The Master's Family

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The Master's Family

Information about the families of slave masters appears in bits and pieces in the narratives of slaves. In his autobiography, The Life of Moses Grandy, one slave describes some of his interactions with his master's family, beginning with his master's attempt to sell him to another slaveholder:

But, at length, persons came who agreed to give the prices he set on us. His wife, with much to be done, prevailed on him not to sell me…. My young master and I used to play together; there was but two days difference in our ages. My old master always said he would give me to him. When he died, all the colored people were divided amongst his children, and I fell to young master; his name was James Grandy…. When my master came of age, he took all his colored people to himself. Seeing that I was industrious and persevering, and had obtained plenty of work, he made me pay him almost twice as much as I paid Mr. Furley. (1844, p. 9)

William Wells Brown (1815–1884), author of Narrative of William W. Brown, speaks of being taken from the fields to work in the master's house: "I was taken out of the field to work in the house as a waiter. Though his wife was very peevish, and hard to please, I preferred to be under her control than the overseer's" (1847, p. 35). When Brown's master moved to the city he brought with him other family members:

They brought with them Mr. Sloan, a Presbyterian minister; Miss Martha Tulley, a niece of theirs from Kentucky; and their nephew William. The latter had been in the family a number of years, but the others were all new comers…. My master and mistress were great lovers of mint julep, and every morning, a pitcher-full was made, of which they all partook freely, not excepting little master William. After drinking freely all round, they would have family worship, and then breakfast…. My master's family consisted of himself, his wife, and their nephew, William Moore. He was taken into the family when only a few weeks of age. His name being that of my own, mine was changed, for the purpose of giving precedence to his, though I was the senior by ten or twelve years (p. 38).

Other sources that provide some information about the master's family are found in the Works Progress Administration (WPA) narratives. Ex-slave George Fleming recalls his master's family affectionately:

Missus Harriet, dat Marse Sam's wife, she give us a looking glass so we could see how to fix up. Lawd a mercy, Missus Harriet was one fine woman. She allus after us to see dat we didn't suffer nothing. Marse Sam's boys, Lyntt and Frank, sho was tigers, but cose dey wasn't mean tigers. They had real long beards. Marse Lyntt was my young master, and he the bestest man I ever know'd, cepting his daddy. He allus doing something to have fun outen us lil' niggers, 'cause we got fun outen it too. I member how he used to sot us in the hog pen, but we wasn't scared as we 'lowed we was (Born in Slavery, 2001, South Carolina Narratives, entry 11).

In fact, the slave and his family and the master and his family were, more often than not, a team, sharing the burden of work together in the field. Unfortunately, the partnership did not extend to sharing profits.


Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936–1938, Library of Congress, Manuscript Division. Washington, DC: 2001. Available online from

Brown, William Wells. Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave. Boston: Anti-Slavery Office, 1847.

Five Slave Narratives: A Compendium. New York: Arno Press, 1968.

Goodwin, C. James, and Thelma Kirpatrick. Official Manual State of Missouri, 1973–1974. Jefferson City, MO: Von Hoffman Press, 1974.

Grandy, Moses. Narrative of the Life of Moses Grandy; Late a Slave in the United States of America. Boston: O. Johnson, 1844.

                          Johnnie M. Maberry-Gilbert

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The Master's Family

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