Family Structure: An Overview

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Family Structure: An Overview

Ex-slave Harriet Jacobs recounted a horrific scene she witnessed of a mother and her seven children being sold separately at a slave auction:

I saw a mother lead seven of her children to the auction-block. She knew that some of them would be taken from her; but they took all. The children were sold to a slave-trader, and their mother was bought by a man in her own town. Before night her children were all far away. She begged the trader to tell her where he intended to take them; this he refused to do…. I met that mother in the street, and her wild, haggard face lives to-day in my mind. She wrung her hands in anguish, and exclaimed, 'Gone! All gone! Why don't God kill me?' I had no words wherewith to comfort her. Instances of this kind are of daily, yea, of hourly occurrence (2001, p. 17).


The horrors African Americans faced under slavery created several obstacles for those who desired to maintain stable family structures. Slaves who wanted to preserve stable family units were at the complete mercy of masters who considered slaves their personal property, and therefore could at any time disrupt the family lives of their slaves: Husbands could be sold away from wives, wives away from husbands, and children from their parents; also, family members could be abused by their masters and other whites with impunity.

Despite these challenges slaves strived to form stable family units. Historians such as Herbert Gutman and Ann Patton Malone have presented evidence that the majority of slaves grew up in households where both parents were present in the lives of their children. Slaves also maintained extended, multigenerational family units that included grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and siblings. Finally, slaves who were not related often looked after one another. For example, a child who had been separated from his or her parents might be raised by someone unrelated. Slaves also went to great lengths to keep loved ones close, including running away to find estranged family members. The families that slaves formed provided a source of strength and hope for the majority of those in bondage.

SOURCE: Genovese, Eugene. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. New York: Vintage, 1976.

The scene recounted by Jacobs vividly describes the difficulties of forming a stable family life under slavery. Slaves were at the complete mercy of their masters: slaves could not marry without the consent of their masters; children and spouses could be punished or abused without consideration for the feelings of parents, wives, and husbands; and family members could be sold away from one another at any time without promise of ever being reunited. Ex-slave Mary Armstrong remembered one slave owner who seemed to delight in splitting up slave families, "He was so mean that he would never sell the man an' woman an' chillen to the same one. He would sell the man here, an' the women there, an' if they was chillen, he would sell them some place else. Oh, old Satan in torment wouldn' be no meaner than he … was to the slaves" (Rawick 1972–1979, vol. 2T, p. 66). However, despite these daily reminders of the horrors of slavery, African Americans strived to develop communities with coherent family structures; amazingly, they were often successful in doing so.

Family Stability, Patriarchy, and Related Issues

For at least a century after the end of American slavery there persisted a common belief that the slave family was a weak institution. The dislocation caused by the business concerns of one's master might force wives to take new husbands, force husbands to take new wives, and children might have to suddenly adapt to new family units. By charging that slaves changed partners often and abandoned children easily, some observers have asserted that slaves did not value their families as much as whites. There was also a self-serving motive on the part of whites to condemn the morals of slaves: this allowed whites to claim that the separation of families or the sexual exploitation of black women by white men had little effect on slaves (Genovese 1976, p. 461). In truth, ex-slave William Wells Brown's account of a mother pleading for the return of her child after it was given away better demonstrates the reality of the commitment slaves had for their families: "The mother as soon as she saw that her child was to be left, ran up to Mr. Walker [the slave trader who gave away her child], and falling upon her knees begged him to let her have her child; she clung around his legs, and cried, 'Oh, my child! My child! Master, do let me have my child'" (Osofsky 1969, pp. 191-192).

The reality that many male slaves were sold away from their wives and children, thereby in many cases diminishing the chance for a stable family unit that consisted of a mother, father, and children, has led some to assert that most slave families consisted primarily of a matriarch with a largely absent father. However, many historians have found that the majority of slave children grew up in families that included both a father and a mother. So for most slave children the reality was that a father was present in their lives. Ex-slave Will Adams remembered his father fondly, "I 'members when I was just walking good that pa would come in from the fiel' at night and take me out of bed, dress me, feed me, then play with me for hours" (Rawick 1972–1979, p. 10). Will Adams' experience was more common than not as slave parents sought to form stable families for their children.

During the late twentieth century historians began a revolution in thinking about the role of the family in the lives of slaves. Herbert Gutman found that by studying the birth records on a large South Carolina plantation, most of the slaves residing there came from multigenerational families and that most families consisted of a father, mother, and children. He also found that most of these marriages were long lasting, therefore enabling children to grow up in stable two-parent families. A similar study of Louisiana slaves, conducted by Ann Patton Malone, found that during the 1840s almost half of all slave households included children with a mother and father present. Both Gutman and Eugene Genovese have also concluded that by examining the black family in the post bellum South historians can demonstrate that the black family was a strong institution during slavery; according to Genovese, even stronger in the South than in the urban North. Therefore, both historians argued that by examining the strength of the black family after emancipation one may conclude that this stable structure did not instantly develop after emancipation. Instead, it reflects the strength of family ties during slavery. Genovese also wrote that the desire to maintain strong family bonds was reflected in the motivation of many runaway slaves, "Almost every study of runaway slaves uncovers the importance of the family motive: thousands of slaves ran away to find children, parents, wives, or husbands from whom they had been separated by sale (Genovese, p. 451).

John Blassingame described the slave family as "one of the most important survival mechanisms for the slave. In his family he found companionship, love, sexual gratification, sympathetic understanding of his sufferings; he learned how to avoid punishment, to cooperate with other blacks, and to maintain his self-esteem" (Blassingame 1972, p. 78). The owner of slaves had a pecuniary interest in allowing and even encouraging slaves to form family units. For one thing the children of these families would be his property and could be used as future laborers when they became old enough to perform labor. They could also be sold as human chattel to earn him a profit. Another incentive for the owner of slaves to support the creation of slave families was that stable family units made it less likely that slaves would escape. Genovese wrote, "The masters understood the strength of the marital and family ties among their slaves well enough to see in them a powerful means of social control (Genovese, p. 452). A father or mother with children would probably be less likely to run off and leave his or her spouse and children behind. Running away with a spouse and children in tow would have made recapture nearly assured as most areas of the South had slave patrols that were dedicated to catching runaways. Finally, slaves with families were more likely to be compliant. For example, owners were able to use the threat of selling a slave's spouse or children if the slave did not behave according to his or her master's wishes.

Slave Marriages

Even though the formation of family units was often encouraged, slave marriages were not recognized by the law. Despite this, slaves formed marriages with other slaves as well as with free blacks. After gaining permission from one's master the marriage ceremony was rather simple. Ex-slave Cora Armstrong recalled the ceremony, "The way slaves married in slavery time they jumped over the broom and when they separated they jumped backward over the broom" (Rawick 1972–1979, vol. 8B, p. 75). Of course the marriage of a slave couple was a precarious bond, fraught with potential peril. Henry Bibb, in his autobiography about his life as a slave in Kentucky, described the difficulties slave marriages faced: "There is no legal marriage among slaves of the South; I never saw or heard of such a thing in my life … every slaveholder is also the keeper of a house or houses of ill-fame. Licentious white men, can and do, enter at night or day the lodging places of slaves; break up the bonds of affection in families; destroy all their domestic and social union for life; and the laws of the country afford them no protection" (Osofsky, pp. 77-78). So even though slave owners had pecuniary incentives for encouraging stable family units they often disrupted these liaisons through their own sexual interactions with slaves, as well as the sale of spouses and children. Former slave Ruth Allen recalled, "My mother was a slave an' me daddy, the ol' devil was her ol' white master. My mammy didn' have any more to say about what they did with her than the rest of the slaves in them days … they kept mu mammy and me til' I was 'bout three years old, an' then when they saw I was goan 'a be much whiter and better lookin' than his own chilern' by his own wife, they sold me and mammy, an' got rid of us for good" (Rawick 1972–1979, vol. 2S, p. 101). The children resulting from these unions often grew up without the support of their father but, if lucky, might be looked after by an uncle or other male slave.

While many slave owners encouraged their slaves to marry within their own plantation community, many slaves married slaves and free blacks off the plantation. Such marriages created a looser family structure with the mother and children on one plantation and the father in another location. These partnerships were often called "abroad marriages," and sometimes resulted from a lack of possible mates on a slave's own plantation or the desire by a particular slave to select the mate of his or her own choice. Of course, abroad marriages had to be approved by the masters of both slaves. Abroad marriages also created the stress of not knowing how one's spouse was faring on a day-to-day basis. If a husband did not appear for a scheduled visit it might mean he was merely delayed, but it could also mean he had been sold away, never to be seen again. Abroad marriages also created a type of family structure that was more matrifocal in nature, with the mother bearing more responsibility for childrearing. Husbands and wives lacked the ability to see each other frequently, and their children grew up with a largely absent father.

Alternate Family Structures

Abroad marriages, slave sales, and other grim realities of slavery created a need for slaves to form alternative family structures. Many slave children were partly raised by aunts, uncles, older siblings, step-parents, and other slaves who were not relatives. Ex-slave Barney Alford recalled an older slave woman who looked after the slave children, "Ole Mammy 'Lit' wus mity ole en she lived in one corner of de big yard en she keered fur all de black chilluns …" (Rawick 1972–1979, vol. 6S, p. 23). Martha Griffith Browne, a former slave, recounted the first view of her new quarters when she, as a young girl, was sold away from her family: "There resting upon pallets of straw, like pigs in a litter, were groups of children … How strange, lonely, and forbidding appeared that tenement" (Browne 1969, p. 20). These children and the older woman who lived with them would become the child's new family. Many plantations also included multigenerational families, which meant that uncles, aunts, cousins, and grandparents were available to provide family support.

Slavery created incredible stresses on the slave family. However, despite the challenges, slaves created strong family bonds, and in many cases slaves were able to form two-parent households for raising children. Evidence of the strong bonds of families during slavery could be found in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War as African Americans traveled throughout both the North and South in search of children, spouses, and siblings that had been separated from them while in bondage. Many white contemporary observers were surprised at the commitment of African Americans to find these separated loved ones. Much of their surprise resulted from the widespread racist beliefs in the white community about the lack of strength of family bonds among slaves. Fortunately, through the reconstructive work of modern historians, one is able to see that slaves created strong family structures that helped them persevere.


Blassingame, John. The Slave Community. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972.

Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936–1938. Online collection of the Manuscript and Prints and Photographs Divisions of the Library of Congress. Available from

Browne, Martha Griffith. Autobiography of a Female Slave. New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969.

Genovese, Eugene. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. New York: Vintage, 1976.

Gutman, Herbert G. The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750–1925. New York: Vintage, 1976.

Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. New York: W. W. Norton, 2001.

Malone, Ann Patton. Sweet Chariot: Slave Family and Household Structure in Nineteenth-Century Louisiana. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992.

Osofsky, Gilbert, ed. Puttin' On Ole Massa: The Slave Narratives of Henry Bibb, William Wells Brown, and Solomon Northup, New York: Harper and Row, 1969.

Rawick, George P., ed. The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography. 19 vols. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1972–1979.

                                         Steven Barleen