Enslaved Couples Faced Wrenching Separations, or Even Choosing Family Over FreedomBreaking News
tags: slavery, family history, African American history, marriage
Tera W. Hunter is professor of history and African American studies at Princeton University and the author of Bound in Slavery and To Joy My Freedom, among other books. Follow her on Twitter: @TeraWHunter.
For enslaved African Americans, the ideal of marriage as an enduring lifelong bond was rarely an option. When couples stood before clergy or other officiants, they couldn’t share the traditional, age-old promises of permanent fidelity because their vows had a built-in asterisk: “Do you take this woman or this man to be your spouse—until death or distance do you part?”
Understanding those altered words, couples married with trepidation, fully aware of the turmoil that might result from trying to maintain and nurture their ties while enslaved. Still, they continually took leaps of faith, driven by burning passions to form families of their choosing—and create fundamental human bonds that could help soften the harsh conditions of human bondage.
These leaps were necessary because, for nearly 250 years, the vast majority of African Americans were considered chattel property. Within this system, white slaveholders made all the decisions: They determined whether and when enslaved people could wed. They split them apart when finances dictated. They sometimes chose who would marry who. Or brazenly violated enslaved couples’ marriages by forcing the women to serve as their own concubines. And those in political power set laws that made it exceedingly difficult for freed black people to reside for long near their still-enslaved families without being sucked back into the harrowing state of bondage themselves.
Since marriage was both a civil right and a religious rite afforded only to those with legal standing, enslaved people, who had no recognizable standing in society, could not make contracts of any kind. Their marriages were neither legally binding, nor sanctified by the Christian church, which routinely allowed one of its holiest rites to be tarnished by power, money and whim. Property owners were its leading constituents, and their rights prevailed over human rights. So enslaved people were forced to settle for conditional unions that could be torn asunder at any time.
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