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Family Life, African American Families under Slavery

Benevolent societies, slave catchers, slave families, marriage partners, African families

African family traditions, which varied according to national origin and religion, could not be replicated in the New World after Africans were forced into slavery. The slave trade was responsible for breaking up African families, and husbands, wives, and children were liable to be sold separately because U.S. law did not legally recognize their families.

Enslaved Americans were denied a secure family life. Because enslaved men and women were property and could not legally marry, a permanent family could not be a guaranteed part of an African American slave’s life. They had no right to live or stay together, no right to their own children, and it was common for slave parents and children to live apart. Parents could not protect their children from the will of the master, who could separate them at any time. About one-third of slave families suffered permanent separation caused by the sale of family members to distant regions. This might occur to punish some infraction of plantation rules, to make money, to settle an estate after a death in the owner’s family, or to pay back a debt.

For the majority of slaves, who lived on small plantations with only a few other enslaved people, marriage partners had to be found on other farms. Meetings between a husband and a wife could occur only with the permission of the husband’s owner. Children stayed with their mothers. Schooling was not an option for enslaved children, and in most states it was illegal to teach slaves to read and write. The most common reason for slaves to run away was to see family members, if only briefly, although slave women rarely took to the roads both because it was not safe for women to travel alone and because it was difficult to travel with young children. For enslaved people on large plantations, it might be possible to find a partner owned by the same master, although couples could be assigned to different parcels of land or different areas of the plantation, or even to the vacation or city homes of the owner. The Christmas holiday, the one break from work during the year for slaves, was anticipated with excitement because it allowed separated family members to meet and spend a week together. Despite the fragility of familial bonds under slavery, enslaved men and women considered themselves married, recognized their kin in the names they gave their children, looked after their relatives and friends in cases of separation, and protected each other as much as possible.

Slavery and servitude was virtually abolished between the 1770s and the 1830s in the Northern states. This meant that African Americans could legally establish families in the North. Black churches married couples, baptized their children, and recorded the new surnames that former slaves chose for themselves. Benevolent societies looked out for their members' welfare. Slaves who escaped from slaveholding areas were sheltered and moved to safer locations. Mothers and fathers both worked so their children could become educated. Although African American families in the North faced discrimination and poverty, and worried about being kidnapped by slave catchers, they had hope of maintaining their family ties.



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