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Some husbands and wives loved each other; some did not get along. Most parents loved their children and wanted to protect them. In some critical ways, though, the slavery that marked everything about their lives made these families very different. Belonging to another human being brought unique constrictions, disruptions, frustrations, and pain.
Slavery not only inhibited family formation but made stable, secure family life difficult if not impossible. Enslaved people could not legally marry in any American colony or state.
Colonial and state laws considered them property and commodities, not legal persons who could enter into contracts, and marriage was, and is, very much a legal contract.
This means that until when slavery ended in this country, the vast majority of African Americans could not legally marry. In northern states such as New York, Pennsylvania, or Massachusetts, where slavery had ended byfree African Americans could marry, but in the slave states of the South, many enslaved people entered into relationships that they treated like marriage; they considered themselves husbands and wives even though they knew that their unions were not protected by state laws.
A father might have one owner, his "wife" and children another.
Some enslaved people lived in nuclear families with a mother, father, and children. In these cases each family member belonged to the same owner. Others lived in near-nuclear families in which the father had a different owner than the mother and children. This use of unpaid labor to produce wealth lay at the heart of slavery in America.
Enslaved people usually worked from early in the morning until late at night. Women often returned to work shortly after giving birth, sometimes running from the fields during the day to feed their infants.
On large plantations or farms, it was common for children to come under the care of one enslaved woman who was designated to feed and watch over them during the day while their parents worked. Mulberry Plantation, South Carolina. On large plantations, slave cabins and the yards of the slave quarters served as the center of interactions among enslaved family members.
Here were spaces primarily occupied by African Americans, somewhat removed from the labor of slavery or the scrutiny of owners, overseers, and patrollers. Many former slaves described their mothers cooking meals in the fireplace and sewing or quilting late into the night.
Fathers fished and hunted, sometimes with their sons, to provide food to supplement the rations handed out by owners. Enslaved people held parties and prayer meetings in these cabins or far out in the woods beyond the hearing of whites.
In the space of the slave quarters, parents passed on lessons of loyalty; messages about how to treat people; and stories of family genealogy.
It was in the quarters that children watched adults create potions for healing, or select plants to produce dye for clothing.
It was here too, that adults whispered and cried about their impending sale by owners. Family separation through sale was a constant threat.
Enslaved people lived with the perpetual possibility of separation through the sale of one or more family members. A multitude of scenarios brought about sale. An enslaved person could be sold as part of an estate when his owner died, or because the owner needed to liquidate assets to pay off debts, or because the owner thought the enslaved person was a troublemaker.By the time I got to p.
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