Digital History

Introduction by Steven Mintz

Slave Family Life Previous Next
Digital History ID 458



Slaves marriages and family ties were not recognized by American law. Any owner was free to sell husbands from wives, parents from children, and brothers from sisters. In many cases, slave spouses lived apart. Many large slaveholders had numerous plantations and frequently shifted slaves, splitting families in the process.

Although some masters, like George Washington, were reluctant to buy or sell slaves, economic need or an owner's death often led to the separation of husbands from wives and parents from children. The most conservative estimates indicate that at least 10 to 20 percent of slave marriages were destroyed by sale. The sale of children from parents was even more common. Over the course of a 35-year lifetime, a slave had a fifty-fifty chance of being sold at least once and was likely to witness the sale of several members of his or her immediate family.

Slave families were extremely vulnerable to separation. As a result of the sale or death of a father or mother, over a third of all slave children grew up in households from which one or both parents were absent. About a quarter of all slave children grew up in a single-parent household (nearly always with their mother) and another tenth grew up apart from both parents.

Even in instances in which marriages were not broken by sale, slave spouses often resided on separate plantations, owned by different individuals. On large plantations, one slave father in three had a different owner than his wife, and could visit his family only at his master's discretion. On smaller holdings, divided ownership and mother-headed households occurred even more frequently. Just one-third of the children on farms or plantations with 15 or fewer slaves lived in a two-parent family, compared to two-thirds of the children on larger plantations.

Because many planters prohibited marriages across plantations (and because slaves, like West Africans but unlike white southerners, did not marry first cousins), many slave were unable to find a spouse. On the largest plantations, nearly 20 percent of the slaves who reached adulthood remained single throughout their lives.

Other obstacles stood in the way of an independent family life. Many slaves had to share their single room cabins with relatives or other unrelated slaves. Even on model plantations, children between the ages of seven and 10 were taken from their parents and sent to live in separate cabins.

Slavery severely circumscribed the authority of slave parents. When a slave child named Jacob Stroyer was regularly beaten, his father told him: "Go back to your work and be a good boy, for I cannot do anything for you."

Of all the threats to slave family life, one of the most terrible was the sexual abuse of slave women. Some masters, like James H. Hammond, a congressman, governor, and U.S. Senator from South Carolina, took slave mistresses and concubines. Hammond, whose wife bore him eight children, purchased an 18-year-old slave named Sally and her infant daughter, Louisa, in 1839. He made Sally his mistress, and fathered several children by her, and then when the daughter reached the age of 12, fathered several children by her. Nor was Hammond alone. Governor Francis Pickens of South Carolina and Confederate General Jubal Early each took slave mistresses. One ex-slave remembered that his master "would ship...husbands out of bed and get in with their wives." A survey of former slaves conducted in the 1930s revealed that 4.5 percent said that one of their parents had been white.

Despite the frequent breakup of families by sale, African-Americans managed to forge strong and durable family and kin ties within the institution of slavery. In spite of the refusal of southern law to recognize the legality of slave marriages, most slaves married and lived with the same spouse until death, and most slave children grew up in two-parent households.

To sustain a sense of family identity, slaves often named their children after parents, grandparents, recently deceased relatives, and other kin. It used to be believed that masters assigned names to slaves or that slaves simply imitated their masters' system of naming. We now know that slaves were usually not named for owners. To be sure, some slaves were given classical names (like George Washington's slave Hercules). But many names reflected African practices. Many children received "day names" (after the day they were born) and "name-saking" (such as naming children after grandparents).

Slaves passed down family names to their children, usually the name of an ancestor's owner rather than their current owner's. The strength of slave families is nowhere more evident than in the advertisements slaveowners posted for runaway slaves. Over a third of the advertisements indicate that fugitives left an owner to visit a spouse, a child, or other relatives.

Ties to an immediate family stretched outward to an involved network of extended kin. Family destruction and dispersal created extended kinship networks stretching across whole counties. Whenever children were sold to neighboring plantations, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins often took on the functions of parents. When blood relatives were not present, strangers cared for and protected children. Slave parents taught their children to call all adult slaves "aunt" or "uncle" and younger slaves as "sister" or "brother." In this way, slave culture taught the young that they were members of a broader community in which all slaves had mutual obligations and responsibil

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