When we think of marriage in the U.S., many of us think of love and choice and security and joy – and how we hope to have those things some day. We think of finding that special someone from all the people in the world and choosing them just as they choose us. We imagine ceremonies with the people we love as witnesses. Flowers and a party after. We think of happiness.
But under slavery, marriage was not always joy, and it as never legal.
Sometimes, of course, enslaved people met people they came to love, and then, the two might plan to marry. But this planning involved permissions – from the master or masters, if they lived on separate plantations. Then, there was not often a minister on hand, but maybe the master would perform a ceremony, maybe an enslaved man would say a few words. And the final step was jumping the broom, a symbolic act to symbolize a new life together.
A life together, yes. A new life, no. The next morning, the couple would rise to work again – still owned, just partnered, a comforting thing for some I imagine but also a threat. Here, now, is someone else who can be taken away.
Sometimes, too, these people did not get to choose the person they were with. As Margaret Wrinkle’s Wash reminds us, enslaved women were often forcibly impregnated by enslaved men, men who also had no choice about being “studded out” to help increased the number of slaves a plantation owner had. Sometimes unions were forced or refused by masters because of a master’s own attachment to a particular enslaved woman (or man, presumably) or because of a desire to punish one person or another. When you add these limitations and oppressions to the simple fact that many enslaved people never left their plantation and, thus, had little opportunity to meet more than the people they lived with, it becomes a little more troubling to think about slave marriages.
In the 1850s on his Hopewell Plantation, Gen. John Hartwell Cocke urged his slaves to marry. This is documented fact.
A couple of weeks ago when I gave a talk, someone asked about marriage among enslaved people on the Bremo plantations, and I told the group that there is not much in the record about the General’s thoughts on marriage. Someone there reminded me of this incidence at Hopewell, and I was glad of the reminder.
But the way that fact is read depends, in large part, on what you know and believe about slavery. The General wanted his people to marry because he wanted them to settle down. He wanted them to stop “promicuous” behavior. He wanted them controlled more fully. And in his mind, marriage was one tool for such control.
Of course, some enslaved people married for love . . . and those marriages makes me happy. But the institution of marriage under slavery – that’s a much more fraught topic . . . and perhaps it always is.
What are your thoughts about marriage for enslaved people? Do you have any family stories about marriage amongst your ancestors – wonderful or painful?