Digital History>Topics>Private Life

Slave and Working-Class Families

Digital History TOPIC ID 78

Various groups have developed different family strategies in response to their social and economic circumstances. No group faced graver threats to family life than enslaved African Americans. Debt, an owner's death, or the prospects of profit could break up slave families. Between 1790 and 1860, a million slaves were sold from the upper to the lower South and another two million slaves were sold within states. As a result, about a third of all slave marriages were broken by sale and half of all slave children were sold from their parents. Even in the absence of sale, slave spouses often resided on separate plantations or on separate units of a single plantation. On larger plantations, one father in three had a different owner than his wife; on smaller plantations and farms, the figure was two in three.

In spite of the refusal of southern law to provide legal protection to slave marriages, most slaves married and lived with the same spouse until death. Ties to the immediate family stretched outward to an involved network of extended kin. Whenever children were sold to neighboring plantations, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins took on the function of parents. When blood relatives were not present, "fictive" kin cared for and protected children. Godparenting, ritual co-parenting, and informal adoption of orphans were common on slave plantations. To sustain a sense of family identity over time, slaves named children after grandparents and other kin; slaves also passed down family names, usually the name of an ancestor's owner rather than the current owner’s.

While the urban middle-class family emphasized a sole male breadwinner, a rigid division of sexual roles, and a protected childhood, urban working-class families emphasized a cooperative family economy. Older children were expected to defer marriage, remain at home, and contribute to the family's income. It was not until the 1920s that the cooperative family economy gave way to the family wage economy, which allowed a male breadwinner to sport his family on his wages alone. Contributing to this new family formation were the establishment of the first seniority systems; compulsory school attendance laws; and increased real wages as a result of World War I. The New Deal further solidified the male breadwinner family by prohibiting child labor, expanding workmen's compensation, and targeting jobs programs at male workers.

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