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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersThe Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Theme: FreedomTheme: EnslavementTheme: CommunityTheme: IdentityTheme: Emancipation
Theme: Community

Slave family, Beaufort, SC, 1862
The Enslaved Family
- The enslaved family, selections from WPA narratives, 1930s (PDF)
- A family history, in Mattie Jackson narrative, 1866 (PDF)
- Buying one's grandson, letter of Cecar Pugh, 1841 (PDF)
- A family separated, letter of Maria Perkins, 1852

"I never knew a whole family to live together, till all were grown up, in my life," recalls Lewis Clarke of his twenty-five years enslaved in Kentucky.1 Families were separated due to sale, escape, early death from poor health, suicide, and murder by a slaveholder, overseer, slave patroller, or other dominant person. Separation also occurred within the plantation itself, e.g., by segregating "field slaves" from "house servants," removing children from parents to live together with a slave caretaker, or bringing children fathered by the slaveholder to live in the "Big House." How, then, did the slave family provide solace and identity? "What the family does, and what the family did for African Americans," writes historian Deborah White Gray, "was create a world outside of the world of work. It allowed for significant others. It allowed a male slave to be more than just a brute beast. It allowed him to be a father, to be a son. It allowed women to be mothers and to take on roles that were outside of that of a slave, of a servant."2 When did the enslaved child realize how his or her family life differed from the slave-holder's? How did enslaved adults cope with the forced disintegration of their families? Here we read a collection of texts—two letters, a memoir, and interview excerpts—to consider these questions. (See also Theme II: ENSLAVEMENT, #2, Sale.)

  1. The enslaved family. "If'n you wants to know what unhappiness means," states John Rudd, a former slave whose mother and brother were sold away, "jess'n you stand on the slave block and hear the auctioneer's voice selling you away from the folk you love." We begin with brief excerpts from the interviews of Rudd and thirty-six other former slaves, compiled in the 1930s by the Federal Writers' Project, a New Deal agency under the Works Progress Administration (WPA). They represent a wide range of experiences—family separation and reunion, voluntary and forced marriage, slaves who knew all or none of their close kin, a mother who abandoned her infant and a father who was voluntarily re-enslaved to be with his son. To return to John Rudd: "I'll say this to the whole world. Slavery was the worst curse ever visited on the people of the United States."

  2. A family history. Next we read selections from The Story of Mattie H. Jackson, written with her step-mother and published in 1866. Jackson's narrative is unusual for two features—it offers a rare multigenerational history of a slave family, and it concludes with the reunion of several separated family members after the Civil War. How does Mattie Jackson deal with the disappearance and re-appearance of members of her extended family? With whom does she live after the Civil War?

  3. Buying one's grandson. In 1841, a free "man of colour" named Cecar Pugh writes to a slaveholder in North Carolina, one of whose slaves might be his daughter. Very deferentially, Pugh asks to purchase one of her sons "to care care of me in this my decline of life." How does Pugh's letter reflect (a) a formerly enslaved man writing to a person of power and (b) a free man negotiating with another to buy a person? We do not know the outcome of Pugh's request.

  4. A family separated. Maria and Richard Perkins were an enslaved couple living on separate plantations in Virginia in 1852. A "heartsick" Maria writes her husband that her sale is imminent (a child having been sold four days earlier) and urges him to ask his master to buy her to keep a portion of her family together. We do not know the outcome of her desperate plea.
To contrast the experiences of enslaved and free families, see the selections of three free African Americans—Willis Hodges (Virginia), William Johnson (Mississippi), and Charlotte Forten (Massachusetts)—in Theme IV: IDENTITY. Also, note that in this toolbox the term "family" refers to the extended kin connections that enslaved Africans, and later African Americans, tried to maintain despite the hardships of slavery and the ever-present threat of being sold. Few slaves lived within the "nuclear family" structure of mother/father/children that is the Western norm, partly due to the realities of slavery and partly due to the African kin structures brought to the Americas. (16 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. How did enslaved people construct and maintain family ties on the plantation, across plantations, and at farther distances?
  2. How did the family create a "world outside of work" for the enslaved African American?
  3. How did slaves respond to the breakup of families? to losing a child or parent to a slave trader?
  4. How did family ties both provide solace and worsen grief?
  5. How does Mattie Jackson relate to her extended family of mother, step-mother, father, two step-fathers, and several siblings and half-siblings?
  6. Which relatives disappear from her life, and why? Which reappear, and why? How does she deal with the impermanent role of family in her life before freedom?
  7. Why does she escape alone?
  8. What can be inferred about the writers' predicaments from the letters of Maria Perkins and Cecar Pugh?
  9. How would the letters be different if Maria Perkins had written her owner and Cecar Pugh had written his daughter?
  10. How does Pugh's letter reflect (a) a formerly enslaved man writing to a white person of power and (b) a free man negotiating with another to buy a person? How does he balance these opposing voices?
  11. Compile the instances in these readings in which enslaved parents try to thwart the sale of a child or accompany a sold child. What can they do? Is there a pattern to the success or failure of their attempts?
  12. How did freed African Americans try to find relatives and re-create kin relationships, especially after the Civil War?

Framing Questions
  •  How did enslaved and free African Americans construct communal identities in antebellum America?
  •  What obstacles did they confront from white people? from other African Americans?
  •  How did they respond to these obstacles?
  •  How did African Americans exercise autonomy and influence through community?

WPA narratives:  9
Jackson narrative:  5
Pugh letter (buying a grandson):  1
Perkins letter (a family separated):  1
TOTAL 16 pages
Supplemental Sites
The Family, primary texts and resources, in Slavery and the Making of America (WNET/PBS)

Slave family life, in Digital History, from the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, et al.

Importance of family for enslaved people, by Deborah Gray White, Rutgers University, in Africans in America (WGBH/PBS)

"Family Life in the Slave Quarters: Survival Strategies," by Marie Jenkins Schwartz, University of Rhode Island-Kingston, in OAH Magazine of History, 15:4 (Summer 2001)

Families in Bondage, lesson plan in EDSITEment, from the National Endowment for the Humanities

Family Life and Social Development, section #6 in Flash-based web presentation Lest We Forget: The Triumph over Slavery, from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library

Maria Perkins letter, transcript with image of letter in her handwriting, in The Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War, from the Virginia Center for Digital History, University of Virginia

North American Slave Narratives, full text of nineteenth-century narratives, in Documenting the American South (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library) WPA Slave Narratives, 1936-1938, Library of Congress An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives, Norman A. Yetman (Library of Congress)

"Should the Slave Narrative Collection Be Used?," by Norman R. Yetman (Library of Congress)

Guidelines for Interviewers in Federal Writers' Project (WPA) on conducting and recording interviews with former slaves, 1937 (PDF)

General Resources in African American History & Literature, 1500-1865

1 Lewis Garrard Clarke, Narrative of the Sufferings of Lewis Clarke, During a Captivity of More than Twenty-Five Years, Among the Algerines of Kentucky, One of the So Called Christian States of North America, 1845. See link above.

2 Deborah Gray White (Professor of History, Rutgers University), interview in Africans in America (WGBH/PBS), ca. 1998, at

Images: "Five generations on Smith's Plantation, Beaufort, South Carolina," 1862, photograph by Timothy H. O'Sullivan (full photograph and details). Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Civil War Photograph Collection.

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1. The Enslaved Family   2. Plantation Community   3. Religion   4. Petitions
  5. Mutual Benefit   6. The Black Press   7. Fugitives   8. Canada

TOOLBOX: The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Freedom | Enslavement | Community | Identity | Emancipation

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