Black History Month; Marriage (and Divorce) Among Slaves

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While the horrible custom of slavery was mentioned when I was in school, Black History was not taught. Our shameful past was glossed over because we were still a racist society. Those of a certain age need to learn history for the first time. How our laws treated marriage and divorce among blacks not all that long ago is important as we examine marriage and divorce among our citizens now, particularly when wrongful conduct is justified by religious beliefs.

I was thinking about this when I saw Pam Platt’s insightful article in the Courier-Journal last Sunday. Then I stumbled upon Mocha Diva. You will find the Diva’s very moving site here. You must check out the beautiful "jumping the broom" image. I have never seen a website or blog that quite so clearly sets the mood and tone of the site's subject matter. Here are some quotes:

Imagine this if you will. Once upon a time in a land called the United States, prior to the abolishment of slavery, negroes, as we were called then, were unable to a large degree to enjoy the sacrament of marriage. While many slaves considered themselves man and wife, living together as such

a rare few of them even had the benefit of a bonafide clergy, judge, etc....
Nevertheless, once the end of slavery had been recognized by all the confederate states there were so many negroe men and women with and without children living as man and wife that the blatant and pure evil of their long denial of the benefit of marriage to negroes overwhelmed their facade so much that many states passed laws basically that said 'if you are negroe and have been living as man and wife but were never married in front of an officer of the court or real preacher you must appear at your county clerk's office by the last day of November, 18__ for a Negroe Cohabitation Certificate/Marriage Record!'. I ad lib a little bit with the wording but, the underlying message, trust me was exactly as I state it.

Since I started researching my family tree I discovered the laws about the cohabitation records when tracing people in Texas, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee and Alabama.
I think we've all heard of the custom of Jumping the Broom but, what I hadn't heard about was "Hand Fast", let me share this info I found on my favorite research site, Afrigeneas.com. The AAGHS (African American Genealogy Historical Society) in South Carolina reported in its newsletter "When there was no preacher around to marry couples they would stand together in front of a group of their peers, clasp their hands together over their heads and state their intentions. This ceremony was usually good for a year and a day, or until a preacher came that could perform the marriage ceremony." You may see the letters 'HF' on documents when you are doing research and wonder why there are 2 marriage dates or none at all. Remember an actual 'paper' certificate wasn't an option for black people. Of course there was "jumping the broom', this ceremony was associated with the British Isles and with the Gypsies. It became a tradition in Africa and was brought to the usa."

So last night I started thinking about marriage and all the pomp and circumstance, you understand which naturally took me immediately to what I hoped would be another interesting piece in celebration of Black History Month as it draws to an end so I jumped on the net today at work and came across some interesting excerpts from slavery time regarding marriage and have copied them below. Interesting read.
This weekend have a toast to the sanctity and state of marriage and what it truly means. Here's to your having the very best one possible and may you never intrude on another's.

Then the Diva posts the entirety of a fabulous article, WEDDINGS ON CONTESTED GROUNDS: SLAVE MARRIAGE IN THE ANTEBELLUM SOUTH, by Thomas E. Will , who was a Ph.D. candidate in American history at Pennsylvania State University at the time. It is a must read for anyone who is interested in where we get our notions of illegitimacy, what God wants, and the history of the rights of black men and women. Please go to her site to read it all and the footnotes, which I have omitted, but here are many excerpts:

This study examines the nature of slave weddings and the multiple meanings of slave marriages in the antebellum South from the perspective of both slaveowners, who may have either condoned or discouraged slave marriages, and of the slaves themselves, who generally viewed marriage as a permanent commitment. It takes a new look at the meanings slaves and masters drew from formal wedding ceremonies and celebrations, and examines marriages between slaves and free blacks as well as marriage between slaves. The study supports Eugene Genovese's argument that some masters' willingness to arrange elaborate slave weddings reflected a paternalistic mindset, but adds that these occasions also contained inversion rituals intended to emphasize conventional social roles by temporarily reversing them. Like paternalism, inversion served married sought to assert their identity in terms drawn largely from the dominant culture...

The Southern legal system never recognized slave marriages on the grounds that property could not enter into a legal contract. The master-slave relationship superseded relationships between slaves, which differed from those between free men and women joined in lawful wedlock; as a North Carolina judge explained in 1858, "with slaves it may be dissolved at the pleasure of either party, or by the sale of one or both, depending on the caprice or necessity of the owners." In other words, slaveowners refused to tolerate a legal contract that might interfere with their right to dispose of their property as they pleased. Furthermore, whites considered legal slave marriages unnecessary. In white society, marriage served the vital function of determining property distribution; by stripping women of their property and codifying female dependence, marriage effectively solidified white male dominance. Though custom afforded
slaves limited de facto property rights, the dispensation of slave property was of no great concern. Similarly, slaveowners had no desire to legally validate black male authority, even over female slaves.

Some slaveowners forbade their slaves to enter into marriage at all. Nineteenth-century slave Harriet Jacobs's master, for example, regarded her relationship with a free black carpenter as a threat to his authority and rejected her pleas for permission to marry the man: "Well, I'll soon convince you whether I am your master, or the nigger fellow you honor so highly."Free female spouses also presented a potential threat to slave discipline. James Curry, a North Carolina slave who sought his master's consent to marry a free black woman, explained that "he refused to give it, and swore that he would cut my throat from ear to ear, before I should marry a free nigger." According to information given by a former Kentucky slave, some slaveowners forbade marriage for an altogether different reason:

As a rule negro men were not allowed to marry at all, any attempt to mate with the negro women brought swift, sure horrible punishment and the species were propagated by selected male negroes, who were kept for that purpose, the owners of this privileged negro, charged a fee of one out of every four of his offspring for his services.

A former Texas slave confirmed that her master's concerns about efficient reproduction precluded stable marriages, explaining that on many plantations women could not have a monogamous relationship, but were forced to live with whatever man their master told them to.

Many other slaveowners, however, simply devoted no effort to encouraging the institution. A former Mississippi slave related that there were no special funerals or weddings on his plantation. An Alabama freedman agreed: "Niggers didn't marry in dem days. I jes' tuck up wid one likely gal atter anoder." A South Carolina freedman interviewed during the Civil War explained that "as a general thing the Masters did not care" if slave women became pregnant before marriage, for "they like the colored women to have children." Asked if he punished slaves for adultery, a Mississippi overseer responded, "No, we punish them for quarrelling; if they don't quarrel I don't mind anything about it, but if it makes a muss, I give all four of 'em a warning."

The majority of slaveowners allowed slave marriages, and a variety of wedding rituals and ceremonies arose in the antebellum South to recognize slave unions informally. Some slaveholders acknowledged slave marriages for religious reasons. Southerners' faith in the soundness of their organic society--on which their justifications for slavery rested--was inextricably tied to Christianity; just as they employed the Bible to justify slavery to outsiders, they used religion to demonstrate to slaves the divinely ordained character of hierarchy. Slaves were taught to submit to their earthly masters in hopes of a heavenly reward. Thomas Bacon, an eighteenth-century Episcopal minister in Maryland whose sermons were widely published in the nineteenth century, wrote, "though you be slaves, bound to serve masters and mistresses here on earth ... you are at the same time working for a just master in heaven, who will pay you good wages for it."

Slaveholders' efforts to Christianize their slaves often represented more than a simple legitimization of dominance, however. Many masters possessed of deeply held religious convictions exposed their slaves to religion for spiritual reasons. Thornton Stringfellow, a Baptist minister from Virginia, expressed the popular belief that slavery benefited blacks because it "brought within the range of Gospel influence, millions ... who, but for this institution, would have sunk down to eternal ruin; knowing not God, and strangers to the Gospel." Thus, many planters promoted Christian moral and social values among their slaves, focusing on the rituals of baptism, religious instruction, and marriage.

Though the State did not require them to recognize slave marriages, devout planters felt a higher duty, acknowledging the inherent conflict between Divine Law and Southern law. In 1805, the Bear Creek Church in North Carolina confronted the Sandy Creek Baptist Association with a difficult question: "What do we consider as a valid marriage between black people; and if any marriage be valid, is it our fellowship to part them on occasion?" Three years later, the association finally responded that slaves should be considered validly married "when they come together in their former and general custom, having no [other] companion." Slaveowners should avoid the separation of married slaves, if necessary putting "themselves to some inconvenience, in buying selling, or exchanging, to keep them together. Both moral obligation and humanity demand it." But the law did not demand it, and the association's answer was less a mandate than a suggestion.

Had widespread white concern for slaves' marital status existed, however, it would have found expression in Southern state laws. The slaves themselves, rather than a sense of moral or religious obligation, induced many slaveholders to recognize slave marriages. When both prospective spouses lived on the same plantation, their master had strong practical reasons to approve, for marriage generated stability, solidified the slaves' ties to the plantation, and encouraged reproduction. When slaves sought unions with slaves on other plantations or with free blacks, however, slaveowners faced a dilemma. Approval of such a request meant that the married slave would want to leave the plantation periodically to visit his spouse, thus undermining the master's control, while a denial would produce a sullen worker and a likely runaway. Grudgingly, masters usually granted permission to marry "abroad" as the lesser of two evils. Moreover, while most slaveholders desired their slaves to reproduce, few owned plantations sufficiently large to provide compatible mates for young adult slaves. Ultimately, most slaveholders recognized that in the final analysis the decision really did not rest with them. "Some of the young men have wives in the neighboring plantations" explained the overseer at St. Helena Island's Frogmore plantation, adding, "this intercourse cannot be prevented." Masters understood that they could not control every facet of slaves' lives.

Why did slaves marry abroad, knowing that in all likelihood they could never live with their spouses? Owners of one partner might attempt to buy the other if, in the words of a former Alabama slave, they considered him or her "a good strong, healthy nigger." Even if they did not, marriage off the plantation brought certain benefits. For male slaves particularly, marriage abroad opened up a whole new world. Husbands obtained the privilege of visiting their spouse's plantation, which freed them for a day or two from the confines of their own plantations and from the surveillance of their masters. "Slaves always wanted to marry a gal on 'nother plantation," explained a Virginia freedman, "cause dey could git a pass to go visit 'em on Saddy nights." Other slaves preferred marrying off the plantation because such an arrangement spared them the daily sight of their spouse in a state of slavery. "No colored man," wrote an escaped ex-slave, "wishes to live at the house where his wife lives, for he has to endure the continual misery of seeing her flogged and abused, without daring to say a word in her defence."

Some slave women may have valued the independence of marriage abroad in day-to-day domestic life and in the management of their children. Additionally, slaves on long-settled plantations sought spouses abroad out of concern about marriage to a close blood relation. A final factor driving slaves to marry abroad was that they, like their masters, sometimes just fell in love. "Don't you suppose, sir, that a slave can have some preference about marrying?" Harriet Jacobs asked her master when he ordered her to find a husband on the plantation; "Do you suppose that all men are alike to her?" A Mississippi planter related that the wife of one of his slaves lived 20 miles away; every weekend the husband walked a total of 40 miles to spend time with his wife. Only love explains his willingness to repeat that trip over and over again.

The article is heavily footnoted, for the academics interested, and there are many, many more interesting and sorrowful tales told in those footnotes.It made for a great discussion at our dinner table last night. I highly recommend you broach the subject at yours tonight.

COMMENT: Diana, you have given me a great compliment today and I sincerely thank you. Researching my family line of NORRIS has filled me with such a joy and to know that others are finding items of interest on the blog site is equally heartening.

Now if I could just get over that Brick Wall I'd surely learn some miraculous things about my ancestors. Again, thank you.

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