How Slavery Impacted the Slave Families
The condition of the black family in the United States has been an issue that raises great debate ever since the era of the Civil War. Key to this debate is the notion of some scholars that slavery resulted in the formation of weak and fatherless families (Tolman, 2011). These scholars argue that the mother-centered family became a typical feature of African American families during slavery and even after its abolition it has been preserved throughout generations to the present time. Other scholars refute these claims arguing that slave families are not fatherless or weak. They explain that the slaves found creative ways to preserve their familial ties. This paper explores the various ways in which slavery affected the slave families.
In some ways, the slave families much resembled other families during the era of slavery. Some wives and husbands loved each other while others did not get along well just like in all other types of families. Again, in some families, children adhered to the rules of their parents while in others they were rebellious. However, in some critical ways slavery that had an effect on all aspects of the lives of the slaves also impacted their families. For instance, enslaved people were not allowed by the law to marry in most of the American states or colony. State and colonial laws considered slaves as commodities and property (Gutman, 1976). Therefore, the slaves were considered as not legal persons and hence could not enter into contracts such as marriage. Basing on this notion, it is right to say that before the abolition of slavery in the year 1865, the vast majority of Black Americans could not legally marry.
During the slavery era, some enslaved individuals lived in nuclear families with a father, mother, and children. In such cases, each member of the family belonged to the same owner. Other people lived in near-nuclear families where the father had a different owner from the mother and the children (Frazier, 1957). This type of relationship was referred to as “abroad marriages”. The father might reside very far away in some plantation and would only be able to see his family on Wednesday nights and Saturday evenings. Gutman (1976) explains that the fathers would walk from the plantations to see their families only on these two days because the obligation to work for their owners was more important than being with their families.
Slave owners often separated black family members from each other through sale (Pargas, 2012). The legacy of the involuntary exodus was very damaging to the families, communities, and kin groups of these people. In the nineteenth century when the sugar and cotton plantations in the South created a high demand for strong slaves (specifically men), about one million black slaves were sold from the Upper side of the country to the Lower South (Tolman, 2011). The frequent withdrawal of family members destroyed slave families and marriages. Because of this involuntary separation of parents from their children, slave marriages only lasted long enough to produce offspring that were raised in fatherless families. Because slaves could not legally marry, the parents had no legal claim to their children. Wives and husbands could only live together or visit each other with the consent of their master.
The continuous separation of slaves denied them the opportunity to have functional families. This prevented them from giving each other love and intimacy or sharing responsibilities of households and children. No slave was safe from the threat family separation as no one could predict the death of their owner and the consequent division of their estate. According to Tolman (2011), statistics from the years 1864 and 1865 showed that at least one in every four black American marriages had a spouse who had been separated from another in a previous marriage. Historian Tadman Michael investigated and determined that about a third of the enslaved children in the states of Virginia and Maryland experienced family separation due to sale with mother away from the father, sale away from parents, and sale of parents away from them (Pargas, 2012). Sometimes an enslaved woman or man would plead with their owner to buy his/her spouse but their plea was not always heeded.
The African American slaves used to work most of the time and hence had little time for family. The enslaved persons often worked from very early in the morning till late at night. The ladies were not given enough time to rest after giving birth. They had to find little time to run from the plantations to breastfeed their infants. In very large plantations where there were many slaves, all children were placed under the care of one woman who watched over them and fed them (Zinn, 2015). Moreover, slave children were also assigned duties to perform by the time they reached seven or eight years old. They did not have enough time to play or enjoy the company of their friends and family members. The tasks they performed included taking care of the children of their owners, running errands, fanning flies from owners and ultimately working in the cotton, tobacco, rice, and corn plantations alongside adults.
The nature and custom of slavery did not allow slave women and men to carry out their duties as husbands, wives, or parents. For instance, men as husbands and parents could not protect their families from exploitation and abuse. As for women, their main job was to work for their owners and could not perform their duties as wives and mothers such as cooking for their families or taking care of the children. Moreover, it was difficult for slave families to discipline their children because they had no authority to do so. Slave owners and masters assumed the responsibility of disciplinary masters even for the children (Tolman, 2011). They undermined the authority of the slave parents by chastening them as the children watched. Therefore, the parents had little authority over the children as they themselves were treated as children by their masters.
The center of interactions for slave families was in yards and slave cabins in the slave quarters. Slave quarters were usually found in large plantations that had many slaves and were primarily occupied by the African Americans. These people enjoyed their freedom in their quarters where they were away from the scrutiny of their owners and their labor duties. According to Washington (2013), many former slaves described how their mothers used to cook meals in the fireplace or sew quilt late into the night in their slave quarters. Men hunted or fished to provide extra food as the rations given to them by their owners was never enough.
Even though it was difficult for slaves to develop and maintain family ties, they still managed to establish family units and welcomed other kin into their families. They nurtured their children teaching them how to survive the torture they endured in slavery. The enslaved people formed a culture centered on church and family (Miles, 2015). Enslaved people also held prayer meetings and parties in the slave quarters or sometimes far out in the woods where their white owners could not hear them. Parents also had the opportunity to pass on lessons about loyalty, how to treat people and their ancestral lineage to their children during their interactions in the slave quarters.
After completion of the Civil War, slavery was finally abolished in America after a period of approximately two hundred and fifty years (Gutman, 1976). Former slaves from all states took measures to legalize their family relations. Most of them strived to find their long-lost family members who were separated through slave sales. Many former slaves placed advertisements on newspapers looking for their family members. Some sent letters to the Freedmen’s Bureau that helped African Americans in tracing their family members. Parents also went back to the places where they worked to get their children whom they had left behind (Tolman, 2011). Most of the black men and women who were now free also formalized their marriages because they were now considered as legal people and not as property.
Slavery had adverse impacts on slave families. The paper has shown how slavery adversely affected the ability of African Americans to have stable and functioning families. There were many challenges that the enslaved people had that prevented them from maintaining strong family ties. The most challenging was frequent sales of slaves which led to the separation of family members. Slaves were also considered as property and hence could not hold marriage contracts. The nature of slavery which required slaves to focus on providing labor for their owners also resulted in these people having little time to be with their families. All in all, it is seen that slavery negatively impacted the slave families.
Frazier, E. F. (1957). The negro in the United States (p. 358). New York: Macmillan.
Gutman, H. G. (1976). Black family in slavery and freedom, 1750-1925. Pantheon Books.
Miles, T. (2015). Ties that bind: The story of an Afro-Cherokee family in slavery and freedom (Vol. 14). University of California Press.
Pargas, D. A. (2012). The Gathering Storm: Slave Responses to the Threat of Interregional Migration in the Early Nineteenth Century. Journal of Early American History, 2(3), 286-315.
Tolman, T. L. (2011). The effects of slavery and emancipation on African-American families and family history research. Crossroads, 3, 6-17.
Washington, B. T. (2013). Up from slavery. Simon and Schuster.
Zinn, H. (2015). A people’s history of the United States: 1492-present. Routledge.