Family and Community Overview

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Family and Community Overview

Historians have argued about the slave family and the slave community, especially since the 1960s. The black family has especially been an area where historical interpretation has intersected with the public policy and reached into popular literature and public discussions. Both the general public and historians have argued and used interpretations of the enslaved black family in an attempt to explain current problems and even as an argument for reparations for enslavement.

The Jamaican-born African American sociologist, Orlando Patterson (1998), illustrates this extreme passion. He pointed to contemporary problems in the African American family and looked to slavery as the origin of the black matriarchy. According to the historical literature, under slavery black men became emasculated and powerless because white plantation owners were the patriarchs. Therefore, the slave family, as such, differed from what was considered the norm. Males were absent from the family, and women headed the household of children. It is somewhat ironic that in the 1970s, at about the time that a number of male scholars were arguing there was no black matriarchy, feminists, turning to African American women as exemplars of strength, argued that matriarchy, far from implying cultural inferiority, was a good thing. Patterson asserted that revisionist arguments contesting the matriarchy thesis are "an intellectual disgrace, the single greatest disservice that the American historical profession has ever done to those who turn to it for guidance about the past and the etiology of present problems. Indeed, in many ways this denial of the consequences of slavery is worse than the more than two centuries of racist historiography that preceded it" (1998, p. xiii).

Because states did not recognize the legal marriage between enslaved peoples, for decades historians assumed that there was no marriage, and hence no slave family as one would understand it in more modern times. In the 1960s and 1970s, however, a group of social historians and others interested in the family, especially labor historian Herbert Gutman, investigated plantation records, census documents, naming patterns, slave autobiographies, and former slave narratives. They found compelling evidence of strong African American families even within the horrible constraints of slavery. In slavery, African Americans maintained both marriages and family, and the recognition of the father-husband by both the enslaved people and the white community was evident. The enslaved people's commitment to family against all odds can only be described as truly heroic.

Demographic studies exploring the natural increase in the population of slaves concluded that slaves in the southern United States had a strong social base. Only in the United States did a slave population ever reproduce itself, and the birthrates for enslaved peoples approached that of the white population. Stable families provided physical, emotional, and cultural support for childbirth and child rearing. Yet slaves understood the tenuous position of their families. Members could be punished or sold at the owner's discretion or whim. Still, families remained a central institution and integral to the slave community. The two-parent family was a common form of slave family in a variety of locations and sizes; unions between husbands and wives and parents and children often endured for many years. African American parents headed these families; they loved and cared for their children and each other.

Although slaves arranged themselves in family units, they differed from white families in significant ways. Although not legally recognized, planters did allow marriage as a social institution, and slaves themselves chose to live in couples and family units. U.S. senator and proslavery advocate, James Henry Hammond (1807–1864), wrote in his rules for governing slaves that "Marriage is to be encouraged as it adds to the comfort, happiness & health of those who enter upon it, besides insuring a greater increase" (1831–1855, p. 36).

Slave families also differed from white southern families because, by law, the slave father was not the legal head; the slave owner was, a situation impossible to compare to the white family. Also different from the white situation, the law gave the slave mother rather than the slave father the determining role in ascribing the status of the children. In the mid-1600s, when so many of the fathers were free and white, various colonies decided that "all children born in this country shall be held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother" (Stevenson 1993, p. 1045). This goes against the patriarchal notion that fathers owned the children, but the legal ownership was still, usually, that of a male, only it was the white male.

African Americans under slavery had divorce as an option, which was usually withheld from white southerners. Some owners made it harder than others. "When sufficient cause can be shown on either side, a marriage may be annulled, but the offending party must be severely punished," wrote Hammond in his Edgefield plantation rule book (1831–1855, p. 36). Churches were integrated in the South before the Civil War (1861–1865) and some churches even allowed for divorce for enslaved people, especially when a spouse was sold away. Thus, whereas whites could not obtain a divorce, slaves were able to obtain church-sanctioned separations.

While many scholars agree that some slaves lived in families, the extent of such family life is still a cause of debate. Studies of slave communities have shown a wide variety of family structures and dynamics, and more is needed of these local and regional studies. One scholar of low-country rice plantations in South Carolina, Leslie A. Schwalm (1997), found a predominance of extended families and extrafamilial relationships rather than maleheaded nuclear families. In a study of slavery in colonial and antebellum Virginia, another scholar concluded "neither monogamous marriages nor nuclear families dominated slave family forms" (Stevenson 1995, p. 52). Still other historians hold that slaves formed male-headed households to the extent their situation allowed.

The slave family itself was a major source of solace for slaves and the basis of community. Using more African American testimony, especially the New Deal Works Progress Administration former slave narratives, a group of historians responded to critiques of slavery as totally repressing the enslaved peoples so that their culture only mimicked white society. By looking at the enslaved people and describing their modes of resistance and formation of a unique culture, historians such as John Blassingame argued for cultural resiliency, separate spheres, and strong slave families. People who lived under the bonds of slavery still lived outside the control of whites. Africans and their descendants, despite difficulties, created a community that provided some protection from the worst abuses of slavery. They, or their forbearers, had once been members of widely disparate African ethnic groups—speaking a variety of languages and coming from different social backgrounds. They incorporated elements of their own traditions with European languages, religions, and cultures—and with some American Indian ingredients as well—and laid the foundations for the vibrant African American community that would see its members through the vicissitudes of American history. They found ways to offer resistance (both active and passive) to have family lives, spirituality, and community—not just to persevere, but to live, in the harshest of circumstances. Enslaved people were more than slaves; they were mothers, fathers, aunts, preachers, artisans, rebel, rogue, and a myriad of other identities that made up a slave community.

Historians do agree that masters and slaves struggled over the boundaries of slavery and freedom. Recently historians teeter between victimization, the cost of slavery to enslaved people and to American society, and the resilience and accomplishments of enslaved peoples. Historian Ira Berlin wrote, "the slaves' history—like all human history—was made not only by what was done to them but also by what they did for themselves" (2003, p. 4). While not ignoring slavery's harshness, and not contending that the cultural achievement of the slaves was an easy one, this group of slave community scholars found that, within the unfreedom of slavery, enslaved men and women created areas of control outside of white supervision.


Berlin, Ira. Generations of Captivity: A History of African American Slaves. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003.

Hammond, James Henry. "Silver Plantation Stock and Crop Book." In Papers of James Henry Hammond and Hammond and Beech Island Farmer's Club. Columbia: University of South Carolina, 1831–1855.

Patterson, Orlando. Rituals of Blood: Consequences of Slavery in Two American Centuries. Washington, DC: Civitas/Counter Point, 1998.

Schwalm, Leslie A. A Hard Fight for We: Women's Transition from Slavery to Freedom in South Carolina. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997.

Stevenson, Brenda. "Slavery." In Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, ed. Darlene Clark Hine. Brooklyn, NY: Carlson, 1993.

Stevenson, Brenda. "Black Family Structure in Colonial and Antebellum Virginia: Amending the Revisionist Perspective." In The Decline of Marriage among African Americans: Causes, Consequences, and Policy Implications, ed. M. Belinda Tucker and Claudia Mitchell-Kernan. New York: Russel Sage Foundation, 1995.

                             Orville Vernon Burton

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Family and Community Overview

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