement of slave women and their spouses as a result of the "natural" cycle of slaveholdings, an owner's financial concerns, or retaliation for slave resistance. Important as well was a woman's work load and its seasonal quality. Other influences included a woman's living conditions and diet and her overall health — if she, for example, suffered from some common illnesses such as hypertension and anemia, was a victim of one of a number of epidemics that swept the county and state, or had permanent gynecological problems or suffered from a venereal disease. One also must consider the medical resources that were available to slave women, her knowledge of contraception and her attitude about using this knowledge, and, of course, the owner's attitude toward a pregnant woman and her potential offspring. Thus, while generalities and "averages" tell us much about female fertility and something about the slave's domestic life, there is much more to uncover and consider.
The overall disparities between the fertility of white and slave women, for example, occurred against a backdrop of important demographic changes. As the era progressed, evidence suggests that slave women had more children, while the number of children white women had began to decline. Using information available from manuscript census records, one can establish child/ woman ratios for both white and slave women in Virginia during the period 1800 to 1860. This data, as well as slave registers, confirm that slave women did begin to have children at an earlier age than white women, but eventually had fewer. A comparison of fertility ratios, however, also suggests that the gap between white and black female fertility diminished somewhat over time. (See Table 7.) Likewise, slave lists document that the numbers of children born to slave women increased over time as a result of earlier ages at first birth and shorter average spacing between births. Yet these gains in female slave fertility may have been only academic. There are also indications that child mortality rates increased almost proportionately with the decline in child spacing. In the end, therefore, slave women during the later decades of the pre-Civil War period probably bore about the same number of offspring to reach adulthood as those in the 1790s and early nineteenth century.54
Consider, for example, the birthing patterns of the slave females who resided on the plantations of Samuel Vance Gatewood between the years 1772 and 1863. The Gatewood slave register is a particularly important document because of the length of time it covers and the large numbers of slaves in the Gatewood holdings: it records the birth of 124 children to 26 mothers over a 91-year period beginning with the late colonial era. Gatewood's list provides a great amount of information about slave families, but particularly about slave fertility and breeding. This register documents a steady decline in the age at first birth of slave females from 17.4 years between 1834 and 1854, for example, to 17.26 years between 1855 and 1863. Although the age at first birth of the Gatewood female slaves is inconclusive for earlier generations, the data that it does offer suggests a much older age at first birth, about 19 years for the earlier generations of Gatewood slave women. More convincing, however, is the data from the slave list which indicate a significant decline in the average gap between live births. The spacing of live births recorded for the Gatewood slave
women decreased from 38.12 months during the years 1773 to 1793, to 31.81 months between 1794 and 1813, and finally to 19.71 months from 1834 to 1854. Clearly the average spacing between live slave births on the Gatewood plantations had been cut in half over an eighty-year period (1773–1854).55
Table 7 Child/Women Ratios for Slave and White Women in Virginia, 1820–1860
The decline in average spacing, however, occurred against a backdrop of increased child mortality rates that probably was not coincidental. The numbers of slave children belonging to the Gatewood family who died before reaching adolescence increased from 20 percent of their population during the years 1773 to 1793 to one-third during the next twenty-year period. By the 1830s, the mortality rate of slave children on these plantations had increased again to nearly 40 percent. Between the years 1834 and 1854, there was an overall slave child mortality rate among the Gatewood slaves of almost 47 percent. Thus, while the spacing between live slave births for Gatewood women declined by almost 50 percent during the years 1834 to 1854, the mortality rate of these children increased almost proportionately, to slightly more than 50 percent during the same time period.56
The statistics which define natural slave increase document the impact of their harsh lifestyles on childbearing women and on the health of their children. While it is uncertain the number of times slave women conceived, had spontaneous abortions, ectopic pregnancies, or miscarried, it is known that the number of live slave births was much smaller than for white women. Moreover, the number of slave children who survived the first decade of their lives was fewer than those of white women. Demographer Richard Steckel, for example, calculates that, throughout the South, more than one-half of slave infants died before they were one year old, a mortality rate that was almost double that of whites. Although the survival rate for slave children improved after they reached the age of one, their mortality rate was still twice that of white children until they became fourteen years old. Among many slaveholdings, infant and small children had mortality rates of almost 50 percent.57
Not only did slave parents have to contend with a devastating number of child deaths, they also had the difficult task of socializing those who survived. The most important barrier they faced was a legal one. Put simply, slave kin were not the legal guardians of their children, slaveholders were.
Masters took seriously their ownership of slave youth and often pre-empted parental authority. Not only did slave masters sell and give away slave youngsters, but they also assigned them tasks when their parents felt that they were either too young, ill, or otherwise indisposed to perform them; punished them without parental knowledge or consent; and sometimes offered "favorites" protection from parental disciplinary measures. It was difficult for slave parents to wrestle control from their masters, particularly when owners believed that all slaves, young and old, were psychologically and cognitively like "children" and insisted on publicly treating adult slaves like they were.58
"During slavery it seemed lak yo' chillun b'long to ev'ybody but you," one ex-slave recalled of her mother's painful struggle to maintain some control over her children and some status in their eyes. Not only did the woman have to watch her owner cruelly beat her sons and daughter, but she also suffered the humiliation of witnessing her children in an audience collected for her own beating. "Dey didn' only beat us, but dey useta strap my mama to a bench or box an' beat her wid a wooden paddle while she was naked." Stripped naked and beaten before her daughter, other family members, and her slave community, Mrs. Hunter must have feared that this example of her powerlessness in the face of white control would jeopardize the authority she deigned to hold in her family and that she needed in order to rear her children properly. Her fears were not in vain. While Caroline seemed to respect her mother's position, Mrs. Hunter's sons refused to follow convention and accept parental or white authority. Hunter's master first beat them severely because they refused to work; he then sold them south.59
Sometimes slave parents tried to challenge an owner's control of their children, but with little tangible success. One slave woman recalled an argument that she had with her mistress: "I said to my Missis if folks owns folks, then folks owns their own children." "'No, they don't . . .' [her mistress responded]
'white folks own niggers.'" "Well," the slave mother replied with a note of superiority, "the Government owns you and everything." "Aunt Crissy was a smart talkin' woman, an' when Master sold [her daughters] Lucy an' Polly, she went to him an' tole him he was a mean dirty slave-trader," Beverly Jones recounted. Some time after her owner sold her two daughters, her son Hendley died. "Aunt Crissy ain' sorrered much," her unofficial biographer added. "She went straight up to ole Master an' shouted in his face 'Praise gawd, praise gawd, my little chile is gone to Jesus. That's one chile of mine you never gonna sell.'"60
White owners balked at overt attempts by kin or any other potential authority figure to gain control of slave children without their permission. Slaveholders understood that such challenges to their rights as owners by black parents were potent signs of rebellion; that slaves were teaching their children, through example, to resist their oppression. Not surprisingly, most slave masters met this kind of resistance with extreme hostility and brutality, often punishing the would-be usurper and slave child.61
Loudoun slave owners typically did not allow parents to reduce their labor quotas in order to care for their children. New mothers usually spent about two weeks with their infants before they had to return to their hectic work schedules. Given the work loads of slaves, one or two persons, even the child's parents, rarely were able to attend to all of the components of the childrearing task. Parents, therefore, had to share childcare and -rearing with others. While they relied on other members of their families, nuclear and extended, for aid, owners assigned temporary caregivers of their own — usually infirm, elderly, or very young female slaves. Slaveholders, therefore, not only claimed a large role in the lives of slave children, but they also shared their authority with others who were not slave parents or kin. In addition to a slave child's kin, slaveholding women, white overseers, black drivers, and slave nurses especially were important authority figures at various stages of a slave youngster's development.
Within the auspices of the slave family and extended kin network, the importance of one's contribution to the rearing of slave children was determined by a number of conditions. Parents, grandparents, step parents, older siblings, aunts, uncles, and sometimes cousins and community associates contributed to the upbringing of slave children if circumstances of the slave family made it necessary to do so.62 The closeness of the consanguineous tie and one's gender generally implied differential responsibility. The size of the family and the slaveholding, as well as the birth order, also were determinants. So too were the ages and health of possible rearers; their availability and willingness to do so; and certainly the opinions of kin and owners. Clearly there were a number of operative variables. Yet slave masters generally made the final decision as to who took care of slave children and under what conditions.
Loudoun slave masters routinely assigned and protected slave mothers as the primary "in house" caretakers for their young. The day-to-day domestic responsibilities performed within slave families, therefore, remained divided along gender lines. Later generations of slave children adopted this gender-differentiated behavior which, in turn, further promoted gender-segregated activities and bonding. While mothers usually assumed the most significant long-term obligation to their offspring, substitute childrearers, drawn from nuclear and extended kin groups, also were female — usually older daughters, grandmothers, and single aunts. Among those Virginia slaves whose biographies are compiled in Weevils in the Wheat, for example, 14 percent attested to the importance of their grandmothers during their childhoods and 10 percent identified their aunts as persons of consequence. Local slaves like Silas Jackson typically described older sisters as caring for young children, cooking for the family, or helping their mothers with other domestic tasks.63
Many slave families were not only matrifocal, but also matrilocal. Those fathers who lived locally had the privilege of seeing their families on weekends and holidays. George Jackson, who lived near Bloomfield in Loudoun, recalled that his father lived on the next plantation, but could visit only on Saturdays and Sundays. John Fallons allowed his slave Moses to visit his wife, who lived some twelve miles away, each Sunday. Fallons even supplied Moses with transportation. "Every Sunday Marster let Uncle Moses take a horse an' ride down to see his wife an' their two chillun, an' Sunday night he come riding back; sometimes early Monday morning just in time to start de slaves working in de field," the slave's nephew recalled. While Moses Bell was a vital part of his extended family (his sister, her husband, and sons) on the Fallons plantation — supervising their labor, protecting them from punishment, exemplifying the importance of kin and freedom — it was more difficult for him to act as protector for his own wife and children because he lived away from them.64
Most slave fathers who had an opportunity to do so served their families in a number of capacities. Ideally, they provided emotional support and affection, moral instruction, discipline, and physical protection. Some also were able to give material support, particularly food. Many taught their boys how to hunt, trap, and fish. Those with lucrative skills did likewise, passing down their knowledge of metal and wood working, carpentry, and blacksmithing along with a host of other traditional skills such as folk medicine. George White, for one, recalled: "Papa was a kinda doctor . . . an' . . . knowed all de roots. I know all de roots too. . . . My daddy . . . showed dem to me."65
their absence, other available male kin, such as uncles and grandfathers,
assumed some of these duties. Looking back at their lives as children,
ex-slaves often vividly recalled the emotional support and survival skills that
their grandparents, as indispensable members of their extended families,
provided. "'Son, I sho' hope you never have to go through the things your
ole grandpa done bin through,'" Frank Bell remembered his grandfather
telling him when he "wus a little tot dat ain't nobody paid no 'tention
to." Amanda Harris recalled that her
grandmother told her that smoking a pipe helped her to ease the pain of slavery. "'Tain't no fun, chile,'" the elder explained to the adolescent. "'But it's a pow'ful lot o' easement. Smoke away trouble, darter. Blow ole trouble an' worry way in smoke.'"66
The manner in which slave kin and owners perceived slave children in relation to themselves directly influenced the ways in which they treated these youngsters and tried to shape their development. Slave children were potentially important resources for family members and their masters. Slaves viewed their young as extensions of themselves and kinship lines, often naming them for favorite family members. Slave children also were providers of future security for their parents and kin, persons whom they could depend on for love, comfort, and service once they became old and infirm.67
Slave masters, on the other hand, regarded slave children as a financial resource who were valuable only as obedient, submissive, efficient workers. Many also anticipated a kind of loyalty, respect, and affection from their slave property which did not differ greatly from the expectations of parents. These different perceptions were the source of great internal and external conflict. Slaves responded in a variety of ways, from overt resistance to passive acceptance of an owner's will.68
Slave parents and kin, for example, clandestinely challenged brutal lessons of owners about obedience, docility, submission, and hard work with words and acts of kindness and care that reassured slave youth of their self-worth and humanity. They also taught slave youngsters through stories and example that it was possible to outmaneuver and manipulate whites. Loudoun slave George Jackson, for example, grew up knowing that his grandfather had successfully escaped from slavery with the help of Harriet Tubman. After escaping, the elder slave eventually was able to purchase and emancipate his wife. The attempts of Verlinda Perry's literate male slave to distribute abolitionist literature to other Loudoun slaves certainly had some lasting effect on local black youth. Obviously many others learned that it was possible to leave Loudoun and its oppressive environment through careful planning and with the assistance of family members and friends. Escape became the inevitable fantasy of the young and old.69
Persistent pressure on marital relations and family life was a primary reason that many Loudoun slaves initiated escape plans. David Bennet and his wife Martha, who were both from Loudoun, readily admitted that they decided to escape with their two children, a little boy and a month-old infant, because of the cruelty of Martha's owner, George Carter. Although the Bennets gave no details of how they managed to leave Loudoun without detection, there was a county Underground Railroad station run by local Quakers and free black ferryman. "It afterwards came to be known that the ferryman at Edward's Ferry, on the Potomac was the underground agent of these organized thieves . . . and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal was a part of the route which received, on certain boats, fugitives brought over by the ferryman," one Loudoun planter recalled in his autobiography.70
Some of the most successful slave escapes from Loudoun were group affairs comprising family members and friends. On Christmas Eve, 1855, for example, six county slaves began their journey to Canada. The group included one married couple, Barnaby Grigby and his wife Elizabeth, Elizabeth's sister Emily, her fiancˇ Frank Wanzer, and two other male friends from neighboring Fauquier County. The slaves traveled both by carriage and horseback, "courtesy" of their unsuspecting masters. The owners, William Rogers and Townsend McVeigh of Middleburg, Lutheran Sullivan of Aldie, and Charles Simpson of Fauquier, did not initially believe that their missing slaves had run away. As was the custom, they had extended their slaves the right to travel short distances in order to visit friends and loved ones during the Christmas holidays. It was not until the next day, when the slaves were approximately forty miles from Loudoun, that whites discovered that these slaves, connected by blood, marriage, and friendship, were fugitives.71
Traveling through Maryland on the way to Pennsylvania, Grigby and company met a group of white men who insisted on seeing their passes. When they refused to comply, the suspicious whites demanded that they surrender to a search and seizure. The fugitives, who had concealed guns, opened fire. The four slaves traveling in the carriage (the two couples) escaped, one of the men riding on horseback at the rear of the carriage was killed, and the other was captured.
Grigby and his wife, along with the other couple, finally reached Pennsylvania. There they came into contact with a local vigilance committee that helped them to reach Syracuse. It was there that the Reverend Jermain W. Loguen married Frank Wanzer and Emily Foster. Shortly thereafter, the group settled in Toronto. Wanzer, however, could not console himself with the thought that he had left some of his family behind in Loudoun. Several months later, he left Toronto determined to return to Aldie to help them escape. The official records of the Pennsylvania Vigilance Committee document his successful rescue of his sister, her husband, and a family friend. It read: "August 18, 1856. Frank Wanzer, Robert Stewart, alias Gasberry Robinson, Vincent Smith, alias John Jackson, Betsey Smith, wife of Vincent Smith, alias Fanny Jackson. They all came from Alder [sic], Loudoun county, Virginia."72
Unfortunately, not everyone was able to escape with family members in tow. Even those who left with one or a few still faced the pain of leaving others behind. Women with small children, the elderly, those who were physically weak or lacked the psychological resolve to succeed were not allowed to go along. Considerations of group size, and the related issue of safety, also determined who was included. The larger the group, the greater chance of discovery and failure. Vincent Smith, for example, successfully escaped with his wife, but felt compelled to leave his mother and several siblings behind if he hoped to avoid detection. Robert Stewart's mother, four brothers, and two sisters remained in Loudoun when he journeyed to Canada. Thomas Harper, a slave blacksmith from nearby Alexandria, did not believe that he could escape successfully with his wife and children and eventually went alone.73
Loudoun slaves not only "ran away" from the pain, humiliation, and material deprivation that slave masters imposed, but also "ran to" family members. Many resisted the separations that slave owners engineered, clandestinely returning to their homes and families. The November 12, 1836, edition of the Washingtonian, for example, carried an advertisement by William Schaffer describing a "Dark Mulatto Woman, 25 years old" who had escaped from his custody. Schaffer presumed that the woman was on her way to visit some of her relatives who were the property of George Carter at "Oatlands." Carter recently had sold her to one of his cousins, Fitzhugh Carter of Fairfax. "I think it is likely she is in that settlement, or about Mr. George Carter's Oatlands, as she has connexions there," Schaffer explained in the notice. Relatives worked hard to maintain the safety of these fugitives, sometimes successfully shielding them from detection for months or even longer. When this particular advertisement appeared in the Leesburg newspaper with a $100 reward attached, for example, the "dark mulatto woman" already had been missing for more than a year.74
Of course, the large majority of Loudoun slaves never escaped. Several other couples and families, however, were successful in gaining their freedom through individual acts of emancipation that owners implemented for various reasons. Albert and Townsend Heaton, of "Exedra" in Loudoun, for example, eventually freed several slaves that comprised much of the Lucas slave family network. While some remained in Loudoun, others settled in Liberia. Wilson Seiden of "Exeter" freed the slave woman Nannie and her two children Anne and Harlow. Charles Binns, a Loudoun county clerk, emancipated all of his slaves upon his death, as did others. Some Loudoun bondsmen and women, like Cyrus Tripplett, Samuel Anderson, and John Watson also found ways to purchase themselves as well as their family members.75
Many who remained as slaves in Loudoun learned to take solace in their families and friends whom they were spared to live near. The development of a strong sense of identity and community ethos was one of the most important ways slaves coped with and resisted the stress on their domestic relations. Slave kin, for example, hoped to teach their children not only how to survive as individuals, but also the importance of the slave community and their responsibility to help others. They emphasized the value of demonstrating respect for other slaves and, in complete opposition to the lessons of owners, instructed their youngsters in a code of morality that paid homage to blacks rather than to
whites. They preached against lying to and stealing from one another, the importance of keeping slave secrets, protecting fugitive slaves, and sharing work loads. Teachers working among contraband slaves in Virginia noted the affection that slaves held for one another and the many polite courtesies they extended among themselves. One ex-slave eloquently explained the basis for such relations. "The respect that the slaves had for their owners might have been from fear," she admitted, "but the real character of a slave was brought out by the respect that they had for each other. "Most of the time there was no force back of the respect the slaves had for each other. [T]hey were for the most part truthful, loving and respectful to one another."76
But slaves, like other Loudouners, were not always successful in their attempts to withstand long-term pressures on their domestic or social relations. As individuals with the same range of emotions and capable of the same moral triumphs and failures as free persons, many acted inappropriately toward their loved ones. Adultery was not the only internal problem which occasionally plagued Loudoun slave marriages and rocked slave families or communities. The slave quarters often was a place of smoldering emotions and anger. Disagreements and frustrations could erupt into violence, while verbal and physical abuse were sometimes responses to complicated issues of discord within slave marriages and families. Spousal abuse was not uncommon, prompting one slave woman, for example, to comment that "some good masters would punish slaves who mistreated womenfolk and some didn't." Child abuse and neglect also were well-documented phenomena.77
Alcoholism seemed to have been a problem which often interfered with smooth slave marital and familial relations. Drinking was as popular a pastime for slaves as for free people. Those who habitually consumed large quantities typically were less responsive to their families' needs. Drinking also enhanced other disruptive behavior, sometimes triggering arguments and abuse. Divisive attitudes within slave families and communities, such as social status based on color or occupation, also proved to be problematic. So too were the cynicism and alienation of some who came to accept prevailing societal attitudes about the legitimacy of slavery and the "natural" degradation of slaves. The continual demands of the domestic slave trade, coupled with the other devastating conditions slave owners imposed, sometimes effectively eroded slave communities and family networks that had been functional for generations. Those who witnessed and were part of this destruction could not escape its physical or emotional impact.78
Faced with overwhelming problems, as well as their own individual pressures and priorities, some slave couples responded in ways that further damaged rather than protected their marriages and families. More than a few voluntarily separated. Manfra and Dykstra's survey of the fate of late antebellum slave couples in southside Virginia has much broader applicability.
concluded that of those slave marriages terminated before general emancipation,
at least 20 percent did so because of the desire of at least one spouse.79
The slave's family and community, therefore, often faced profound conflicts and problems which they responded to in a variety of ways, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Slave masters and their representatives involved themselves in and tried to influence many vital aspects of their slave property's private lives. Slaveholders' economic and social priorities, in particular, often were in direct opposition to the needs of slaves trying to organize and function as family groups. Consequently, slave marital relationships, family structure, composition, and performance differed significantly from those who were not slaves, particularly whites.
Clearly many, if not most, Loudoun slaves lived in family groups that were matrifocal and matrilocal. But there also was a diversity of structure, membership, and relations that cannot be denied. This diversity was due not only to the pressures of slave life, but also to the cultural and situational choices of the slaves themselves. The question as to whether slaves preferred a nuclear family structure still looms large and undoubtedly will shape future historiography. What is clear, however, is that throughout, extended family membership and flexibility were at the foundation of most functional slave families, not monogamous marital relationships. Indeed, the high volume of slaves exported as part of the domestic slave trade meant an ever-increasing number of husband or father-absent slave families.
Moreover, slave husbands were not patriarchs. To establish this reality of the role of the slave father and husband in the slave family does not characterize him as "inadequate," but rather testifies to the harshness of slave life. It also challenges traditional, western-centered, ideals of fathers and husbands. Much the same can be said for the slave mother whose labor for her owner had to come before her duty to her family.
Neither "fathering" nor "mothering," therefore, were embodied in one person in a slave family. But there were some similarities between slave and free "domesticity." Gender-differentiated expectations and behaviors at home, for example, were not so different. Females, for example, performed most of the tasks associated with the day-to-day care of children, their families' clothing, and food preparation. Yet by the last decade of the antebellum era, the group being hardest hit by this trade were not young men, but rather young women — many of whom were mothers.80 This reality certainly had a devastating impact on the large number of Loudoun slaves whose families were decidedly matrifocal. Had the institution of slavery continued to exist as it had for Loudoun slaves during the years 1850 to 1860, undoubtedly the definition, function, and composition of the slave family would have undergone great change to accommodate the absence of young mothers and females from kin groups. The withering away of functional slave extended families and communities in some areas that were hardest hit by the domestic slave trade meant much suffering for those slave children, and adults, who became virtual orphans.
Despite all this, the Loudoun slave family survived and served many of its constituents well. It did not necessarily exist or function in the ways of other southerners. Slaves drew on rich African, European, and American cultural heritages, but also were forced by oppressive socioeconomic and political conditions and diverse domestic climates to construct domestic ideals and functional families that were different from the "norm." Given the difference that their status and cultures made in all other aspects of their lives, certainly it is not surprising that enslaved blacks in the American South also defined family life differently.