Slave Marriages, Families Were Often Shattered By Auction Block

During the slavery era, when slaves wanted to get married, it often presented a range of complexities that today's couples can't even begin to comprehend. Professor Tera Hunter, who teaches history at Princeton University, talks with host Michel Martin about jumping the broom during slave times.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

For Black History Month, we've been talking about new news about black history, focusing on new scholarship that has emerged in recent decades that tells a larger story about black people in America. The complexities of marriage among enslaved and newly freed African-Americans is one of those stories.

Here to tell us more is Tera Hunter. She's a professor of history at Princeton University, and she specializes in African-American history and gender in the 19th and 20th centuries. Welcome to the program. Thank you so much for joining us.

Professor TERA HUNTER (History, Princeton University): Thank you, Michel, for having me.

MARTIN: How did you become interested in marriage during this period?

Prof. HUNTER: Well, I became interested when I was researching my first book, which is called, "To 'Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women's Lives and Labors after the Civil War." It's a book about domestic workers between the Civil War and the World War I period. And I found some very rich documents of family life in the Reconstruction Era in the Freedman's Bureau Records of the National Archives.

These are first-hand documents, direct testimony from ex-slaves on a variety of topics related to the war and post war. And many of the documents are related to family issues, and marriages in particular. So I was quite taken with the richness and complexity of some of what was revealed in these documents in comparison to the then-existing literature on the topic.

MARTIN: Well, what was the then-existing literature on the topic, and how did what you find out differ from - from that, from what was believed or assumed?

Prof. HUNTER: Well, I think it's more of a matter of emphasis - much of the existing literature tended to focus more on family forms and structures in response to some longstanding debates, even going back to the Moynihan Reports. But I was more interested in some of the internal dynamics of black marriages and families. And so many of those documents really spoke to those issues from the perspective of former slaves themselves.

MARTIN: Well, one of the things that you point out in writing about this topic is that many couples did marry under slavery, but I think we understand that one of the horrors of slavery is that these marriages had no official recognition, that husbands and wives and children could all be separated at any time at the whim of an owner.

Prof. HUNTER: Right.

MARTIN: So how did these enslaved Americans develop a concept of marriage, given those circumstances?

Prof. HUNTER: Well, I think they were able to develop that concept in part because of their traditions from West Africa, but also from the importance of the family. And knowing that family connections were really important to them, they were able to then create meaningful relationships, despite the fact that these relationships were not legal. So they understood the importance of family to their own survival and also to developing, you know, meaningful relationships that stretched across generations.

MARTIN: You point out that, in fact, that many - after slavery, many enslaved Americans went on a real - a search to find spouses from whom they had been separated. Why was that so important?

Prof. HUNTER: Well, because they had been often separated against their will during the course of slavery, during the course of the confusion created by the Civil War. And so it's very important for them to make those connections again. And they walked long distances to reconnect with their families. They sent letters to different agencies of the federal government, through various churches to try to make those connections again.

You know, basically, slavery really complicated family relationships in ways that took many decades for them to recover. So after the Civil War, you see marriage being one of the very first civil rights that African-Americans are able to exercise. And they do that with a great deal of enthusiasm, to the point of overwhelming the Union Army, making it very difficult for them to handle the numbers of people trying to get married.

At the same time, many African-Americans did not respond in this way and were reluctant to legalize their marriages. They were unsure about what legalization could mean, how it might encourage further interference with their relationship. So there was initially some resistance, and there was some resistance even from white Southerners, as well. And so you find some coercion from the federal government, from missionaries trying to enforce marriage. But again, most African-Americans did want to embrace the idea of formalization and legalization of their marriages.

MARTIN: But you also say there were some owners who promoted marriage, even though they had no interest in recognizing it over the long-term, because they though it served their interests, as well. Tell me about that.

Prof. HUNTER: Right. So, owners had some interest in promoting marriages, in part in response to the abolitionist movement, because one of the strongest points that the abolitionists made, one of the most compelling attacks on slavery was the ways in which it undermined family relationships and marriages.

And so, in response to that, post-slavery defenders argue that, you know, slave-holding households themselves were like families and that they actually did encourage African-Americans to marry, to adopt Western Christian notions of marriage rather than so-called heathen practices from their past. So, essentially, slave masters learned that it was to their advantage to promote marriage and families, in part because it made economic sense. It mollified the slaves. It kept them reasonably content. It gave them incentives to remain on their plantations, as opposed to running away.

MARTIN: Hmm. So there was a real push me, pull me around marriage in that era. On the one hand, there were cultural reasons to marry, and the other hand, there were cultural pressures against it. There were legal pressures against it. It sounds to me that this was just a very complicated period emotionally for people, in addition to, you know, all that they had to deal with. But there are those who speculate that slavery is, in part, the reason that marriage is still such a fraught topic in the black community today, in that the institution of marriage never took hold among African-Americans to the degree that it did among whites, in part because during slavery, marriage was not respected.

We do know - I think, you know, have reported this, that the marriage rates among African-Americans were higher than among whites until the early 1960s. Do you have an opinion about this? What is your take on this question?

Prof. HUNTER: I do. And I guess I'm really troubled by some of the assumptions that people make in making that sort of leap from slavery to today in trying to draw a straight line to explain marriage patterns today, because there's been a lot that's occurred between slavery and today that I think would challenge that assumption. Of course, it took many decades for former slaves to recover from the devastation that slavery has reaped upon family lives and all the integuments that are produced.

But on the other hand, as you said, you know, marriage was nearly universal among African-Americans by 1900, for example. There are some disparities in terms of African-Americans living in urban areas not being married to the same degree, but still, there was a propensity to marry in these early - by the early 20th century. That's only a few decades after slavery ends - not only to marry, but to also remarry. If they separated and divorced, they were likely to remarry again.

That's very different from today. We begin to see marked racial differences in marriage rates starting around the 1940s, but especially around the 1960s and '70s, till we get to, you know, sort of the late in the 20th century and the early 21st century, where we see a complete reversal of previous patterns. So, while in the earlier period, we see African-Americans marrying in large numbers, now we see the reverse. So it's hard to blame what's happening today on slavery, given that in, you know, the many decades following slavery up, at least through the 1940s and perhaps into the 1960s, we see, you know, the largest numbers of African-Americans marrying and remarrying over and over again.

MARTIN: So, finally, what's - what is it that you think people most - that is most important for people to know about marriage among the enslaved and formerly enslaved in this period?

Prof. HUNTER: Well, I think we need to know that African-Americans actually did value marriage. And I think that really goes to the point that you were making, that people assumed that this was not something that was important to African-Americans. And, you know, I see this in the records, the deep love and the deep commitments that people had to their families, the lengths that people went to in order to preserve and protect those relationships at the risk of punishments, at the risk of death. So, I think that's really important for people to understand, is that African-Americans made great sacrifices in order to give their relationships meaning, even though they were being disregarded by the larger society.

MARTIN: Tera Hunter is a professor in the history department in the Center for African-American studies at Princeton University. She specializes in African-American history and gender in the 19th and 20th centuries. She's the author of "To 'Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women's Lives and Labors after the Civil War." And she was kind enough to join us from her home office in Princeton, New Jersey. I thank you so much for speaking with us.

Prof. HUNTER: Thank you, Michel.

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