By Jueseppi B.
The Destruction of the Black Family- Part 1
I ’member he had a real pretty gal on his place. . . One of the overseers was crazy about her, but her mother had told her not to let any of ’em go with her. So this old overseer would stick clo…se ’round her when they was workin’, just so he could get a chance to say somethin’ to her. He kept followin’ this child and followin’ this child until she almost went crazy. Way afterwhile she run away and come to our house and and stayed ’bout three days.
When my marster found out she was there, he told her she would have to go back, or at least she would have to leave his place. He didn’t want no trouble with nobody. When that child left us she stayed in the woods until she got so hungry she just had to go back. This old man was mad with her for leavin’, and one day while she was in the field he started at her again and she told him flat footed she warn’t goin’ with him he took the big end of his cow hide and struck her in the back so hard it knocked her plumb crazy. It was a big lake of water about ten yards in front of ’em, and if her mother hadn’t run and caught her she would have walked right in it and drowned.
In them times white men went with colored gals and women bold[ly]. Any time they saw one and wanted her, she had to go with him, and his wife didn’t say nothin’ ’bout it. Not only the men, but the women went with colored men too. That’s why so many women slave owners wouldn’t marry, ’cause they was goin’ with one of their slaves. These things that’s goin’ on now ain’t new, they been happenin’. That’s why I say you just as well leave ’em alone ’cause they gwine [going] to do what they want to anyhow. . . .
. . Now sometimes, if you was a real pretty young gal, somebody would buy you without knowin’ anythin’ ’bout you, just for yourself. Before my old marster died, he had a pretty gal he was goin’ with and he wouldn’t let her work nowhere but in the house, and his wife nor nobody else didn’t say nothin’ ’bout it; they knowed better. She had three chillun for him and when he died his brother come and got the gal and the chillun.
One white lady that lived near us at McBean slipped in a colored gal’s room and cut her baby’s head clean off ’cause it belonged to her husband. He beat her ’bout it and started to kill her, but she begged so I reckon he got to feelin’ sorry for her. But he kept goin’ with the colored gal and they had more chillun.
The Destruction of the Black Family- Part 2
. . . But I now entered on my fifteenth year — a sad epoch in the life of a slave girl. My master began to whisper foul words in my ear. Young as I was, I could not remain ignorant of their import… [mean- ing]. I tried to treat them with indifference or contempt. . . He tried his utmost to corrupt the pure principles my grandmother had instilled.
He peopled my young mind with unclean images, such as only a vile monster could think of. I turned from him with disgust and hatred. But he was my master. I was compelled to live under the same roof with him — where I saw a man forty years my senior daily violating the most sacred commandments of nature. He told me I was his property, that I must be subject to his will in all things. My soul revolted against the mean tyranny. But where could I turn for protection? No matter whether the slave girl be as black as ebony or as fair as her mistress.
In either case, there is no shadow of law to protect her from insult, from violence, or even from death; all these are inflicted by fiends who bear the shape of men. The mistress, who ought to protect the helpless victim, has no other feelings towards her but those of jealousy and rage. The degradation, the wrongs, the vices, that grow out of slavery, are more than I can describe. They are greater than you would willingly believe. . . .
. . . If God has bestowed beauty upon her [a female slave], it will prove her greatest curse. That which commands admiration in the white woman only hastens the degradation of the female slave. I know that some are too much brutalized by slavery to feel the humiliation of their position; but many slaves feel it most acutely and shrink from the memory of it. I cannot tell how much I suffered in the presence of these wrongs, nor how I am still pained by the retrospect. My master met me at every turn, reminding me that I belonged to him, and swearing by heaven and earth that he would compel me to submit to him. If I went out for a breath of fresh air after a day of unwearied toil, his footsteps dogged me.
If I knelt by my mother’s grave, his dark shadow fell on me even there. The light heart which nature had given me became heavy with sad forebodings. The other slaves in my master’s house noticed the change. Many of them pitied me, but none dared to ask the cause. They had no need to inquire. They knew too well the guilty practices under that roof, and they were aware that to speak of them was an offense that never went unpunished. . . .
The secrets of slavery are concealed like those of the Inquisition. My master was, to my knowledge, the father of eleven slaves. But did the mothers dare to tell who was the father of their children? Did the other slaves dare to allude to it, except in whispers among themselves? No, indeed! They knew too well the terrible consequences. . . .
Southern women often marry a man knowing that he is the father of many little slaves. They do not trouble themselves about it. They regard such children as property, as marketable as the pigs on the plantation, and it is seldom that they do not make them aware of this by passing them into the slave- trader’s hands as soon as possible, and thus getting them out of their sight. . . .
No pen can give an adequate description of the all-pervading corruption produced by slavery. The slave girl is reared in an atmosphere of licentiousness and fear. The lash and the foul talk of her master and his sons are her teachers. When she is fourteen or fifteen, her owner, or his sons, or the overseer, or perhaps all of them, begin to bribe her with presents. If these fail to accomplish their purpose, she is whipped or starved into submission to their will. She may have had religious principles inculcated by some pious mother or grandmother or some good mistress; she may have a lover whose good opinion and peace of mind are dear to her heart; or the profligate men who have power over her may be exceedingly odious to her. But resistance is hopeless.
“The poor worm
Shall prove her contest vain. Life’s little day Shall pass, and she is gone!”
The slaveholder’s sons are, of course, vitiated, even while boys, by the unclean influences everywhere around them. Nor do the master’s daughters always escape. Severe retributions sometimes come upon him for the wrongs he does to the daughters of the slaves. The white daughters early hear their parents quarrelling about some female slave. Their curiosity is excited, and they soon learn the cause. They are attended by the young slave girls whom their father has corrupted; and they hear such talk as should never meet youthful ears or any other ears.
They know that the women slaves are subject to their father’s authority in all things, and in some cases they exercise the same authority over the men slaves. I have myself seen the master of such a household whose head was bowed down in shame, for it was known in the neighborhood that his daughter had selected one of the meanest slaves on his plantation to be the father of his first grandchild.
She did not make her advances to her equals nor even to her father’s more intelligent servants. She selected the most brutalized, over whom her authority could be exercised with less fear of exposure. Her father, half frantic with rage, sought to revenge himself on the offending black man, but his daughter, foreseeing the storm that would arise, had given him free papers and sent him out of the state.
n such cases the infant is smothered or sent where it is never seen by any who know its history. But if the white parent is the father, instead of the mother, the offspring are unblushingly reared for the market. If they are girls, I have indicated plainly enough what will be their inevitable destiny.
You may believe what I say, for I write only that whereof I know. I was twenty-one years in that cage of obscene birds. I can testify from my own experience and observation that slavery is a curse to the whites as well as to the blacks. It makes the white fathers cruel and sensual, the sons violent and licentious. It contaminates the daughters and makes the wives wretched. And as for the colored race, it needs an abler pen than mine to describe the extremity of their sufferings, the depth of their degradation.
Yet few slaveholders seem to be aware of the widespread moral ruin occasioned by this wicked system. Their talk is of blighted cotton crops — not of the blight on their children’s souls.
If you want to be fully convinced of the abominations of slavery, go on a southern plantation and call yourself a negro trader. Then there will be no concealment, and you will see and hear things that will seem to you impossible among human beings with immortal souls.
The Destruction of the Black Family -Part 3: Colorism
The children of white fathers and slave mothers were mixed-race slaves, whose appearance was generally classified as mulatto (this term originally meant a person with white and black… parents, but then encompassed any mixed-race person). By the turn of the 19th century many mixed-race families in Virginia dated to colonial times; white women (generally indentured servants) had unions with slave and free African-descended men. Because of the mother’s status, those children were born free and often married other free people of color.
Given the generations of interaction, an increasing number of slaves in the United States during the 19th century were of mixed race. In the United States, children of mulatto and black slaves were also generally classified as mulatto. With each generation, the number of mixed-race slaves increased. The 1850 census identified 245,000 slaves as mulatto; by 1860, there were 411,000 slaves classified as mulatto out of a total slave population of 3,900,000. As noted above, some mixed-race people won freedom from slavery or were born as free blacks.
If free (depending on state law), some mulattoes were legally classified as white because they had more than one-half to seven-eighths white ancestry. Questions of social status were often settled in court, but a person’s acceptance by neighbors, satisfaction of citizen obligations and other aspects of social status were more important than lineage in determining “whiteness”.
Notable examples of mostly-white children born into slavery were the “natural” children of Thomas Jefferson by his mixed-race slave Sally Hemings, who was three-quarters white by ancestry. Since 2000 historians have widely accepted Jefferson’s paternity; the change in scholarship has been reflected in exhibits at Monticello and in recent books about Jefferson and his era. Some historians, however, continue to disagree with this conclusion.
Speculation exists on the reasons George Washington freed his slaves in his will. One theory posits that the slaves included two half-sisters of his wife, Martha Custis. Those mixed-race slaves were born to slave women owned by Martha’s father, and were regarded within the family as having been sired by him. Washington became the owner of Martha Custis’ slaves (under Virginia law) when he married her, and faced the ethical conundrum of owning his wife’s sisters.
As in Thomas Jefferson’s household, the use of lighter-skinned slaves as household servants was not simply a choice related to skin color. Sometimes planters used mixed-race slaves as house servants (or favored artisans) because they were their children, or otherwise relatives. Six of Jefferson’s later household slaves were the grown children of his father-in-law John Wayles and his slave mistress Betty Hemings. Half-siblings of Jefferson’s wife Martha, they were inherited by her (with Betty Hemings and other slaves) a year after her marriage to Jefferson following the death of her father. At that time, some of the Hemings-Wayles children were very young; Sally Hemings was an infant. They were trained as domestic and skilled servants, and headed the slave hierarchy at Monticello.
Since 2000, historians have widely accepted that the widowed Jefferson had a nearly four-decade relationship with Sally Hemings, the youngest daughter of Wayles and Betty. It was believed to have begun when he was US minister in Paris, and she was part of his household. Sally was nearly 25 years younger than his late wife; Jefferson had six children of record with her, four of whom survived. Jefferson had his three mixed-race sons by Hemings trained as carpenters (a skilled occupation) so they could earn a living after he freed them when they came of age. Three of his four children by Hemings (including his daughter Harriet, the only slave woman he freed) “passed” into white society as adults because of their appearance. Some historians disagree with these conclusions about Jefferson’s paternity; see Jefferson-Hemings controversy.
Planters with mixed-race children sometimes arranged for their education (occasionally in northern schools) or apprenticeship in skilled trades and crafts. Others settled property on them, or otherwise passed on social capital by freeing the children and their mothers. While fewer in number than in the Upper South, free blacks in the Deep South were often mixed-race children of wealthy planters and sometimes benefited from transfers of property and social capital.
Wilberforce University, founded by Methodist and African Methodist Episcopal (AME) representatives in Ohio in 1856 for the education of African-American youth, was during its early history largely supported by wealthy southern planters who paid for the education of their mixed-race children. When the American Civil War broke out, the majority of the school’s 200 students were of mixed race and from such wealthy Southern families. The college closed for several years before the AME Church bought and operated it.
In many households, the treatment of slaves depended on the slave’s skin color. Darker-skinned slaves worked in the fields, while lighter-skinned house servants (sometimes the children of the master or his son) had better clothing, food and housing.
Where did the separation between skin tones come from?
Willie Lynch delivered a speech at the Virginia colony on the Bank of James River in 1712. Lynch was a British slave owner in the West Indies invited to teach others his ways of controlling slave.
The Making of a Slave
Color differentiation was one of his methods.
In his exact words, “You must use the dark skin slaves vs. the light skin slaves, and the light skin slaves vs. the dark skin slaves.”
He emphasized pitting dark against light
During the years of slavery in America this dark vs. light method was implemented.
•Dark-skinned slaves were made to do field work outside.
•Light-skinned slaves were allowed to take care of the daily house duties inside.
This approach turned the slaves against each other splitting them into two groups, light and dark-skinned.
Distrust is stronger than trust and envy stronger than adulation, respect, or admiration
– Willie Lynch.
The Destruction of the Black Family- Part 4
By the 19th century, popular Southern literature characterized female slaves as lustful and promiscuous “Jezebels” who shamelessly tempted white owners into sexual relations. This stereotype of the promiscuous slave was partially motivated by the need to rationalize the sexual abuse of female slaves by white males. Edward Ball, in his Slaves in the Family, noted that it was more often the sons than the senior planters who took advantage of slave women before their marriages to white women. The stereotype was reinforced by female slaves’ working partially clothed, due to the hot climate. During slave auctions, females were sometimes displayed nude or only partially clothed. Sometimes, some were dressed “fancifully” for a different sort of trade…
To satisfy lustful desires the “Fancy” trade came in to existence. “Fancy” trade is when extremely light skinned female slaves Many female slaves were sold specifically to wealthy white southern men. Many lived as mistresses in the urban dwellings of the men who also had a wife and children on a rural plantation. Some women, or their children, eventually were freed by their owners. In rare cases, some even married their concubines.
Fine clothing was a critical aspect to the success of the slave traders who sold and the men who owned “fancy” girls. These Black women were not dressed as prostitutes, even though what was happening can be called nothing less than prostitution, but as fashionably “showy” ladies. On the auction blocks they wore clothing and jewelry of the latest fashion. This style continued after they were bought as concubines. Much like enslaved house servants, these women’s bodies were places for slaveholders to signify their social power by displaying their wealth. While dressing up meant a degree of freedom and an avenue of individual expression for most of the enslaved, for these women, fine clothing was another form of exploitation.
New Orleans and Lexington, Kentucky, had active markets in “fancy girls.” In the 1850s, beautiful teenage girls were valued at more than $1,500 (close to $30,000 in today’s dollars), which made them as “expensive” as prime male field hands. Buying a “fancy girl” was a status symbol for traders, gamblers, and saloonkeepers. Because New Orleans attracted a large population of gamblers, debauchees and revelers for Carnival, it was the largest market for those girls and young women who were sent there from the Upper South.
As you read this history, ask yourself, Did the “fancy” trade ever end? as I watch some of our television programming I still see the exploitation of Black women. Black women are still, by how they are portrayed as lustful and promiscuous “Jezebels.” The similarity gets deeper because they are dressed up, like Fancy girls, to be able to sell an image of how other Black women should view themselves and act in order to be successful. Recognize that this exploitation has never stopped and we must begin to control our own image.
The Destruction of the Black Family -Part 5: How we got over…
The Revolutionary period saw a 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. 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 enslaved women were 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 (“Fancy” trade).
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, which we still have today, 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.
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 (which was still a practice up until the eighties). 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.
As our ancestors “demonstrated an unwavering understanding of the value of family,” we must do the same thing if we are going to achieve a new state of being for the future. We must, again, recognize that we are all “in it together.” If anything is going to change, it starts, as they say, at home. It starts with all members of the family unit accepting responsibility for their role. It takes everyone in the family respecting each others position, and it also takes us realizing that it DOES take a village. We ARE in this together and the only way we are going to be successful is if we do it TOGETHER!
The Destruction of the Black Family -Part 6
For many enslaved African Americans, one of the cruelest hardships they endured was sexual abuse by the slave- holders, overseers, and other white men and women whose power to dominate them was complete. Enslaved women were forced to submit to their masters’ sexual advances, perhaps bearing children who would engender the rage of a master’s wife, and from whom they might be separated forever as a result. Masters forcibly paired “good breeders” to produce strong children they could sell at a high price. Resistance brought severe punishment, often death. “I know these facts will seem too awful to relate,” warns former slave William J. Anderson in his 1857 narrative, “. . . as they are some of the real ‘dark deeds of American Slavery.’”
Below is another account…
The slave traders would buy young and able farm men and well developed young girls with fine physique to barter and sell. They would bring them to the taverns where there would be the buyers and traders, display them and offer them for sale. At one of these gatherings a colored girl, a mulatto of fine stature and good looks, was put on sale. She was of high spirits and determined disposition. At night she was taken by the trader to his room to satisfy his bestial nature. She could not be coerced or forced, so she was attacked by him. In the struggle she grabbed a knife and with it, she sterilized him and from the result of injury he died the next day. She was charged with murder. Gen. Butler, hearing of it, sent troops to Charles County [Maryland] to protect her, they brought her to to Baltimore, later she was taken to Washington where she was set free. . . This attack was the result of being good looking, for which many a poor girl in Charles County paid the price. There are several cases I could mention, but they are distasteful to me. . . .
There was a doctor in the neighborhood who bought a girl and installed her on the place for his own use, his wife hearing it severely beat her. One day her little child was playing in the yard. It fell head down in a post hole filled with water and drowned. His wife left him; afterward she said it was an affliction put on her husband for his sins.
Let me explain to you very plain without prejudice one way or the other, I have had many opportunities, a chance to watch white men and women in my long career, colored women have many hard battles to fight to protect themselves from assault by employers, white male servants or by white men, many times not being able to protect themselves, in fear of losing their positions. Then on the other hand they were subjected to many impositions by the women of the household through woman’s jealousy.
The Destruction of the Black Family- Part 7: A history
When Africans were taken from their homes and forced into slavery, they were separated from mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers and were torn from extensive kinship networks. Enslaved in the British colonies of North America or the free states of the American Union, the ability of Africans to reestablish nuclear families and familial support systems depended on many factors including the needs and desires of the slave owner. As the circumstances of slavery changed across time and place, the opportunities for slaves to marry, have children, and create stable family units fluctuated.
Slave trade to the original thirteen colonies was slow and sporadic. In places like New York and Virginia, where small farming units were the norm, slaves were bought by handfuls rather than shiploads. The preference for male laborers limited the ability of most black slaves in early colonial society from developing relationships with black women. Among the Atlantic Creole population in New Amsterdam, however, a more balanced male to female ratio made as many as twenty-six marriages possible. These unions took place within the Dutch Reformed Church. The church became an institution through which New Amsterdam blacks were able to form independent familial units. In addition to marriage papers, archives of the Dutch Reformed Church contain baptism records that list children according to fathers rather than owners and name black godparents as witnesses.
Enslaved blacks attempted to provide for their family members financially, as well as spiritually. At a time when slavery was still a concept rather than a legal institution, blacks from New Amsterdam to the Chesapeake Bay used the courts to ensure the well-being of family members. Numerous slaves made bequests of property to wives or children in wills. The fluidity of the status of black people also allowed greater opportunities to achieve freedom for kin. Some parents contracted their children to masters under terms that guaranteed the children would be released from service after a specified number of years. Others attempted to buy loved ones out of slavery. Occasionally black men married white women, ensuring that their children would be born free.
As the plantation revolution swept across the South in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries and the terms of racial slavery were concretized in law, slaves found it increasingly difficult to form families. Not only did the law forbid interracial wedlock and deny blacks legal rights to marry each other, but the agricultural demands of Southern slave societies also continued to generate a disproportionate population of black men in the colonies.
By the early 1700s, however, planters in both the Chesapeake region and in the Southern low country were becoming aware that they could profit economically by promoting the families their slaves were struggling to create. Marriage, they reasoned, would make slaves content and therefore docile. What is more, stable unions would lead to reliable reproduction cycles. This idea of a self-renewing slave labor force was exploited on a grand scale for the first time on the plantations of late eighteenth century America, increasing in intensity after 1807 when Congress outlawed international slave trade.
The nature of the slave family varied depending on the form of agrarian activity taking place in a given region. Because tobacco planting required fewer slaves on a single farm, Chesapeake slave families were often spread across several plantations. Men and women in this region often “married abroad,” meaning that spouses had different owners and lived apart. In such cases, a husband, either with permission or surreptitiously, would usually visit his wife and children once or twice a week. The divisiveness of agricultural production in this area helped to foster a vast kinship network that linked several plantations. In contrast, the largest of “Cotton Kingdom” plantations required dozens of hands, making it more common to find whole families working and living together.
As industry attempted to keep up with agricultural output in the South, the number of African slaves in the North increased, rapidly replacing the first generation of Atlantic Creoles who had successfully organized into autonomous families. Unlike their Southern contemporaries, Northern slave owners had little interest in family formation among slaves. The nature of urban life and small-farm production made large workforces untenable and unnecessary. While the plantation master approved of, oversaw, and often arranged marriages among his slaves, the Northern master discouraged marital union and dissolved existing bonds by separating husbands and wives…
Black History Month 2014 Presents: Celebrating Black History Month; The Black History Moment Series.
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