The African American Family

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The African American Family


For no other group in American life is the matter of family life more important than to the Negro. Our very survival is bound up in it. No one in all history had to fight against so many physical and psychological horrors to have a family life.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The African American family in the Americas has one of the most complex and troubling identities of any group in modern times. Manyboth people of color and people not identified as suchdo not fully realize the psychological impact that goes with a history in which peoples were uprooted from their homes and cultures, then deposited in the New World as slaves. This American slavery was based entirely on the color of the skin of its captives, and was particularly brutal, complete with a numbing range of laws, cultural devices and hysterical myths designed at once to keep the African in the Americas down, or "in their place," and to rationalize the brutal and inhuman behaviors of the society and nation that grew up around it.

Africans who were brought to the United States were subjected to a bizarrely complex system created in order to break down all existing cultural norms, traditions, nameseven memory itself. Much history has been written about the extreme efforts that were made by slave holders in the United States, as compared to those in South and Central American and the Caribbean, and the lasting social, economic and psychological effects of that system still resound across stage of our national character. Indeed, in the scope of 450 years of history, many do not recognize just how recent significant advances and freedoms for blacks in the United States truly are. Many scholars today wonder out loud if the most virulent and damaging periods of racial subjugation in the United States in fact came after the Emancipation Proclamation. After the brief hiatus of the Reconstruction in which there were briefly African American congressmen, the nationand the worldentered a period of a violent and hysterical effort to destroy every shred of self-respect and any sense of belonging for Africans in the New World and Old. In the late nineteenth century, while European scholars and intellectuals investigated, indeed, invented sciences that confirmed the innate superiority of the white race, their counterparts in the United States were weaving an ever-widening maze of laws and codes to keep African Americans apart from all opportunities for advancement. In the history of the United States, every Emancipation Proclamation, amendment, and piece of civil rights legislation has been met with a flurry of counter legislation and cultural and literal filibustering by those determined to see the old ways remain firmly in place.

With this complex and troubling legacy, African Americans have often slid down the slippery slope of success. While in arts and letters, the argument might be made that the African American people have made some of the most significant contributions to our culture as a whole, the African American family has suffered.

However, Africans in the Americas have always been held up to the yardstick of a western and essentially European sort of success. It is becoming increasingly clear that elements of African culture the early slave holders sought to eradicate have survived and that western European culture in the United States is not nearly as western or European as it seems.

Throughout almost four hundred years of American history, the black family has been the primary social institution in African American life. Black families and family households are where economic survival is organized, gender roles are taught and negotiated, strategies of resistance to oppression are learned, and each individual's relationship to African American identity, culture, and community life is established.

Since the time of slavery, popular and scholarly writing about the black family has been at the center of racial debates about the morality, American-ness, and humanity of African and African American people. In turn, judgments about the black family have been mobilized for use in political debates about whether African Americans "deserve" freedom, constitutional civil rights, and other benefits of U.S. citizenship that white Americans enjoy. The black family has been viciously attacked and passionately defended, for the political stakes have been very high. Ideas about the black family were as central to debates between abolitionists and slaveholders in the mid-nineteenth century as they are to debates about the American welfare state in the late twentieth century.

Unfortunately, most Americans, including historians, have tended to view the family in an extremely narrow way, and this has led to misconceptions about the black family and, in fact, all American families. As a consequence, the organization of black family life and its role in the survival, resistance, and cultural life of black people in the United States have been obscured in most popular and scholarly writing.


Since the nineteenth century, friends and foes of the black family have compared it to the so-called traditional or nuclear family, judging it according to its compliance with or deviation from this supposed norm. In the United States, that norm has been seen as white, despite the fact that many white families have never conformed to it. This comparison has shed little light on the reality of African American families, and many misconceptions remain about the history of black family life from slavery to the present. The preoccupation with African American female-headed households and matriarchal families is but one illustration of the limits of such historical discussions.

The matriarchal family is often compared to a norm that has little basis in reality for any racial or ethnic group despite its widespread acceptance. What many consider normal or typical family life is actually a recent ideal that millions strive for and few achieve: the small, two-parent, homeowning suburban family, in which the husband provides economically through work outside the home and the housewife-mother rears the children and maintains domestic order. This ideal family is presented as completely self-sufficient, emotionally and economicallydependent on neither relatives nor the government for survival.

No family actually fits this model. Middle-class families have for years depended heavily on wage-earning mothers, government tax breaks and loan assistance for homeowners, and the help of relatives for child care, emotional support, and financial assistance. Only the wealthiest families have survived without depending on relatives to help with child care, food, and housing, and with finding employment and weathering the emotional difficulties of everyday life. Further, it was largely women's dissatisfaction with attempts at "ideal" family life in the 1950s and early 1960s that produced the modern feminist movement, including black feminism.

Despite the model's unreality, however, the degree to which a social group appears to have achieved this ideal is still taken as a measure of its progress within American society. In particular, whether a household is two-parent or single-parent has become a convenient measure of racial or ethnic-group achievement and character. Thus, the often-cited fact that black families, more often than white, are single-parent is taken as a sign of the deviance, degradation, regression, and even inferiority of African Americans as a group. Such ideas persist despite historical evidence proving that the primary forces shaping family life are not racial or ethnic, but economic, political, and cultural. Scholarship has shown that, given similar social, regional, and economic circumstances, the percentage of black female-headed households has been almost identical to the percentage of white female-headed households throughout American history.

The two-parent family ideal has greatly limited discussion of black family life. Little popular or scholarly attention is paid, for example, to the fact that the dominant family structure among black families has been the extended family network, made up of several interdependent one-and two-parent black family households. While the membership of each household and the relationships among households may change over time, it is this extended family network, with leadership by men and women, that has enabled black families to survive and prosper.

However, even strong extended families and the African American ethos of collective responsibility are no protection against racial discrimination, high unemployment, or the systematic denial of civil rights.

Two features of the slave system are central to understanding the nature of black family life during the period of slavery. For more than two hundred years, slave-owning elites used southern law to control black labor and maximize their profits from that labor. At the same time, and despite their primary economic and legal status as property, black men and women established slave communities and a semiautonomous African American culture, of which extended familiesacross households, plantations, and state linesformed the core.

In American chattel slavery, slave owners profited from the ownership of black men, women, and children. Slaveholders sought to make sure that blacks thought of themselves as the property of white masters and as inferior to all whites. The black family system prevented slave-holders from ever being completely successful in this, however, for within the slave system, extended black families and individual family households existed as havens and sites of resistance. Children were socialized into an African American identity that challenged the identity assigned to blacks and existed independently from it.

The fact that slaves could not marry legally was part of a larger reality of the slave system: enslaved black families had no protection under the law. This does not mean that slavery destroyed black families, but it does mean that maintaining family and kinship ties was perhaps the central struggle for slaves. To place the bonds of family over the demands of slave owners was always considered an act of rebellion, and it required courage, skill, and creativity. Parents had no rights to keep, raise, teach, or benefit from the labor of their children. Husbands and wives had no right to see each other, keep house together, or benefit from one another's labor. Mothers and fathers were whipped for trying to protect their daughters from the sexual violence of white masters.

After 1808, a thriving domestic slave trade was developed to replace the Atlantic slave trade. Slaves were sold off to other parts of the country, primarily west and to the Deep South. While some owners valued stable family life among their slaves, many did not. The value slaves themselves placed on their families is attested to by the many who escaped in an effort to find kin that had been sold away.

The family customs that evolved during slavery allowed enslaved people to maintain their dignity. African American parents and elders imparted values that upheld the authority of all elders in the slave community. In turn, all adults took responsibility for protecting black children. The struggle for autonomous, private space beyond white supervision, control, and power was central in the resistance to slavery and to post-Emancipation forms of oppression like the sharecropping system.

SEE PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENTS Letters from George Steptoe to William Massie, Deed for Sales of 2 Family Members, and A Letter from Reverend J. W. C. Pennington to His Family Still in Slavery


For former slaves, freedom meant first and foremost establishing family ties according to their own cultural systems rather than the demands of slaveholders. In the first days of freedom, they set out on long journeys to find family members lost through the violence and profiteering of the slave system. Thousands of immediate families had been forcibly broken up by the domestic slave trade, and every freedman (or woman) had lost contact with some kin.

Elizabeth Botume, a northern white woman who worked with the freed people in the South Carolina Sea Islands, observed that "these people had a marvelous way of tracing out missing members of their families, and inflexible perseverance in hunting them up. "Mamie Garvin Fields recalled how an elderly stranger, whom her family called "Cousin Delia," searched until death for her relatives sold away in slavery: "Delia searched all her life for the family she had lost in Louisiana, but in the meantime she claimed all the people in our two houses kin. She just lost all her family through slavery. When she died, our people in Charleston had to bury her."

Many, like Cousin Delia, never found their lost kin. Those who did, especially husbands and wives, were anxious to secure legal status for their relationships. Across the country, husbands and wives sought the legal marriage denied them as slaves, which allowed them to establish legal authority over their own children. As the white South scrambled to reassert its control over freed people, hundreds of plantation owners and former slave-holders filed claims to apprentice children without legal parents and thus reduce them to working without pay. Legal marriage protected black families from these efforts to reenslave black children.

This new protection under law was a mixed blessing for black mothers, however. Legal marriage qualified black women for child support payments, and if their husbands had left or died during the Civil War, it qualified them for Union army veterans' pensions. However, legal marriage also conferred upon black men a new status as head of house that some used to control the labor, earnings, and household roles of their wives and childreneven employing violence, which the law upheld.

The ethos of collective responsibility that was critical to maintaining life and dignity under slavery was extended to the new conditions of freedom. The young, old, or disabled who were unable to work and care for themselveswhether kin or "fictive kin," like the elderly Cousin Deliawere incorporated into rural households and treated as family. Collective responsibility was especially important in the near-slavery of sharecropping, for here survival depended upon the labor, skill, and creativity of all able members of the household. Every household member had a task that was necessary, and tools were often shared among householdsunder sharecropping, no one could survive alone.

Sharecropping, like slavery, was an assault on the black family, and as they had done for generations, African Americans struggled at every turn to assert the primacy of family over the needs and demands of white employers. They sought out tenant and sharecropping situations that allowed for the greatest self-direction and autonomy of family life, the least oversight by white people, the least contact between black women and white men, and the greatest opportunities to send children to attend school rather than work in the fields. While plantation owners sought to maintain the power and profits they had known under slavery, freed people strove to organize families on their own terms and for their own benefit.

Every expression of this self-determination brought them into direct conflict with the plantation owners. Black mothers were needed to contribute to the family economy, but rather than work solely for the production of an employer's cash crops, many farmed small, independent garden plots that provided food for their families, despite violent opposition from employers. Black fathers sought to establish their homes as havens from the degradation and sexual violence wives and children experienced as domestic workers in white homes, or as field workers under white overseers. Sharecropping parents took their children out of the fields to eat or attend school or simply to help with domestic tasks at home, though they faced economic and physical reprisals for doing so. Black people's oft-spoken desire "not to be worked by nobody" was intimately related to their struggle to maintain and protect black family life.


Since the days of slavery, when slaves ran away to freedom following the North Star, sometimes all the way to Canada, migration has been a central feature of African American life. Significant migration to urban areas began in the decades following Emancipation. With the imposition of Jim Crow segregation, terror, and economic oppression, thousands more headed north. From 1915 on, it became a mass exodus, swelling during the World War I years and continuing well into the 1940s and 1950s. What is now called the Great Migration expanded black northern communities greatly, reshaping black family life.

Migration was in large part a family affair for African Americans, with family networks playing a central role in the transition from rural to city life. Most migrants joined relatives already settled in the city, who provided temporary living quarters, assistance in finding work, and an introduction to the social, religious, and political life of the community. Often a father would go north and find work. Once he was settled, he would send for his wife, children, and dependent elders. Letters were exchanged among family members as young and old tested northern waters and sent word home about the new conditions.

Mamie Garvin Fields remembered how she and her family moved from South Carolina to New York City in the early 1920s: "There was hardly any work for anybody. Even then, we were lucky. Bricklayers' Union #1 got word from New York that bricklayers were needed up there right away. Bob packed up and took the Clyde Line ship. I soon followed with the children. Bob and I had talked everything over carefully first. It's a heavy decision to move somewhere you don't know that's far away from your family and friends. After you decide to give up so much, you still don't know what will happen. But Charleston was very depressed then, and many people were leaving just to look for work. "The Fieldses shared an apartment with another family once they arrived in New York.

Consistent with black family patterns since slavery, from the 1920s to the 1960s about 80 percent of black households in northern urban cities contained two parents and children. But households also had to be flexible, adapting to changing economic and social forces. Housing in the urban North was expensive and in limited supply for black people, and frequently families shared their apartments with a near relative or an unrelated boarder. One historian found that fully one-third of all black urban households between 1915 and 1930 contained a lodger at one time or another. Most married black women worked outside the home, at least occasionally, in order to cover the cost of living and to supplement the low wages paid to black men. Free public schools, available to millions of black children for the first time, allowed them to do so.

In the North, family and extended-kin networks established in the South were adapted to new conditions and continued to provide the foundation for African American life and culture. Children were cared for by members of their extended familyfor example, the young Langston Hughes was cared for by his mother, his grandmother, and his grandmother's closest friend, whom he called "Auntie Reed. "Newly established churches, social clubs, and self-help associations, which were largely based on networks of kin and friends from hometowns in the South, provided for the economic survival as well as the spiritual and political empowerment of the expanding northern black communities. Migrants commonly made annual visits to the South, thus maintaining multigenerational ties and sustaining the southern roots of African American culture.

While survival continued to depend on collective responsibility, the lack of economic opportunities placed tremendous stress on families. Due to discrimination, even at the peak of wartime work, few black men earned wages high enough to support a family. Some marriages ended, while other family ties were often strengthened. Single mothers depended extensively on their mothers, siblings, and elder kin as well as the kin of their children's fathers, and they often shared resources with friends and fictive kin close to home, a strategy that continues into the twenty-first century.


The Bidwells of Holmes County, Mississippi, and Chicago, Illinois, give us yet another picture of an African American family's genealogical story reconstructed. In addition, they illustrate the impact of northern migration on black family life. The Bidwells are independent farmers who, over many generations in both the South and the North, have sustained a vibrant family life and a tradition of community activism. The family elders, Jeff and Jane Bidwell, were born in the 1880s to parents who had been born in slavery. They raised ten children in Holmes County between 1902 and 1924.

The family's first migration north took place in the 1940s, when several Bidwell children, including the eldest, Sylvia, moved north with their families. Sylvia and her husband came to Chicago in 1942 when he got a steady job working on the Illinois Central Railroad. With earnings saved during the war years, they joined with Sylvia's sister's family in 1951 to purchase a building containing several independent apartments. Over the years, that building provided housing for a number of relatives seeking to establish themselves in Chicago. They and their children joined local churches, social clubs, and self-help groups usually made up largely, if not solely, of migrants from Holmes County.

Two generations after the first Bidwells migrated to Chicago, the family network had grown and established new roots in the North while nurturing old ones "back home. "In 1970, half of the Bidwell family resided in Chicago, but 17 percent of living members still resided in their native Holmes County. As longtime, land-owning Mississippians, the elder Bidwells were active in the Civil Rights movement there. The ethic of collective responsibility extended to the needs of the movement, and the Lorenzo Bidwells informally adopted two northern civil rights activists as their own sons. The activistsone of them was Robert Moses, a worker in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committeelived with the Bidwells for more than a year, sharing both family responsibilities and pleasures.

Forty years after Bidwells began moving north, large numbers of them continue to make annual trips home"every chance you get. "Mrs. Peters, for instance, has a new home and takes part in church and community life in Chicago but returns to Holmes County each year to visit with her aging father. During the summer, many children are sent south to live with relatives, in part to solve the dilemma of working parents who cannot afford supervised child care for the summer. Moreover, many Bidwells who have died in cities far from Holmes County have been brought back to be buried with kin.


Widespread social changes in the last three decades of the twentieth century have had contradictory effects on the lives of black women and black families. On one hand, job opportunities in urban cities have decreased, and the number of poor black families continues to rise. As the number of families who need public assistance has risen, federal and state governments have cut back social welfare programs, thus exacerbating the worsening economic and social conditions.

On the other hand, the expansion of women's civil and reproductive rights, as well as new ideas concerning women's roles in the family and society, have created new economic and social opportunities for black women. Black women have greater access now than ever before to higher-paying, traditionally male jobs (in the postal service, for example), to sales and secretarial jobs that have traditionally gone to white women, to political leadership, and to higher education. In 1970, the majority of black women were for the first time no longer farm laborers or domestic workers. Black women also have greater legal redress for domestic violence, rape, and other forms of male violence. In addition, despite widespread concern about an increase in teen pregnancy, black teen pregnancy has greatly decreased as more women have gained access to family planning information, birth control, and legal abortion.

But family life has dramatically changed: fewer and fewer young black (and white) women are getting married before they have children. Between 1939 and 1959, approximately 18 percent of all black infants were born to unmarried women; by the mid-1980s, 60 percent of black infants were born to unmarried women. Black women now marry at a later age, often after becoming parents; more black women leave unsatisfactory marriages; fewer marry immediately after a divorce or a husband's death. A significant number of heterosexual black women choose not to marry at all, while many black lesbians, acknowledging their sexuality, are building non-traditional families.

With the growth of urban poverty, the resources available to black family networks have been drastically reduced. Millions of two-parent and single-parent families find themselves among the working poor. For some, this has strengthened kinship bonds and exchange relationships. The tradition of sharing responsibility for child-rearing continues and in many cases has intensified. Many children now grow up in a number of different households, depending on fluctuations in the resources available to the adults in their lives. Many elders help raise grandchildren and even great-grandchildren, stepping in for mothers and fathers who are unemployed or who have become parents at too young an age.

For others, however, the continuous lack of basic necessitiessufficient income, health care, child-care support, and the likehas proven too great a challenge. Unable to provide even minimal support and care to their children, some parents are driven to desperate, sometimes illegal measures to maintain their families. This in turn brings the entire family network into conflict with an array of government and private agencies, from social-welfare offices to the criminal justice system, agencies whose representatives may or may not understand the nature of a family's needs. Under these circumstances, black families often prefer to turn to the assistance and support of churches and other community institutions.

Black family networks will continue to respond to social and economic forces with creativity and dignity, with the central purpose of doing better for the next generation.


Bennett, Lerone. "10 Myths about the Black Family."Ebony , August 1986.

Billingsley, Andrew. Climbing Jacob's Ladder: The Enduring Legacy of African-American Families. New York:Simon & Schuster, 1992.

Comer, James. Maggie's American Dream: The Life and Times of a Black Family. New York: New American Library, 1988.

Fields, Mamie Garvin, with Karen Fields. Lemon Swamp and Other Places: A Carolina Memoir. New York: Free Press, 1983.

Gutman, Herbert, The Black Family from Slavery to Freedom: 1750-1925. New York: Pantheon, 1976.

Haley, Alex. Roots: The Saga of an American Family. Garden City:Doubleday, 1976 (also in video).

Jones, Jacqueline. Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work and the Family, from Slavery to the Present. New York:Basic Books, 1985.

Omolade, Barbara. The Rising Song of African American Women. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Scapegoating the Black Family. Special issue ofNation , July 24-31, 1989.

Stack, Carol. All Our Kin: Strategies for Survival in a Black Community. New York: Harper & Row, 1974.

Washington, Mary Helen, ed. Memories of Kin: Stories about Family by Black Writers. New York: Anchor, 1991.


Letters from George Steptoe to William Massie


When William Massie married into the Step-toe family in 1814, his father-in-law, James Steptoe, and his brother-in-law, George Steptoe, helped him establish himself as a planter by giving him slaves. Slave families were disrupted in the process, including the family of Edy and "Old Bishop. "Edy and their son went to the Massies; Old Bishop remained with the Steptoes.

In 1820, George Steptoe reunited the family on his property, writing several letters to William Massie to arrange the matter, which involved among other things purchasing Edy back and building her a cabin. George Steptoe's letters to his brother-inlaw are full of cordial banter. One can detect in them, however, the constant pressure that the members of the enslaved family were applying in their efforts to live together.

George Steptoe to William Massie, Nelson County, May 31 1820

Dear Wm, Your letter of the 29th Inst. is now before meby which it appears that you are not altogether disposed to accede to the proposition which I had made to you, which was to have old Edy valuedI stated to you that I was willing to take her at whatever any disinterested person would say she was worth, either in cash, or upon a credit of 12 monthsYou say that your price for her is $275This, I think is rather high for the times, & (for) a woman of her agefor tho' she may now, be a "Jack of all trades" as you say, yet the time will shortly arrive, when she will be a Jack at none& when, on the contrary, according to the course of nature, she will be a tax to her MasterShe may be a very good crop-hand& even understand how to apply a clysterbut as I am not particularly in want of a hand of within description at present, these qualifications would not much enhance her value in my estimationbut did I expect to pay for a hand of the latter profession shortly, I should certainly try to get one with younger eyesBut laying aside all joking as I am really in want of a cook& am not much disposed to stand upon trifles(if you have any particular objection to having your negro woman valued)I am willing to give you $250 for herwhich I am told by Mr Penn you have said you would take. Would suit me better to take her in the Fall than at presentas I should have to build her a house & am too much engaged at present to go about itIn the meantime you can let me know by the first opportunity whether you will take what I have offered.

George Steptoe to William Massie, Pharsalia,

August 26, 1820

Dear Sir Your letter by mail dated some time ago, was duly receivedbut as it was only an acceptance of my previous offer I did not think it worth while to reply to itI have been calculating ever since its reception upon taking old Edy the first of October. Will you want all the money paid down for her when I send for her? or will it make any difference with you about waiting a few months? I dont know but what it will be as convenient to pay for her at that time as any otherIf I can collect one twentieth part of what is owing me, it willBut in case I should notI merely want to know whether it will make the least difference with you? If it will, the money shall be forwarded when I send for her

George Steptoe to William Massie, Pharsalia,

September 16, 1820

Dear Sir The Bishop after finishing his cabin seems to be a little impatient to see his wifebut urges as a pretext for wishing to go down at this time, that he has a large crop of corn & fodder to save and make sale ofhowever he seems willing to give away every thing else he has, provided he can bring her away his wifeHe had taken up an idea that you were ready & willing to deliver her at any time & insisted upon starting after herI told him you were not to deliver her before 1st. Oct& that I could not ask you for her soonerHe has gone down to bring up either his wife or some other plundershe would be no accommodation to me at this timebut if you have nothing for her to do, & think it proper to accommodate the old man, you can do so

George Steptoe to William Massie,


Dear Sir, The old Bishop & his Lady after getting comfortably settled in their old neighborhood, & in a Christian Landhave begun to reflect how much their happyness would be increased by having their only child placed near themwhere they could have an opportunity of instilling into him principles of morality & religion and showing him the road to Heaven, & have been applying to me to know whether I could not devise some means of having him sent over from the Heathenish country where he is now living without God& the Gospel, & placed within the reach of salvation. I have told them that I was not in a situation to buy their sonneither did I know what he was worth never having see him, but that I would do anything in my power to save him from destructionIf you have no objection I will give you a reasonable hire for him for one year& if I like him, I may probably buy him at the end of that time. I had thought that if you were not particularly attached to him, & could hire another hand in your neighborhood in his place, that I would pay his hire. I have none of my own that I could conveniently put in his place, & hope the plan I propose will be acceptable to you.

We are all as well as common & should be glad to see you & yours up this way this Xmas. Give my love to Sally & accept for yourself my best wishes for your health and happyness.


Deed for Sales of Two Family Members


In 1832, Felix Reynolds was sold by Silas Reynolds to William Nimmons for two hundred dollars, and in 1834 his mother was sold for three hundred dollars. The two sales were recorded together in the Coweta, Georgia County Book of Deeds.

Two Bills of SaleGeorgia: Know all men by these present that I Silas Reynolds of the County Coweta County and State aforesaid for and in consideration of the sum of two hundred dollars to him in hand provide the receipt whereof is hereby acknowledged hath bargained sold and delivered and by these presents doth bargain sell and deliver unto William Nimmons of the County and State aforesaid one negro boy slave by the name of Felix about Eight years of age which negro boy slave Felix he the said Silas Reynolds warrants to be sound and healthy and to him the said William Nimmons his heirs and assigns he the said Silas Reynolds doth warrant and forever defend the right and title thereof. In witness whereof I hath here-unto set my hand and seal this 5th June 1832

S. Reynolds
signed sealed and delivered
in the presence of us
James Wood
F Storey J.P.
Recorded 1st March 1839
Batty Mitchell clk

Received of William Nimmons three hundred dollars in full payment of a negro woman by the name of Sina about Sixty years of age which negro woman I warrant the rite and title thereof against myself my heirs Executors administrators or any other person whatever to the said William Nimmons his heirs In Testimony whereof I have hereunto set my hand and seal this 4th day of April 1834

S Reynolds
W F Storey JP
Recorder 1st March 1839
Batty Mitchell clk


A Letter from Reverend J. W. C. Pennington to His Family Still in Slavery


Born into slavery in Maryland in 1807, James W. C. Pennington was first trained as a blacksmith. At the age of twenty, he escaped, leaving behind his parents and numerous brothers and sisters. The Quaker who assisted him in escaping, with whom he spent several months, taught Pennington to read and write, and he went on to become an ordained minister and one of the most distinguished American abolitionists. It was James Pennington who married Frederick and Anna Douglass when Douglass first escaped from slavery.

Though free himself, Pennington was anxious about the family he had left behind in slavery. He worried about them as a son and brother, and also in his new capacity as a Christian minister. In this letter, written to his family after a seventeen-year absence, Pennington expresses the wish that slavery will not prejudice them "against the gospel because it may be seemingly twisted into a support of slavery."

Dearly beloved in bonds,

About seventeen long years have now rolled away, since in the Providence of Almighty God, I left your embraces, and set out upon a daring adventure in search of freedom. Since that time, I have felt most severely the loss of the sun and moon and eleven stars from my social sky. Many, many a thick cloud of anguish has pressed my brow and sent deep down into my soul the bitter waters of sorrow in consequence. And you have doubtless had your troubles and anxious seasons also about your fugitive star.

I have learned that some of you have been sold, and again taken back by Colonel. How many of you are living and together, I cannot tell. My great grief is, lest you should have suffered this or some additional punishment on account of my Exodus.

I indulge the hope that it will afford you some consolation to know that your son and brother is yet alive. That God has dealt wonderfully and kindly with me in all my way. He has made me a Christian, and a Christian Minister, and thus I have drawn my support and comfort from that blessed Saviour, who came to preach good tidings unto the meek, to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound. To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord and the day of vengeance of our God: to comfort all that mourn. To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness, that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord that he might be glorified.

If the course I took in leaving a condition which had become intolerable to me, has been made the occasion of making that condition worse to you in any way, I do most heartily regret such a change for the worse on your part. As I have no means, however, of knowing if such be the fact, so I have no means of making atonement, but by sincere prayer to Almighty God in your behalf, and also by taking this method of offering to you these consolations of the gospel to which I have just referred, and which I have found to be pre-eminently my own stay and support. My dear father and mother; I have very often wished, while administering the Holy Ordinance of Baptism to some scores of children brought forward by doting parents, that I could see you with yours among the number. And you, my brothers and sisters, while teaching hundreds of children and youths in schools over which I have been placed, what unspeakable delight I should have had in having you among the number; you may all judge of my feeling for these past years, when while preaching from Sabbath to Sabbath to congregations, I have not been so fortunate as even to see father, mother, brother, sister, uncle, aunt, nephew, niece, or cousin in my congregations. While visiting the sick, going to the house of mourning, and burying the dead, I have been a constant mourner for you. My sorrow has been that I know you are not in possession of those hallowed means of grace. I am thankful to you for those mild and gentle traits of character which you took such care to enforce upon me in my youthful days. As an evidence that I prize both you and them, I may say that at the age of thirty-seven, I find them as valuable as any lessons I have learned, nor am I ashamed to let it be known to the world, that I am the son of a bond man and a bond woman.

Let me urge upon you the fundamental truths of the Gospel of the Son of God. Let repentance towards God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ have their perfect work in you, I beseech you. Do not be prejudiced against the gospel because it may be seemingly twisted into a support of slavery. The gospel rightly understood, taught, received, felt and practised, is anti-slavery as it is anti-sin. Just so far and so fast as the true spirit of the gospel obtains in the land, and especially in the lives of the oppressed, will the spirit of slavery sicken and become powerless like the serpent with his head pressed beneath the fresh leaves of the prickly ash of the forest.

There is not a solitary decree of the immaculate God that has been concerned in the ordination of slavery, nor does any possible development of his holy will sanctify it

He has permitted us to be enslaved according to the invention of wicked men, instigated by the devil, with intention to bring good out of the evil, but He does not, He cannot approve of it. He has no need to approve of it, even on account of the good which He will bring out of it, for He could have brought about that very good in some other way.

God is never straitened; He is never at a loss for means to work. Could He not have made this a great and wealthy nation without making its riches to consist in our blood, bones, and souls? And could He not also have given the gospel to us without making us slaves?

My friends, let us then, in our afflictions, embrace and hold fast the gospel. The gospel is the fulness of God. We have the glorious and total weight of God's moral character in our side of the scale.

The wonderful purple stream which flowed for the healing of the nations, has a branch for us. Nay, is Christ divided? "The grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to (for) all men, teaching us that denying ungodliness and worldly lust, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present world, looking for that blessed hope and glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works."Titus ii. 11-14.

But you say you have not the privilege of hearing this gospel of which I speak. I know it; and this is my great grief. But you shall have it; I will send it to you by my humble prayer; I can do it; I will beg our heavenly Father, and he will preach this gospel to you in his holy providence.

You, dear father and mother cannot have much longer to live in this troublesome and oppressive world; you cannot bear the joke much longer. And as you approach another world, how desirable it is that you should have the prospect of a different destiny from what you have been called to endure in this world during a long life.

But it is the gospel that sets before you the hope of such a blessed rest as is spoken of in the word of God, Job iii. 17, 19. "There the wicked cease from troubling, and there the weary be at rest; there the prisoners rest together; they hear not the voice of the oppressors. The small and great are there; and the servant is free from his master."

Father, I know that thy eyes are dim with age and weary with weeping, but look, dear father, yet a little while toward that haven. Look unto Jesus, "The author and finisher of thy faith," for the moment of thy happy deliverance is at hand.

Mother, dear mother, I know, I feel, mother, the pangs of thy bleeding heart, that thou hast endured, during so many years of vexation. Thy agonies are by a genuine son-like sympathy mine; I will, I must, I do share daily in those agonies of thine. But I sincerely hope that with me you bear your agonies to Christ who carries our sorrows.

O come then with me, my beloved family, of weary heart-broken and care-worn ones, to Jesus Christ,"casting all your care upon him, for he careth for you."2 Peter v. 7.

With these words of earnest exhortation, joined with fervent prayer to God that He may smooth your rugged way, lighten your burden, and give a happy issue out of all your troubles, I must bid you adieu.

Your son and brother,
Jas. P. Alias J. W. C. Pennington.

Twentieth-Century African American Poet Sterling Brown (1901-1989)

Sterling Brown was born in Washington, D.C., in 1901, and raised on the Howard University campus. If Paul Lawrence Dunbar was the originator of twentieth-century poetic traditions, Brown was the father of the school that sought to balance great traditions of the English language, trying to blend the poetic concerns of A. E. Housman and W. B. Yeats, with the driving concerns of African Americans seeking to write their own poetic history. Brown was fond of saying "I learned the arts and sciences at Williams; I learned the humanities in Lynchburg, Virginia."

Part 1: The Reynolds/Calhoun Family

In the late 1970s, a book and a television series by Alex Haley called Roots prompted many African Americans to take an active interest in their ancestors and genealogies. Long before then, my grandmother and great-aunt, the family historians, had begun to recreate the history of our forebears, using only snippets of information: old handkerchiefs, bills of sale, photographs, locks of hair, wills.

My family has since traced back over eight generations into the past: into births, wars, and slavery. This is not always an easy task for an African American family. Records that we take for granted today, like birth and death certificates, marriage licences, and census records, did not exist for enslaved people. Photographs and letters were scarce. But by using libraries, the memories of family members, and saved artifacts, my family has been fortunate enough to learn about its past.

The oldest known generation of my family is that of my great-great-great-great-great-grandparents, Henry and Sinai Reynolds. Sinai was born a slave in 1777 in Maryland, and her husband, also a slave, was born in 1781 in North Carolina. These two progenitors had eight children, whose lives in many ways show the full range of experience under the peculiar institution. The three eldest children were daughters, but we know little else about themnot even their names. One was sold to a buyer in Mississippi, another was sent to Liberia, while the fate of the third remains unknown. Sinai and Henry bought themselves and four of their remaining children out of slavery, and moved to Chicago in the mid-1850s. One child, Nelley (b. circa 1810), remained a slave in the South, cooking for a white family. Nelley is my great-great-great-great-grandmother.

ABOVE: Sinai Reynolds, who was born in 1777, is shown here in a photograph probably taken in the 1840s. Sinai and her husband Henry were able to sell baked goods and buy themselves and four of their children free. In the 1850s, they moved with these children to Chicago, where they spent the rest of their lives. Henry's death date is not known, but Sinai died in 1869. MS. HALLIE S. HOBSON

Part 2: The Reynolds/Calhoun Family Henry and Sinai Reynolds

From her birth state of Maryland, Sinai was either sold to a buyer in North Carolina or moved there with her owners. In North Carolina, she met her husband, Henry, and bore their three eldest daughters. Emily, Catherine, and possibly Nelley were also born in North Carolina.

Henry and Sinai were owned by a white man named Silas Reynolds. In the mid-1820s they moved with him to the town of Newnan, in Coweta County, Georgia. Here they had their two youngest children, Henry and Felix. Slaves did not usually have family names of their own, but rather took the surnames of their first, longest, or most benevolent owners. Henry and Sinai kept the name of Reynolds when they were sold to William Nimmons in 1832.

Using an arrangement that some slaveholders found profitable, William Nimmons allowed Henry and Sinai to "hire out their time. "This meant that they paid their master a certain sum out of their earnings. It also meant that they were responsible for feeding, housing, and clothing themselves and any of their children who remained on the plantation. They were allowed to keep whatever money was left. Despite the extra expense, many slaves found this arrangement to their advantage. It allowed them more freedom, as well as a chance to earn and save money. Most importantly, sometimes slaves were allowed to purchase their freedom with the money they had saved.

Under the new arrangement with Nimmons, Henry and Sinai lived in Newnan, where Sinai made baked goods and drinks to sell in the neighborhood. A white resident of Newnan, recalling his youth in the early 1850s, remembered "the old black mammy called 'Aunt Synie' who sold ginger cakes and persimmon beer at a chosen corner on the street. "Sinai's baking brought her and Henry enough income to pay their master and to save enough to buy freedom for themselves and four of their children.

Although some masters allowed slaves to hire out their time, the majority of the white community disapproved of the system, since it loosened the bonds of slavery. Cities often imposed fines on owners who were involved in the practice. The other slaveholders in Newnan must have feared that the relative freedom the Reynoldses enjoyed would set a bad example for their own slaves. In 1839, they filed a formal complaint against Sinai and Henry's owner.

We do not know what action was taken on this complaint, or whether Sinai and Henry had to move back on their master's property. We do know that they continued to bake and to receive some of the profits, which they saved toward their children's manumission. Nimmons seems to have helped the family out by releasing from his service two of the children, Felix and Catherine, in 1852.

Having amassed enough money to purchase themselves, Sinai, Henry, and four of their eight children were free and living in the North before the Civil War. Nelley, still in slavery in Georgia, had been sold to the A.B. Calhoun family. The three eldest sisters had been freed or sold or had died long before.

LEFT: Nelley Calhoun, the daughter of Sinai and Henry Reynolds, was the cook for the Calhoun household. She was the one child who had to remain in the South when the rest of her siblings were bought free and moved north with their parents. Nelley was the mother of Siny Calhoun, whose father, there is reason to believe, was Judge William Ezzard. Nelley was born around 1810. This photograph may have been taken in the 1860s. MS. HALLIE S. HOBSON

Part 3: The Reynolds/Calhoun Family The Chicago Reynoldses

The ReynoldsesSinai, Henry, Felix, Emily, Catherine, and Catherine's husband, Adison Gordonarrived in Chicago in the mid-to late 1850s. We do not know why they chose Chicago to settle in. Many northern states were not friendly to the idea of free blacks taking up residence, and Illinois was no exception. Its sympathies lay with blacks far away in the South in slavery, not the ones in its own cities. From 1848 to 1865, black laws remained on the Illinois books, stipulating high fines and a variety of other measures to discourage blacks from settling in the state.

The black laws were not always seriously enforced, the Reynoldses being a case in point: by 1860 they were living in a house on Griswold Street in the Third Ward of Cook County. Like many families at the time, the Reynoldses took in lodgers to help pay the rent on a large space they would not have been able to afford otherwise. They shared the house with two boarders, a woman and a small child.

Their black neighborhood, surrounded by factories, was located one block away from the Michigan South Railroad tracks. Its buildings were neither fireproof nor clean. Crowded together on half lots, they held too many people. Mortality rates were high. In 1889, Catherine Gordon wrote a letter to her niece and nephew in Georgia, describing the conditions in which they were living.

The free North offered the family new opportunities as well as new challenges. Their lives were their own and they could earn wages. Like most of the blacks at that time, the Reynoldses made their living as domestics and personal servants. Felix was a barber, Catherine was a seamstress, and Emily kept house. Yet it seems that money was often tight. Keeping the family together was a challenge. Emily and Catherine settled down to make Chicago their home, but Henry Jr. and Felix saw Chicago as just a starting point. They eventually moved and lost touch with the family. In her 1889 letter to relatives in Georgia, Catherine expressed her frustration over the unraveling of the family.

Henry and Sinai probably did not live to see the scattering of the children who had accompanied them north. They died free in Chicago. The date of Henry's death is not known, but Sinai died in 1869. Nelley came up from Georgia to be by her mother's deathbed.

Part 4: The Reynolds/Calhoun Family Nelley Calhoun, Daughter of Sinai and Henry Reynolds

My great-great-great-great-grandmother Nelley was possibly born in North Carolina and moved to Georgia with the rest of the family. There she was sold to Andrew B. Calhoun, either by Silas Reynolds when he was selling off his slaves in the 1830s, or by William Nimmons at a later date.

Calhoun was born in 1809 in Abbeville, South Carolina. He moved to Newnan, Georgia, in the 1830s and lived on Greenfield Street, the same street William Nimmons lived on. The men had been acquaintances in South Carolina and probably continued their friendship in Georgia. Calhoun served as a witness for Nimmons' will. A young doctor and member of the Georgia legislature, he held eleven slaves in 1850. In the 1860s his household probably grew larger but still would have been considered small. He had a farm that produced corn, cane for syrup and sugar, and livestock for wool. In this household, Nelley served as cook.

Sinai had also been a cook, and Nelley probably learned her trade from her mother. House servants such as cooks and nurses could often spend more time with their children. I believe that Nelley and her mother had an especially close relationship. Working together in the kitchen, the older woman teaching the younger, they would have had time to develop this bond. Ironically, Nelley's cooking skills may have made her a valuable commodity and kept her in Georgia when the rest of the family moved north.

Nelley was married to a slave on the Calhoun plantation, but nothing is known about him. She had two children, Siny and Moses, but Siny was not the child of Nelley's husband. Siny Calhoun was born in 1830 to Nelley and a white man named William Ezzard. "Judge Ezzard," as he is known in my family, was born in 1799, making him about ten years older than Nelley. He served at various times as a senator, judge, and mayor of Atlanta. If people had known that he had a child by a black woman, it would probably have hurt his career. Nevertheless, according to my family, there is no doubt that Judge Ezzard was Siny's father.

ABOVE: The A. B. Calhoun House in Newnan, Coweta County, Georgia. MS. HALLIE S. HOBSON

Part 5: The Reynolds/Calhoun Family

In the summer of 1864, Andrew B. Calhoun and some of his slaves left Newnan to visit his son Abner, who had been wounded in the war. Calhoun's daughter Fannie remained at the house in Newnan and wrote to her father, complaining about slaves who had run away to the Yankees. In the same letter, she sent a friendly hello to Nelley's child and grandchild, Siny and Catherine (Kitty), who had accompanied Calhoun on the trip. Calhoun and his slaves were present a few months later when Sherman burned Atlanta. According to family legend, Nelley was ill. They put her on a mattress in a wagon, and everyone escaped to safety.

House servants were often accused of identifying or siding with their owners over their family or friends working in the fields. Slaves were not always open about their feelings, however, and so it is hard to tell whether they were truly attached to their owner's family or only acted that way out of a sense of duty or fear. Nelley and her daughter and granddaughter did remain with the family and performed their duties. It seems that they had won the affection of the white Calhounsnot only did Fannie remember them in her wartime letter, but in 1870 Calhoun deeded the three women a plot of land as a reward for their loyal service.

Yet Nelley's family always remained important to her. Though separated from her mother, father, brothers, and sisters when they moved north, she corresponded with them and traveled north to be by her mother's deathbed. The strength of kin ties can also be seen in the family's naming practices. Nelley took the Calhoun name, but she named her daughter Siny for her mother, and both Siny and Moses named children for their aunts and uncles. In this way, like so many enslaved people, Nelley and her children used names to keep family connections and memories alive.

Siny Calhoun had married Preston Webb, and they had had one child, Catherine Webbor Kitty, as the white Calhouns called her. Not much is known about Preston, but when he died in 1868 at a young age, it left a profound mark on his eight-yearold daughter. Siny gave Catherine an atlas from the year her father died, and in the pages of this volume were pressed his rumpled freedom papers. Catherine kept the atlas in a box on which she inscribed the date of her father's death. This box has been passed down through the generations.

Although A. B. Calhoun had deeded them property in Newnan, Nelley, Siny, and Catherine finally chose not to remain near the people who had owned them. Like many ex-slaves, they moved away from the plantation and into the city. In 1870, they were living on Frasier Street in Atlanta with Nelley's son Moses, his wife, Atlanta, and their children, Lena and Cora. Nelley was working as a laundress and Siny as a hairdresser, and Moses owned a cafe. They must have done quite well, because Catherine attended Atlanta University in 1875 and 1876, and Cora did so in 1882.

When Siny married Joseph Murray, her second husband, in 1880, she and Nelley moved out of her brother's house to Lula, in Hall County, Georgia. They did not remain there long, however, returning to Atlanta, where Nelley lived with her daughter until her death in 1897. Five generations later, her descendants have been scattered around the country and the world, but many of us were born in Atlanta, and we still consider it the family home.

LEFT: Siny Catherine Calhoun was the daughter of Nelley Calhoun and the mother of Catherine Felix Webb. She was born in July 1830 in Newnan, Coweta County, Georgia. Her first husband, Preston Webb, died in 1868. This photograph taken after her second marriage probably dates from the 1870s. MS. HALLIE S. HOBSON

Part 6: The Reynolds/Calhoun Family The Vanished Sisters

Very little is known about the three eldest daughters of Sinai and Henry Reynolds. According to a brief document written by my great-great-grandmother, one was sent to Liberia and another sold farther south. The third has truly been lost in the passage of time.

The daughter who went with six children to Liberia was sent by her owner, who was probably a supporter of the American Colonization Society. The society was started in 1817 by whites who sought to remove free blacks to Africa. They had various motives, both well-intentioned and hostile: to end miscegenation and race mixing, to Christianize Africa, to open profitable trade, and to "uplift the Negro" by giving him a chance to govern himself in his own land. Their main goal, however, was to remove free blacks from American soil.

It was not just whites who supported this movement, however. Many blacks also approved. Slaves and freed blacks would save small amounts of money in hopes of making the journey themselves or buying a membership in the society. Felix Reynolds was a member from 1852 to 1855, as listed in the society's journal, the African Repository. He may have joined out of a personal interest in emigrating, or to show support for the cause, or to learn about his missing sister's progress.

Though we do not know when the sister who was sold south went, we know that her fate was a common fear among nineteenth-century slaves, since it meant that they would be sent far away from their families. Masters often raised money by selling their slaves to traders, who moved them to slave markets in the lower South. Some masters took slaves with them to work on new land or secondary plantations farther south. Slaves might even be given away as presents, forced to uproot themselves from their own families and lives. This often happened when a master's children established new plantations on the southern frontier.

The third sister has been lost to us in a sea of possibilities and time. Because of the nature of the institution of slavery, her mother, father, brothers, and sisters might not even have known her fate. Her absence reminds us how tenuous the threads leading to the past can be, and how lucky we are to know what we do know.

Doing genealogical research can be frustrating and rewarding at the same time. At its worst, family history can reveal the gaps and holes in the record. At its best, it reminds us of the individual livesof mothers, fathers, and childrenthat came together to create history.

LEFT: Catherine Felix Webb was the daughter of Siny Calhoun, the granddaughter of Nelley Calhoun, and the great-granddaughter of Sinai and Henry Reynolds, the progenitors of an African American family that has traced its lineage back eight generations. Catherine Felix Webb was born in the Calhoun home in July 1860. At the time of this photograph, taken around 1900, she had become the wife of Antoine Graves. MS. HALLIE S. HOBSON

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The African American Family