Slavery and the Making of AmericaPhoto of a slave family on a plantation in Georgia
Time and Place Slave Memories Resources The Slave Experience

The Slave Experience: Family
Intro Historical Overview Character Spotlight All in the Family Personal Narratives Original Docs
Historical Overview The Family
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The Revolutionary period saw another metamorphosis of the black family as the Northern states abolished slavery, the South opened up to interstate slave trade, and planters moved West. While the newly free blacks of the North started laying the foundations for stable communities centered on the family, the life of the slave family in the South was destabilized. As the geographic center of the agricultural economy shifted, the devastation of slave families became more frequent.

Economic benefit almost always outweighed considerations of family ties for planters, even those who were advocates of long-lasting relationships between slaves.
'Buy Us Too' -- an illustration depicting a black family being separated
"The Parting -- Buy Us Too." Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
Because of the high premium placed on male labor, throughout every period of American slavery, black men were the most likely to be parted from their families. For slave owners, who considered the basic family unit to be comprised of mother and child, husbands and fathers could be, and were, easily replaced. Many a slave woman was assigned a new husband by her master. Male children were also frequently taken from slave mothers. The bond between an enslaved mother and daughter was the least likely to be disturbed through sale. Yet this tie was also fragile. Owners could reap large returns by selling pretty girls, especially light-skinned ones, into prostitution or concubinage.

Picture of an African-American nurse and her charge
African-American nurse and her charge. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
The possibility of separation was an ever-present threat to every member of a slave family. When a master died, his slaves might be indiscriminately distributed among his heirs or sold off to multiple buyers. When a planter's child was born or married, he or she might receive the gift of a black attendant. Mothers were taken from their own children to nurse the offspring of their masters. And slave children were torn from mothers and brought into the house to be raised alongside the master's sons and daughters.

The prevalence of single mothers and orphaned children on plantations in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially, necessitated communal parenting, focused on maternal figures. On smaller farms and plantations, a mother might bring her children with her out into the fields when she worked. On larger plantations, however, children were left behind, often cared for by "aunts" or "grannies," older women no longer useful as field hands.

Photo of group of slaves on a Beaufort, South Carolina plantation
Group of slaves on a Beaufort, South Carolina plantation. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Civil War Photographs.
Extended families not only ensured that their members were physically provided for, but they also offered emotional support. Watching a mother, a husband, or a child being beaten or otherwise brutalized, could be as painful as losing that person. Indeed, some parents wished that death would liberate their children from the horrors of slavery. The extended system of kinship central to African society, thus, found new purposes within the institution of American slavery.

Slaves took risks to maintain relationships, sneaking away to visit relatives on neighboring plantations. They expressed deep grief and horror over the cruelties they saw inflicted upon their loved ones. They often faced abuse in order to protect their kin. And they accepted responsibility for the welfare of children who were not their own. After Emancipation, newly freed slaves traveled the roads of the south and placed ads in papers in efforts to reunite with family members. Despite the inconsistencies of slave life and the ever-changing circumstances of slavery in America, enslaved men and women demonstrated an unwavering understanding of the value of family. Whatever advantages slave unions held for an owner, for the enslaved man, woman, or child, the family was an incomparable source of solace and strength and a primary means of survival.

Jennifer Hallam holds a doctorate in the History of Art from the University of Pennsylvania. Her studies focus on issues of sex and gender as they are manifest in material culture. She is currently working in documentary film production in New York City.
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