Americans have long viewed marriage between a white man and a white woman as a sacred union. But marriages between African Americans have seldom been treated with the same reverence. This discriminatory legacy traces back to centuries of slavery, when the overwhelming majority of black married couples were bound in servitude as well as wedlock. Though their unions were not legally recognized, slaves commonly married, fully aware that their marital bonds would be sustained or nullified according to the whims of white masters.
Bound In Wedlock: Slave and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century
(Harvard UP, 2017) is the first comprehensive history of African American marriage in the nineteenth century. Uncovering the experiences of African American spouses in plantation records, legal and court documents, and pension files, Tera W. Hunter reveals the myriad ways couples adopted, adapted, revised, and rejected white Christian ideas of marriage. Setting their own standards for conjugal relationships, enslaved husbands and wives were creative and, of necessity, practical in starting and supporting families under conditions of uncertainty and cruelty.
After emancipation, white racism continued to menace black marriages. Laws passed during Reconstruction, ostensibly to secure the civil rights of newly freed African American citizens, were often coercive and repressive. Informal antebellum traditions of marriage were criminalized, and the new legal regime became a convenient tool for plantation owners to discipline agricultural workers. Recognition of the right of African Americans to enter into wedlock on terms equal to whites would remain a struggle into the Jim Crow era, and its legacy would resonate well into the twentieth century.
Tera W. Hunter
is the Edwards Professor of American History and Professor of African-American Studies at Princeton University. A specialist in 19th and 20th century African American history, her research focuses on gender, race, labor, and Southern histories.
Jerrad P. Pacatte is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey-New Brunswick studying eighteenth and nineteenth century African American women’s history, slavery and emancipation in colonial America and the Atlantic world, and the history of slavery and capitalism. Follow him on Twitter @Jerrad_Pacatte!