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Biography Looking Back

Family Life and Freedom

Immediately following emancipation, African American men, women and children faced the challenge of building new lives and reorganizing not just their communities, but of restoring their families.

Under slavery, African Americans had no legal control over their lives or relationships: as property, owners determined their conditions and status. But while marriages had not been recognized legally, unofficial ceremonies were conducted, and enslaved people formed families.

These families, however, were always imperiled. Family members were often separated as slaves were traded, husbands, wives, and children sold or rented out individually to work in other cities or states, sometimes never to see one another again. Since couples and biological relatives could be separated by sale or death at any time, enslaved people developed close bonds, relations, and extended kinship networks with other slaves who lived in proximity, perhaps on the same plantation or in the vicinity.

As newly emancipated African Americans restructured their domestic lives, for most the first order of business was to locate and reunite with family members who had been sold off or removed by overseers and masters. Many former slaves turned to the Freedmen's Bureau (the federal institution charged with assisting newly freed people in the Southern states) for help. Their correspondence reveals that thousands of people, with scant specific knowledge of their loved ones' whereabouts, attempted to identify lost family members in the years immediately after emancipation. Successful or not, many African Americans moved from the places where they had been enslaved, while others remained in place, carving out new lives.

A second major challenge was to reorganize and mobilize their labor so that they could realize liberty on their own terms. Households of extended family and kin expected each member to make contributions to their well-being so that children and elders, men and women contributed to their collective welfare.

Mae Jemison's paternal ancestors -- who were enslaved in Talladega County, Alabama -- continued to work as laborers where they once had been slaves. The decision to settle on and near the plantation where they had been enslaved may reflect their commitment to maintaining their extensive social and familial networks as well as the limited economic opportunities faced by newly freed people. According to the census records of 1870, 47 people, black and mulatto, lived in groups on or near the Jemison estate, working in many of the same positions that they may have held as slaves: men, women and children toiled as farm laborers, domestic workers, and servants.

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