African American Life and Culture

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African American Life and Culture

On 28 February 1829, Freedom's Journal, the nation's first black newspaper, reported a resolution of the U.S. House of Representatives regarding the importation of slaves into the District of Columbia. The resolution stipulated, "In all sales of slaves made in said District by the authority of law … it shall and may be lawful, when such slaves … consist of a family or families, to sell them by families: and it shall not be lawful, by any such sale, to dispose separately of thus husband and wife, or of a mother and her children under ten years of age." The government's 1829 resolution was one of hundreds that shaped the ways in which both enslaved and free people of color experienced family life during the early national period. The first provision regulating the status of families in slavery came in 1663, when a Virginia court declared all children born to an enslaved mother would be considered slaves, thus making slavery hereditary. From that point forward, issues of race and slavery influenced every aspect of domestic life for African Americans—from the food they consumed to where they lived to their interactions with their children and spouses.

families in slavery

As debates over slavery escalated during the first decades of the Republic, they put increasing pressure on both enslaved and free black family dynamics. The debates led to increases of racial tension between blacks and whites, and often to outbursts of racially motivated violence, as in Philadelphia in the summer of 1838, when angry white protestors burned the Pennsylvania abolitionist hall, the colored orphan asylum, and attempted to burn the Mother Bethel American Methodist Episcopal Church. The increasing restrictions on the movement of both free and enslaved blacks that these debates produced also affected families' ability to maintain contact (whether between towns or plantations). While slaves faced the constant threat of physical punishment or separation from familiar communities, free black families faced their own problems of racial prejudice, unemployment, and financial instability.

Courtship and marriage. In his Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), Thomas Jefferson claimed that among slaves, "love seems … to be more an eager desire, than a tender … sentiment." Jefferson's comment underscored a common eighteenth-century misconception about African American courtship rituals and relationships that ascribed them to biological urges rather than to sentiment. Twentieth-century scholars have noted that African American courtship rites differed sharply from those of their white American counterparts. For example, while a white couple might engage in a private dance as part of their wooing, slave courtships on the plantation often began within the "ring" of the slave community, at a social event such as a corn shucking or hog killing. Members of the community formed a ring around the eligible man or woman, who would then perform both for his or her intended and the rest of the group, whose members would shout out their approval or comments. Relationships among slave couples often evolved in a context that mirrored those of traditional African communities and that integrated both social and spiritual elements.

Since slaves had no legal status within the new nation, they could not legally marry. However, while many were undoubtedly forced into partnerships by masters interested in "breeding" new slaves, most slave couples chose partners with the hope, if not the certainty, of sustaining a long-term relationship. Slave marriage celebrations varied widely. Some incorporated Christian rites and were performed in the presence of local preachers. Others involved the ceremony of "jumping the broom," a ritual probably derived from African marriage traditions in which the newly married couple leapt over a broom as a symbol of their transition from their unmarried state into their new life together.

Although some masters allowed their slaves to make "broad" marriages (when one slave married another living on a different plantation), many masters were reluctant to allow their slaves to form these kinds of unions. A male slave with a "broad wife" on another plantation could prove problematic, since, for example, he might seek additional time away from his duties to travel to his family, and since any children born out of the union would become the property of the wife's master.

While slave couples on the same plantation might live together, pooling their resources and labor, they had little control over the external factors that could affect their relationship. Traveling through the United States in the early nineteenth century, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that "there exists … a profound and natural antipathy between the institution of marriage and that of slavery. A man does not marry when he cannot exercise marital authority." Enslaved husbands could not prevent the forcible rape of their wives by either their white masters or other white male visitors or members of the master's household. Slave narratives often record male slaves' frustration and anxiety at their inability to protect their partners and children.

Children. Despite the harsh conditions, plantation slaves forged successful family relationships with their spouses and children. Some masters allowed slave mothers a month of light duty before and after the birth of their child, and often mothers were permitted to nurse their infants three or four times during the day (receiving time off from their labor to do so). After children were weaned, they were cared for by a slave working as the plantation nurse, who might have as many as twenty or thirty children to look after. Masters seldom assigned children to any challenging or sustained labor before the age of ten or twelve. Children generally lived in their parents' cabins until they started their own families.

Extended family. Kinship networks formed a vital part of sustaining family life within the institution of slavery. Despite laws passed to ensure that slave families would be sold together, a master could simply choose not to record the names of a slave child's parent, thus effectively eliminating the connection. As a result, many slave families developed patterns of naming and of passing along family lore as a means of memorializing those who might be sold or traded away from the home plantation.

Records of unions and births on the larger plantations suggest that slave families continued to intermarry through successive generations, so that while the first generation of slaves on a plantation might consist largely of unrelated individuals, by the third generation, cousins might begin marrying cousins. Some slaves might eventually boast as many as seventy or eighty grandchildren and great-grandchildren on a single plantation.

Food and housing. Food and housing on the plantation were controlled largely by the master, who meted out supplies of grain, meat, and other staples to the community. Slaves often augmented their diet with family gardens behind their cabins, where they might grow vegetables that they could either consume or sell. Additionally, slave men often used their free time to hunt or fish.

Celebrations such as a corn shucking or Christmas often meant an increase in rations or a special meal. Additionally, while many masters deplored the potentially negative effects of alcohol use by their slaves, many also regularly supplied slaves with whiskey or rum. Some masters doled out alcohol as an incentive for work, while others offered it in recognition of a holiday.

In the last decades of the eighteenth century, slave housing was more haphazard than the traditional rows of cabins or "quarters" that dominated the nineteenth century. House slaves might occupy space in the barn, the attic of the main house, the kitchen floor, or the hallway outside their masters' rooms. Field slaves might be crammed into dormitorylike cabins, with up to sixteen slaves occupying the same open space. By the 1820s, plantation owners realized that these kinds of barrack-style quarters allowed for rapid spread of illness, and some reformers argued that it also promoted immorality. Families began to occupy individual cabins consisting of one room measuring perhaps fourteen by eighteen feet with a cooking fire and such furniture and pottery as their inhabitants were able to build or barter for. Archaeologists have suggested that some slaves built extensions onto their cabins in an effort to create a sense of privacy for husbands and wives away from their children.

Aspirations. The greatest hope of every slave was freedom. In the decades after the Revolution, northern states began transforming their slave laws. Pennsylvania, for example, passed a gradual abolition act in 1780, though any black Pennsylvanians born to slave parents after 1 March 1780 had to serve their masters until age twenty-eight. Slave owners that wanted to keep their slaves could register them with the government. Those slaves who were not registered were automatically freed. Similarly reluctant to free its entire slave population at once, New York instituted a gradual emancipation law in 1799, which meant that children born after 4 July 1799 were legally free but were placed under an "indenture" to their parents' masters until the men reached age twenty-eight and until the women reached age twenty-five. Those already in slavery were not to be freed until 1827.

These laws had a powerful impact on both free and enslaved families. The increase in the free black population affected free black churches, the free black workforce, and the free black schools in communities ranging from Philadelphia to New York to Boston. The increase of a freed population increased both the competition for survival and it meant greater possibilities for growth and solidarity, as cities such as Philadelphia were able to develop their own united black elite.

While some states moved slowly toward emancipation, others—in the South—worked to embed the system of slavery even more firmly in their legislative and economic structures. This too had a powerful impact on both enslaved and free families, since it meant that one of the only ways a family in Virginia, Georgia, South Carolina, or other southern slave state might achieve freedom was by escaping to the North. Slaves often ran away either upon hearing a rumor that they were to be sold away from their families or to reach loved ones who had already been sold off the plantation. Though escaping in pairs or groups, especially with children, was extremely difficult, many slaves risked the perilous journey and the potential punishment if caught in order to bring their families to freedom.

slaves and free blacks

Interactions between slaves and free blacks depended largely on how a particular state's legislation affected both populations. In states with gradual emancipation acts such as New York and Pennsylvania, by a certain date parents in slavery were giving birth to free children. Despite the difference in their legal status, many slaves and free blacks in the North worked side by side during the early national period. Emancipation, while it meant freedom, did not automatically confer a change in economic status or earning power. In an effort to support their families, many newly freed African Americans found themselves reduced to a state of near indenture in the years following the Revolution as former slave owners exploited this ready source of cheap labor. However, by the first decades of the nineteenth century, some urban centers such as Philadelphia had also begun to witness the formation of a black elite—a class of free blacks with sufficient wealth and property to create their own social rituals. During the 1820s, the vicious cartoon series, "Life in Philadelphia," satirized what the artist perceived as black pretensions to white gentility, mocking black couples strolling down the streets in fashionable clothing or black men and women dancing at parties or courting in the parlor. What the cartoons recognize, however, is the emergence of a class division between wealthy free black families and poor or enslaved ones.

The Upper South experienced a different pattern in the relationships between free and enslaved African Americans in the years after the Revolution. In part, the universal oppression of any person of color by the white legislative and social systems forced free and enslaved blacks into alliances against a common enemy. Additionally, free and enslaved blacks in the South were much more likely to share either kinship ties or community relationships forged by the church.

The most obvious exception to this pattern was the phenomenon of free blacks holding other African Americans in slavery, a practice most prevalent in the Deep South—in Louisiana and South Carolina, for example. There, large Creole populations, comprising native free black populations and occasionally refugees from Saint Domingue, created sizeable and profitable slave plantations.

families in freedom

Historians have estimated the free black population of the United States in 1800 hovered somewhere around 100,000. Free black families dwelled in both rural and urban regions and lived in every imaginable socioeconomic condition, from wealth to abject poverty.

Courtship and marriage. Some historians have found a tendency among free black couples to marry partners with the same skin color; that is, light-skinned men or women tended to seek light-skinned partners, while dark-skinned men or women married dark-skinned partners. In some regions, light skin color connoted higher social status, and thus among couples free to choose marriage partners, color made some potential mates more desirable than others.

The urban North. The first years after the Revolution witnessed a slight decline in the North's free black population as there was a comparatively low birth rate during the late 1770s and 1780s. By the late 1790s and early 1800s that trend had reversed, and although free black birth rates still remained below those of whites and infant mortality rates stayed high, the black population began to climb in urban areas as men and women took advantage of the opportunities offered there for social and economic mobility. Many free blacks moved to urban areas seeking work that would allow them to purchase other members of their families still in slavery, a trend that produced an increase in two-parent families by the end of the 1820s.

Former slaves were often able to acquire positions as artisans, building a stable living for their families as well as a broader free community. As historians of the early national period have noted, the free black population of the urban North grew at such a pace that by the first decade of the nineteenth century, schoolmasters for a new generation of African American children were in high demand.

Extended family. Though black families in freedom were often able to exert greater control over their living arrangements than their slave counterparts, they often lacked the same intricate kinship networks formed on the plantation. Greater mobility and access to economic opportunity meant that free black children could settle at a greater distance from their families.

Food and housing. Free black families had access to a much greater range of foodstuffs than families in slavery, which produced a greater variety (if not necessarily a better quality) in diet. Some of the most intriguing evidence concerning patterns of free black nutrition and living conditions has come from analysis of skeletons found in African American burial grounds. That analysis suggests widespread anemia (produced by lack of meat or green vegetables in a diet) but comparatively few instances of rickets or scurvy (produced by lack of dairy or vitamin C). Such data can help historians to understand the kinds of foods free blacks might have had access to on a regular basis.

Alcohol was one of the foodstuffs most frequently mentioned in connection with free blacks during the early national period. Abolitionist tracts called upon slaves to avoid alcohol, lest they confirm whites' worst prejudices concerning the morality of the African American population. Tracts and newspapers noted the danger of alcohol to the stability of family life as well.

Housing conditions for free black families varied widely during the early national period. While some families were able to establish their own independent homes (whether on black-owned plantations in the South or residential communities in the North), many more free blacks in urban areas occupied crowded, tenementlike dwellings that allowed families little space or privacy.

Aspirations. So long as racial prejudice remained firmly entrenched in the American legal and social system, the aspirations of free black families were necessarily limited. However, by the first decades after the Revolution, free black families had begun to establish networks of community through their churches and other social organizations that allowed them some participation in the formation of the early Republic. For those couples or families persuaded that the Republic would never grant them the rights and citizenship they deserved, the growing colonization movement presented another choice for establishing a life in liberty.

See alsoAbolition of Slavery in the North; Law: Slavery Law; Plantation, The; Slavery: Overview; Slavery: Runaway Slaves and Maroon Communities .


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Heather S. Nathans

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African American Life and Culture

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African American Life and Culture