Weddings On Contested Grounds: Slave Marriage In The Antebellum South

Weddings On Contested Grounds: Slave Marriage In The Antebellum South – Review

Thomas E. Will

On 26 December 1849, Thomas Chaplin went deer hunting with some friends, a trip that afforded him “a very pleasant time.” More importantly, it afforded Chaplin a pretext for absenting Tombee, his 376-acre cotton plantation on St. Helena Island, South Carolina, where two of his 60 slaves “took husbands” that day. Their master wanted nothing to do with the proceedings, and he expressed his disdain in his daily journal:

Their mistress gave them a grand supper (which they did not deserve)…. I

did not wish to be here to see the tomfoolery that was going on about it,

as if they were ladies of quality. They had out, with wife’s permission of

course, very foolishly, my crockery, tables, chairs, candlesticks, & I

suppose everything else they wanted.(1)

To Thomas Chaplin, an elegant slave wedding seemed a perversion of the natural order. Slaves had no business pretending to quality, and their marriages hardly justified grand suppers. Chaplin’s wife evidently disagreed, however, for she organized the proceedings. Nor did Chaplin’s slaves take their vows lightly. In 1876, 27 years after these two marriages, Chaplin noted in his journal with wonder that “[the two women] are both alive, & stranger, have the very same husbands.”(2) Clearly, the marriage ceremony at Tombee had different meanings for Chaplin, Chaplin’s wife, and the newlyweds.

This study examines the nature of slave weddings and the multiple meanings of slave marriages in the antebellum South from the perspective of both slaveowners, who may have either condoned or discouraged slave marriages, and of the slaves themselves, who generally viewed marriage as a permanent commitment. It takes a new look at the meanings slaves and masters drew from formal wedding ceremonies and celebrations, and examines marriages between slaves and free blacks as well as marriage between slaves. The study supports Eugene Genovese’s argument that some masters’ willingness to arrange elaborate slave weddings reflected a paternalistic mindset,(3) but adds that these occasions also contained inversion rituals intended to emphasize conventional social roles by temporarily reversing them. Like paternalism, inversion served the masters’ ultimate objective–the maintenance of hegemony–by confining latent class tensions to venues acceptable to the ruling class.(4) I also agree with numerous scholars that wedding celebrations reflected community validation of slave marriages but go on to ask what slaves’ manifest preference for Big House ceremonies–replete with formal dress and elaborate fare–reveals about the way power worked on its object.(5) By appropriating the signs of planter authority in the form of clothing, food, and surroundings, slaves who married sought to assert their identity in terms drawn largely from the dominant culture.

Within the broad range of slave marriage practices, three general categories of ceremonies predominated: those led by slave elders, by white masters, and by white ministers. As with so many issues vital to slaves’ lives, white laws and planter hegemony inevitably limited the range of marriage options open to slaves. Yet, working within that range and persistently attempting to widen the range of possibilities, slaves forged a set of marital rituals that they–not their masters–ultimately determined and guarded. While slaves’ appropriation of the signs of planter authority reflected the influence of that authority, their success in determining their own preferred forms of rituals also underscores how far from absolute was planter rule.

The Southern legal system never recognized slave marriages on the grounds that property could not enter into a legal contract. The master-slave relationship superseded relationships between slaves, which differed from those between free men and women joined in lawful wedlock; as a North Carolina judge explained in 1858, “with slaves it may be dissolved at the pleasure of either party, or by the sale of one or both, depending on the caprice or necessity of the owners.”(6) In other words, slaveowners refused to tolerate a legal contract that might interfere with their right to dispose of their property as they pleased. Furthermore, whites considered legal slave marriages unnecessary. In white society, marriage served the vital function of determining property distribution; by stripping women of their property and codifying female dependence, marriage effectively solidified white male dominance. Though custom afforded slaves limited de facto property rights, the dispensation of slave property was of no great concern. Similarly, slaveowners had no desire to legally validate black male authority, even over female slaves.(7)

Some slaveowners forbade their slaves to enter into marriage at all. Nineteenth-century slave Harriet Jacobs’s master, for example, regarded her relationship with a free black carpenter as a threat to his authority and rejected her pleas for permission to marry the man: “Well, I’ll soon convince you whether I am your master, or the nigger fellow you honor so highly.”(8) Free female spouses also presented a potential threat to slave discipline. James Curry, a North Carolina slave who sought his master’s consent to marry a free black woman, explained that “he refused to give it, and swore that he would cut my throat from ear to ear, before I should marry a free nigger.”(9) According to information given by a former Kentucky slave, some slaveowners forbade marriage for an altogether different reason:

As a rule negro men were not allowed to marry at all, any attempt to mate

with the negro women brought swift, sure horrible punishment and the

species were propagated by selected male negroes, who were kept for that

purpose, the owners of this privileged negro, charged a fee of one out of

every four of his offspring for his services.(10)

A former Texas slave confirmed that her master’s concerns about efficient reproduction precluded stable marriages, explaining that on many plantations women could not have a monogamous relationship, but were forced to live with whatever man their master told them to.(11)

Many other slaveowners, however, simply devoted no effort to encouraging the institution. A former Mississippi slave related that there were no special funerals or weddings on his plantation.(12) An Alabama freedman agreed: “Niggers didn’t marry in dem days. I jes’ tuck up wid one likely gal atter anoder.”(13) A South Carolina freedman interviewed during the Civil War explained that “as a general thing the Masters did not care” if slave women became pregnant before marriage, for “they like the colored women to have children.”(14) Asked if he punished slaves for adultery, a Mississippi overseer responded, “No, we punish them for quarrelling; if they don’t quarrel I don’t mind anything about it, but if it makes a muss, I give all four of ’em a warning.”(15)

The majority of slaveowners allowed slave marriages, and a variety of wedding rituals and ceremonies arose in the antebellum South to recognize slave unions informally. Some slaveholders acknowledged slave marriages for religious reasons. Southerners’ faith in the soundness of their organic society–on which their justifications for slavery rested–was inextricably tied to Christianity; just as they employed the Bible to justify slavery to outsiders, they used religion to demonstrate to slaves the divinely ordained character of hierarchy. Slaves were taught to submit to their earthly masters in hopes of a heavenly reward. Thomas Bacon, an eighteenth-century Episcopal minister in Maryland whose sermons were widely published in the nineteenth century, wrote, “though you be slaves, bound to serve masters and mistresses here on earth … you are at the same time working for a just master in heaven, who will pay you good wages for it.”(16)

Slaveholders’ efforts to Christianize their slaves often represented more than a simple legitimization of dominance, however. Many masters possessed of deeply held religious convictions exposed their slaves to religion for spiritual reasons. Thornton Stringfellow, a Baptist minister from Virginia, expressed the popular belief that slavery benefited blacks because it “brought within the range of Gospel influence, millions … who, but for this institution, would have sunk down to eternal ruin; knowing not God, and strangers to the Gospel.”(17) Thus, many planters promoted Christian moral and social values among their slaves, focusing on the rituals of baptism, religious instruction, and marriage.

Though the State did not require them to recognize slave marriages, devout planters felt a higher duty, acknowledging the inherent conflict between Divine Law and Southern law. In 1805, the Bear Creek Church in North Carolina confronted the Sandy Creek Baptist Association with a difficult question: “What do we consider as a valid marriage between black people; and if any marriage be valid, is it our fellowship to part them on occasion?” Three years later, the association finally responded that slaves should be considered validly married “when they come together in their former and general custom, having no [other] companion.” Slaveowners should avoid the separation of married slaves, if necessary putting “themselves to some inconvenience, in buying selling, or exchanging, to keep them together. Both moral obligation and humanity demand it.”(18) But the law did not demand it, and the association’s answer was less a mandate than a suggestion.

Had widespread white concern for slaves’ marital status existed, however, it would have found expression in Southern state laws. The slaves themselves, rather than a sense of moral or religious obligation, induced many slaveholders to recognize slave marriages. When both prospective spouses lived on the same plantation, their master had strong practical reasons to approve, for marriage generated stability, solidified the slaves’ ties to the plantation, and encouraged reproduction. When slaves sought unions with slaves on other plantations or with free blacks, however, slaveowners faced a dilemma. Approval of such a request meant that the married slave would want to leave the plantation periodically to visit his spouse, thus undermining the master’s control, while a denial would produce a sullen worker and a likely runaway. Grudgingly, masters usually granted permission to marry “abroad” as the lesser of two evils.(19) Moreover, while most slaveholders desired their slaves to reproduce, few owned plantations sufficiently large to provide compatible mates for young adult slaves. Ultimately, most slaveholders recognized that in the final analysis the decision really did not rest with them. “Some of the young men have wives in the neighboring plantations” explained the overseer at St. Helena Island’s Frogmore plantation, adding, “this intercourse cannot be prevented.”(20) Masters understood that they could not control every facet of slaves’ lives.

Why did slaves marry abroad, knowing that in all likelihood they could never live with their spouses? Owners of one partner might attempt to buy the other if, in the words of a former Alabama slave, they considered him or her “a good strong, healthy nigger.”(21) Even if they did not, marriage off the plantation brought certain benefits. For male slaves particularly, marriage abroad opened up a whole new world. Husbands obtained the privilege of visiting their spouse’s plantation, which freed them for a day or two from the confines of their own plantations and from the surveillance of their masters.(22) “Slaves always wanted to marry a gal on ‘nother plantation,” explained a Virginia freedman, “cause dey could git a pass to go visit ’em on Saddy nights.”(23) Other slaves preferred marrying off the plantation because such an arrangement spared them the daily sight of their spouse in a state of slavery. “No colored man,” wrote an escaped ex-slave, “wishes to live at the house where his wife lives, for he has to endure the continual misery of seeing her flogged and abused, without daring to say a word in her defence.”(24)

Some slave women may have valued the independence of marriage abroad in day-to-day domestic life and in the management of their children. Additionally, slaves on long-settled plantations sought spouses abroad out of concern about marriage to a close blood relation.(25) A final factor driving slaves to marry abroad was that they, like their masters, sometimes just fell in love. “Don’t you suppose, sir, that a slave can have some preference about marrying?” Harriet Jacobs asked her master when he ordered her to find a husband on the plantation; “Do you suppose that all men are alike to her?”(26) A Mississippi planter related that the wife of one of his slaves lived 20 miles away; every weekend the husband walked a total of 40 miles to spend time with his wife. Only love explains his willingness to repeat that trip over and over again.(27)

In addition to marrying other slaves on and off the plantation, slaves sometimes married free blacks. The frequency of these unions remains somewhat uncertain, although in Maryland, marriages between slaves and free blacks were common enough to be unremarkable.(28) Tables 1 and 2, based on antebellum marriage records of two Maryland churches, confirm that slave-free marriages were common and suggest several significant patterns. First, the percentage of black marriages performed by ministers closely approximated the percentage of black people within the general population. Blacks wed in ceremonies conducted by ministers as frequently–in St. John’s, more frequently–than did whites, compared to their relative percentage of the population. Second, free blacks comprised roughly the same proportion of black marriage partners as they comprised of the black population. In other words, white ministers served not only whites and their slaves, but free blacks as well. Third, free blacks paradoxically proved more likely to marry slaves when slaves comprised a lower percentage of the population. Free blacks married by ministers of St. John’s chose slave spouses 47 percent of the time in a county where slaves constituted 43 percent of the black population. Only one in three free blacks chose a slave partner in the Anne Arundel County church, where slaves comprised 71 percent of the black population.


White Black Slave-Slave

Years Marriages Marriages Marriage

All Hallow’s Episcopal Church, South

River Parish, Anne Arundel County(a)

1843-1851 24 28 20

St. John’s Episcopal Church, St.

John’s Parish, Harford County(b)

1842-1861 27 17 3

Slave-Free Free-Free

Years Marriages Marriages

All Hallow’s Episcopal Church,

South River Parish,

Anne Arundel County(a)

1843-1851 4 4

St. John’s Episcopal Church,

St. John’s Parish,

Harford County(b)

1842-1861 9 5

(a) All Hallow’s Protestant Episcopal Church Collection, MSA SC 2458, microfilm 221, Maryland State Archives, Annapolis, Maryland.

(b) Registers of Revs. John R. Keech and S. W. Crampton, St. John’s Church, Kingsville, Maryland, microfilm 417, Maryland State Archives.


% Marriages Black/ % Black Spouses Free/

% Population Black % Black Pop. Free

St. John’s 38.6 44.1

Harfort Co. 28.8 43.8

All Hallow’s 53.8 78.5

Anne Arundel 53.7 71.0

% Free Marry Slaves

% Black Pop. Slave

St. John’s 47.4

Harfort Co. 43.8

All Hallow’s 33.3

Anne Arundel 71.0

(a) Population data derived from U.S. 7th Census, 1850, Population (Washington, D.C., 1853), 220.

Though counterintuitive, these data make sense in light of the prevailing forms of labor organization in the two counties. Anne Arundel’s tobacco plantations, which produced over 4.5 million pounds in 1850, typically contained significantly more slaves per landholding than did Harford’s farms, which concentrated on wheat, rye, oats, and butter production. Anne Arundel’s total of 1,295 farms barely topped Harford’s 1,278 farms in 1850, but Anne Arundel had 11,249 slaves, far exceeding the 2,166 slaves in Harford. In that same year, the average Anne Arundel County farm contained 171 improved acres, nearly double the average of 96 acres in Harford County. Smaller units hired seasonal free black farm workers more often than larger units, so Harford County free blacks worked alongside slaves more frequently. Conversely, the larger plantations in Anne Arundel County fostered substantial slave communities and afforded fewer opportunities for free blacks and slave to meet.(29)

From a slave’s perspective, marriage to a free black carried a significant potential benefit–the possibility that the free spouse could purchase the slave spouse’s freedom. A Maryland free black carpenter named George Berry, for example, reached an agreement with his wife’s master “that he was to purchase [her] within three years after marriage for $750.” However, marriage to a slave also entailed risk, for while many surely hoped to buy their partner’s freedom, they could never be sure of doing so. After Berry had paid all but 40 dollars on his wife’s account, the master with whom he had made the agreement died, and his wife refused to accept the balance, choosing instead to retain her property rights in Berry’s wife.(30) Free blacks often watched powerlessly as slaveholders beat or sold away their spouses. Further, when a free black man married a slave woman, his children entered the world in a state of slavery.

Why, in the face of these disadvantages, did free blacks marry slaves? According to a petition laid before the Maryland General Assembly in 1858, planters thought that “most of our free negroes prefer slaves for husbands and wives, thereby securing a home, while they bask in the fruition of their own native indolence.”(31) Historian Barbara Fields contends that the explanation was much simpler: “because of numbers alone, the two were bound to come into close and frequent contact.(32) Even in societies with greater status differentials between slaves and free blacks than the United States, members from the two groups commonly married. The many-layered Brazilian social structure, for example, placed every individual either above or below someone else, in marked contrast to the United States’ two-caste, white-black social structure, which rendered it more difficult for free blacks to define an independent space for themselves. We might expect Brazilian free blacks to demonstrate a greater hesitancy than Southern free blacks to marry slaves, but in actuality Brazilian free blacks often married slaves in spite of more incentives than Southern free blacks to avoid such associations. Perhaps it should come as no surprise, then, that romantic love impelled Southern free blacks to marry slaves.(33)

Harriet Jacobs asked, “Why does the slave ever love? Why allow the tendrils of the heart to twine around objects which may at any moment be wrenched away by the hand of violence?”(34) Her questions reveal her bitterness at the slave system that denied her the man she loved. White Southerners, however, frequently discounted slaves’ capacity for fidelity. When asked if married slaves remained true to one another, a Mississippi overseer “laughed heartily at the idea.(35) The wife of an Alabama minister wrote that”not one in a thousand, I suppose, of those poor creatures have any conception whatever of the sanctity of marriage.”(36) Slaves, too, occasionally indicated that marriage meant little to them, and a few took advantage of their marriages’ legal invisibility to engage in polygamous behavior. “I’ll tell ya de way we useta do” began a former Virginia slave:

Ef I liked ya, I jes go an’ tell marster I wanted ya an’ he give his

consent–dat’s on de same plantation ef both slaves wuz his. Ef I see

another gal over dar on another plantation, I’d go an’ say to de gal’s

marster, “I want Jinny fer a wife.” Waal, dat marster will give me a strip

of paper to take to my marster dat I could have her. I got two wives now,

Ain’t I?(37)

Such sentiments were exceptions, however. Through words and behavior, slaves repeatedly demonstrated that they invested their marriages with importance. Asked in 1863 if most slaves regarded marriage as a permanent commitment, a South Carolina freedman responded, “Yes, sir; if a woman loses her husband she will mourn for him for a year and a half.”(38) A former Alabama slave asserted that “the ceremony wasn’t much but dey stuck lots closer den and you didn’t hear about so many divorces and such as that.”(39) A former Virginia slave agreed that “love was a lot mo’ bindin’ in dem days.”(40) A Texas freedman could not remember any formal wedding ceremonies from his days in slavery, but he recalled that couples who did marry generally stayed together until separated by death.(41)

Indeed, as Herbert Gutman shows, slaves did remain married when possible. A study of married Mississippi freedmen over 40 years old during 1864-1865 revealed that only 9 percent had an earlier marriage terminated by mutual consent or desertion; the remainder reported no previous marriage or a previous marriage terminated by force or death.(42) When emancipation enabled former slaves to obtain legal validation for their marriages, many freed slaves reacted like the Marylander who stated that she “was married on the farm in 1863 and married my same husband by a Baptist preacher in 1870 as I was told I had not been legally married.”(43) The eagerness with which freed slaves registered to marry legally confirms that they valued marriage. When denied legal recognition, an Arkansas freedman succinctly stated, “they married just like they do now, only they didn’t have no license.”(44)

Slaves married for practical reasons as well as for love. A union with a strong, healthy, capable spouse was important to survival on plantations where slaves cultivated their own gardens, and it reduced the chance of being sold away from one’s home and family.(45) Still, numerous slaves demonstrated a greater commitment to their loved ones than mere practicality dictated. One slave husband, though sold away to Louisiana, could not forget his free black wife back in Virginia and resisted when his new master tried to set him up with a new wife: “I was scared half to death, for I had one wife whom I liked, and didn’t want another.” His wife soon joined him in New Orleans, but his new master attempted to obstruct the relationship. Pushed to the point of desperation, the husband ultimately escaped with his wife to Canada.(46) A Georgia slave wife similarly refused to allow the slave system to destroy her marriage. Finding that her husband’s master had sold him to Alabama soon after their marriage, she grieved “so dat my heart was heavy in my breas’. I knowed I never would see him no mo.'” She considered remarrying after emancipation, but could not forget her husband. After several years alone she found him, and the two obtained a legal marriage license.(47) A Missouri slave named Lavinia remained faithful to a man whose master sold him away before they could even get married. When her master pressured her to take a husband and reproduce, she resisted, though he eventually “whipped her in such a manner that it was thought she would die.”(48)

Every slave’s decision to marry entailed significant risk, and all married slaves understood the gamble they took in attaching themselves to a person their masters could sell away. “So in May, 1828, I was bound as fast in wedlock as a slave can be…. God may at any time sunder that band in a freeman; either master may do the same at pleasure in a slave,” Lunsford Lane wrote in 1842.(49) The reality of forced separation could descend with devastating abruptness. While in the field one day, Moses Grandy saw his wife, who lived on another plantation, march by in a slave gang. Her master had sold her suddenly–Grandy had just seen her the night before–and a trader was taking her away. “I have never seen or heard of her from that day to this” lamented Grandy, adding, “I loved her as I loved my life.”(50) Former slave Henry Bibb explained that”notwithstanding our marriage was without license or sanction of law, we believed it to be honorable before God.”(51) Despite the constant threat of division, slaves valued their marriages as ordained by a power higher than white law.

Because slaves valued the institution of marriage, they regarded weddings as an occasion worthy of ceremony and celebration. Both with and without white assistance, slaves sought to lend a measure of formality and legitimacy to legally invisible personal relationships. As a Mississippi planter crudely, yet significantly, put it, “most niggers likes a ceremony, you know, and they generally make out to hev one somehow.”(52) Slaves engaged in a variety of marriage rituals, from modest broomstick ceremonies to relatively elaborate weddings and receptions in the “Big House.” Even the simplest ceremonies represented slaves’ attempts to broaden the significance of an institution that white laws constrained.

In addition to obtaining their masters’ permission to wed, slaves occasionally sought the consent of a respected elder slave as well. Two slaves on a Virginia plantation, for example, approached “Ant Sue,” who advised them “to think `bout it hard fo’ two days, `cause marryin’ was sacred in de eyes of Jesus.” When the young couple returned two days later still determined to get married, Aunt Sue called all the slaves to pray for the union God was about to make. Slaveowners often allowed a local preacher or respected elder to conduct the services.(53) A former Kentucky slave explained that slaves “were united in marriage by a ceremony with a preacher of their own race officiating”(54); a Virginia freedman recalled that the leading black men who had learned to read and write would marry couples.(55) A former Texas slave stated that “Ol’ Solomon was a 0l’ man, sorter preacher like and he marry de niggers on de place,”(56) while on an Arkansas plantation “Uncle Peyton” conducted all of the marriages among slaves.(57) The wedding often attracted some 40 or 50 guests.(58) In slave-led ceremonies, the preacher or elder typically read passages from the Bible before the bride and groom jumped over a broomstick. Aunt Lucky conducted a representative slave-quarter ceremony on a Virginia plantation:

Was Sunday, mind you, an’ all de slaves was lyin’ roun’ sleepin’ an’

restin’. [Aunt Lucky] called ’em together an’ right den an’ dere married

’em. Dey all form a ring `roundst my mother an’ dad, an’ Ant Lucky read

sumpin from de Bible, an’ den she put de broomstick down an’ dey locked dey

arms together an’ jumped over it. Den dey was married.(59)

Other masters led the services themselves, often at the plantation house where the master read from a Bible and the newly married couple jumped over a broomstick. “When de marriages was performed, de massa read de ceremony an’ de couples would step off over a broomstick for luck,” stated an Alabama ex-slave,(60) while a Virginian explained quite similarly that the couple would go up to the Big House where the master read from a book and the couple then jumped over a broomstick.(61) An Arkansas freedwoman, who noted that all of her plantation’s slaves attended weddings at the big house, recalled some of the words her master read: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, all thy strength, with all thy might and thy neighbor as thyself.”(62) Not all masters conducted religious ceremonies. A Texas slave tried to convince her owner that “a preacher wedding is the best but Master say he can marry them just as good. There wasn’t no Bible, just an old Almanac. Master White read something out of that.”(63) Some slaveowners performed weddings that hardly qualified as services at all. “We both came into his parlor,” a former Tennessee slave remembered, “and he asked each of us if we wanted to marry, and we said yes, and he said: `You are married.’ There was no minister.”(64)

Sometimes slaveowners called on white ministers, particularly in the case of domestic servants. For example, Alexander Glennie, an Episcopal minister in South Carolina’s Georgetown District, conducted 139 slave marriages at 15 plantations over the course of seven years. During the same period Glennie conducted only seven white marriages, indicating that at least some white ministers in plantation regions devoted a significant proportion of their energies to slaves’ needs.(65) Occasionally, masters arranged for slave weddings in white churches. A former slave described a white church wedding: “Old Miss had got Sis a new white dress and a long veil and they marched to the white folks church,” but ceremonies of this sort were rare exceptions.(66) Masters who sought Church-sanctified marriages for their slaves usually considered the presence of a traveling minister sufficient.

On plantations, slave friends and family of the bride and groom gathered in the master’s parlor to attend the services as guests, bridesmaids, or groomsmen, and sometimes the master’s family attended as well. Although some ceremonies conducted by white ministers included the broom-jumping ritual, most apparently did not. Proudly recalling a wedding led by a white minister on her plantation, a former Georgia slave rather haughtily remarked that “we never had none of dat jumping over de broom foolishness you hear ’bout in other places.(67) Some white ministers included in their slave services a closing remark not found in the services conducted for whites, admonishing the newly wedded couple always to obey their master and mistress.(68)

Slaveowning families typically provided appropriate clothing to slaves who married in the plantation house. An ex-slave from Alabama treasured the dress her mistress allowed her to wear on her wedding day: “It sho’ wuz purty; made outen white tarleton wid a pink bow in de front. I had a pink ribbon `roun’ my haid too, an’ Joe, he look proud of me.”(69) A former Maryland slave stated that brides wore the mistress’s cast-off clothing,(70) and a former Alabama slave explained that when the master’s youngest daughter married, she left her veil and flowers to the slave and the family gave her a wedding dress and shoes.(71) A Mississippian recalled that “Miss Cornelia give her a white dress and white shoes and Miss Cloe Wilburn give her a veil.”(72)

Other ex-slaves indicated that wedding attire was handed down from one generation to the other, such as the Texan who stated that “when I got married I was dress in blue serge and was de third person to marry in it.”(73) When such clothes were not available, slaves simply improvised, borrowing from other slaves or making up clothing from whatever was at hand, even window curtains. One former slave recounted: “De maids wuz dressed fit ter kill. Some of ’em look like dey had on every thing … like tabledoths en curtains, en counterpens.”(74) The time and effort invested by slaves in creating impressive clothing for members of the wedding party demonstrates the importance they placed in the event.

A celebration followed nearly every ceremony. Sometimes slaves arranged festivities in the slave quarters, but slaveowners who conducted the wedding themselves or who brought in a white preacher typically provided dinner and entertainment at the plantation house. A Mississippi planter served his slaves in the yard while the whites ate inside, but on other plantations the slaves ate inside on this special day. Slaves remembered such wedding receptions vividly, which were in marked contrast to their everyday lives. Asked if she had a nice wedding supper, a former South Carolina slave responded, “Course I did! White folks helped fix my weddin’ supper. Had Turkey, chickens, baked shoat, pies and cake–a table piled up full.”(75) A Kentuckian proudly stated that her mother’s master spent 200 dollars on her parents’ bridal supper,(76) while a Virginian fondly recalled her own rather extravagant wedding party:

After marriage de white folks give me a ‘ception an’ honey, talkin’ ’bout a

table–hit was stretched clean ‘cross de dinning room. We had everything to

eat you could call for. No, didn’t have no common eats, ha, ha, ha. We

could sing in dar an’ dance old square dance all us choosed … Lord, Lord,

I can see dem gals now on dat flo’, jes skippin’ an’ a trottin’. An’ honey,

dar wuz no white folks to set down an’ eat fo’ yo’.(77)

To slaves, wedding ceremonies and receptions legitimized their personal relationships to the extent possible within the slave system. The attention slaves gave to such ceremonies reflected their community’s commitment to marriage and afforded plantation slave society the opportunity to express its support for a particular union.(78) Had ceremonies and receptions represented no more than the communal validation of an important institution, however, broomstick rituals would have served slaves’ purposes as well as Big House weddings. Yet, many slaves preferred formal ceremonies and elaborate celebrations incorporating the trappings of white culture. The former Georgia slave who noted approvingly that slaves on her plantation were married without the broomstick ceremony gave expression to a significant sentiment. So, too, did the Alabama freedwoman who remembered that her new husband looked proudly upon her in her mistress’s old dress. Slaves were eager to have their marriages recorded “in the book,” a plantation ledger, journal, or day book kept by the owner or overseer.(79) The value slaves placed on communal ceremonies and their preference for a particular type of ceremony reveals coded messages about master-slave power relations.

The white minister and the master’s ledger, the mistress’s dress and veil, and the Big House crockery and candlesticks all symbolized white planter authority. Possession of these symbols served to support slaveowners’ sense of group identity, while for slaves the symbols formed the object of both anger and desire. As Ranajit Guha explains in his study of colonial India, subaltern groups assert their identity by alternately attempting to destroy or appropriate for themselves the signs of authority associated with those who exercise hegemony over them. American slaves who sought to appropriate signs of planter authority for their wedding celebrations engaged in an act of identity assertion in which participation in formal weddings expressed their dignity and established their claim to respect in terms derived from the very structure of authority against which they struggled.(80)

Although appropriating the signs of planter authority represented a measure of consent to the white culture’s understanding of “respectability,” it did not signify consent to slavery. In fact, slaves’ very assertion of dignity and human identity through formal ceremonies directly challenged the central principle upon which the institution of slavery rested–that slaves were property first and only secondarily people. Slaves who wore wedding dresses to ceremonies in the Big House and sat down to turkey and pies afterwards made a quiet but real statement of resistance, not to slavery’s physical coercion but to its very principle. Why, then, did masters arrange for slave weddings, and what did such celebrations mean to them? Some were motivated by religion to Christianize their slaves through Church-sanctified marriages; others, like the overseer at Frogmore plantation, recognized that ceremonies could not be prevented. A rather mean-spirited motivation suggested by Kenneth Stampp is that such celebrations were “irresistible” to white families, who delighted in watching “a bride and groom move awkwardly through the wedding ceremony, or to hear a solemn [slave] preacher mispronounce and misuse polysyllabic words.(81)

While a few masters probably did find perverse pleasure in mocking their slaves’ ungainly attempts to mimic white social conventions–and some, like Thomas Chaplin, avoided them entirely–many masters took the ceremonies seriously, as the affairs implicitly served to support their hegemony. The ceremonies gave expression to a measure of slave self-assertion that masters could not safely deny, but in a manner that did not pose a serious challenge to slaveownership. In confining latent class tensions to manageable and relatively innocuous ceremonies, slavemasters reinforced control through interaction, shaping the rituals to lend cultural legitimacy to the rule they could not entirely secure through force alone.(82)

Slaveowners constructed a paternalistic ideal to justify their rule by envisioning it as consensual. A Mississippi slaveowner wrote in his diary on Christmas day that “I did all I could to make their [his slaves’] hollidays pleasant to them & they seem to appreciate my endeavors.”(83) Masters approached slave weddings as they did holidays; by indulging their slaves, they expected to generate gratitude. The master’s interest in his slaves’ attitudes toward his generosity implicitly acknowledged that his power had boundaries; had he had total domination over his slaves, he need not have concerned himself with the degree of their appreciation. Similarly, masters who condoned slave weddings understood the imperfect nature of their power. Thus, they complemented coercion with paternalism. Slaveowners who provided fancy clothing and food for young slave couples on their special day expected a return on their investment in the form of loyalty and hard work.(84)

The doctrine of reciprocity enabled masters to justify the institution of slavery. Masters like the Mississippi slaveowner quoted above liked to think of themselves as morally responsible people, and acts of generosity solidified in their own minds the self-image they desired. Stampp notes that even when masters did not consciously mock their slaves in the ceremonies, “these affairs were as much performances for the whites as celebrations for the slaves.”(85) Slaveowner George Fitzhugh wrote in 1854, “God makes masters … and gives them affections, feelings and interests that secure kindness to the sick, aged and dying slave.”(86) Applying that sentiment to the marrying slave as well, masters demonstrated–to themselves, above all–their moral integrity through their contributions to slave marriage ceremonies and celebrations.

Wedding ceremonies also sustained planter hegemony by functioning as inversion rituals. As Max Gluckman’s work in Africa has shown, rites of reversal highlighted the conventional social order by allowing people to behave in normally prohibited ways. Thus, inversion has the effect of buttressing rather than weakening the established order.(87) Masters’ periodic but temporary gestures “rewarding” slaves with the symbols of white authority, such as fine clothes and food, established the value of white status emblems in the slave community. Formal wedding ceremonies raised slaves’ consciousness of the signs of white authority, which then quickly were withdrawn, impressing upon slaves their subordinate status. When slaves emphasized how significant it was that white families helped prepare the wedding supper, for example, they implicitly acknowledged that having one’s supper fixed by someone else afforded status, and that in the normal course of events it was they who did the fixing for whites. Slaves brought their own meanings to wedding ceremonies, which they regarded as assertions of identity and expressions of humanity and, therefore, as implicit repudiations of the chattel principle underlying slavery. Even if some slaveowners understood this, from their perspective it hardly mattered; they could accept slaves’ mental resistance to the idea of slavery because it posed no serious threat to their rule.

The ambiguities surrounding master-slave power relations are revealed in the contradictory attitudes of white slave owners and their slaves to marriages and wedding ceremonies. Practice differed from one community to the next as masters and slaves in different locations negotiated these contested grounds. The power to prevent certain marriages or sell away spouses constituted a mechanism of rule for all masters, but although coercion formed the foundation of each slaveowner’s hegemony, most masters preferred to solidify their rule with as little force as possible. By condoning certain unions and sponsoring weddings, masters encouraged loyalty and obedience while reinforcing their own self-image as morally responsible people. Big House weddings, furthermore, magnified white symbols of authority while highlighting the conventional hierarchy by temporarily inverting social roles.

At the same time, slave marriages and weddings demonstrate the limits of slaveowner control. Most masters understood that they could not prohibit marital unions without seriously risking runaways or increasing disaffection. White law, the threat of coercion, and even coercion itself failed to discourage slaves from forging a very real institution legitimized by very real rituals. Slaves invested those rituals with different meanings than did masters. Wedding ceremonies–whether held in the Big House or in the quarters; led by a slave elder, the master, or a white minister; employing the Bible or a broomstick–represented for slaves the communal validation of an important social relationship. If slaves appropriated the signs of planter authority for their weddings, their actions reflected an internalization of the hegemonic culture’s means of asserting dignity and respectability. The assertion itself, however, marked a quiet but firm repudiation of slavery’s ideological foundation.

(1) Quoted in Theodore Rosengarten, Tombee: Portrait of a Cotton Planter, with the Plantation Journal of Thomas B. Chaplin, 1822-1890 (New York, 1986), 480-81.

(2) Ibid., 481.

(3) Eugene Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York, 1972), 475-81, 658.

(4) Jonathan Weiner, Social Origins of the New South: Alabama, 1860-1885 (Baton Rouge, 1978), 186.

(5) Larry Hudson, To Have and to Hold: Slave Work and Family Life in Antebellum South Carolina (Athens, Ga., 1997), 159-63; Ann Patton Malone, Sweet Chariot: Slave Family and Household Structure in Nineteenth-Century Louisiana (Chapel Hill, 1992), 225-26; Brenda Stevenson, Life in Black and White: Family and Community in the Slave South (New York, 1996), 226-28.

(6) Howard v. Howard, December 1853, in Judicial Cases Concerning American Slavery and the Negro, ed. Helen T. Cotterall, vol. 2 (Washington, D.C., 1929), 221, quoted in Stanley Elkins, Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (Chicago, 1959), 54.

(7) James Oakes, Slavery and Freedom: An Interpretation of the Old South (New York, 1990), xvi-xvii; Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll, 30-38.

(8) Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, ed. L. Maria Child (1861; reprint, New York, 1973), 38.

(9) Quoted in John Blassingame, Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews, and Autobiographies (Baton Rouge, 1977), 139.

(10) Kentucky Narratives, vol. 16 of The American Slave: A Composite Biography, ed. George Rawick (Westport, Conn.., 1972), pt. 2, 34.

(11) Texas Narratives, vol. 8 of The American Slave, supplement, series 2, pt. 7, 2927.

(12) Mississippi Narratives, vol. 7 of The American Slave, pt. 2, 50.

(13) Alabama Narratives, vol. 6 of The American Slave, pt. 1, 352.

(14) Quoted in Blassingame, Slave Testimony, 382.

(15) Quoted in Frederick Law Olmsted, The Cotton Kingdom: A Traveller’s Observations on Cotton and Slavery in the American Slave States (1861; reprint, New York, 1984), 458.

(16) Thomas Bacon, Sermons Addressed to Masters and Servants, and Published in the Year 1743, by the Rev. Thomas Bacon, Minister of the Protestant Episcopal Church in Maryland (Winchester, Va., 1813), 90.

(17) Thornton Stringfellow, A Brief Examination of Scripture Testimony on the Institution of Slavery (Washington D.C., 1850), in The Ideology of Slavery: Proslavery Thought in the Antebellum South, 1830-1860, ed. Drew Faust (Baton Rouge, 1981), 166.

(18) George W. Purifoy, A History of the Sandy Creek Baptist Association (New York, 1859), 76-83-84, quoted in Albert Raboteau, Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South (New York, 1978), 183.

(19) Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll, 472-73.

(20) John Stapleton Papers, 1790-1839, “Selections from the South Carolina Library,” in Kenneth Stampp, ed., Records of Antebellum Plantations from the Revolution through the Civil War (Frederick, Md., 1985), series A, reel 9.

(21) Alabama Narratives, vol. 6, pt. 1, 313.

(22) Rosengarten, Tombee, 155.

(23) Quoted in Charles L. Perdue, Thomas E. Barden, and Robert K. Phillips, eds., Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews with Virginia Ex-Slaves (Charlottesville, 1976), 89.

(24) Quoted in John Blassingame, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South (New York, 1972), 86.

(25) Stevenson, Life in Black and White, 230-31.

(26) Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, 38.

(27) Olmsted, The Cotton Kingdom, 358.

(28) Barbara Fields, Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground: Maryland During the Nineteenth Century (New Haven, 1985), 28; see also Ira Berlin, Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South (New York, 1974), 269; Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll, 409.

(29) Calculated from U.S. 7th Census, 1850, Population (Washington, D.C., 1853), 220, and from U.S. 7th Census, 1850, Agriculture (Washington, D.C., 1853), 250.

(30) Maryland Narratives, vol. 16 of The American Slave, pt. 3, 20.

(31) Cecil Whig, 27 February 1858, quoted in Fields, Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground, 29.

(32) Fields, Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground, 29.

(33) Richard Graham, “Slavery and Economic Development: Brazil and the United States South in the Nineteenth Century,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 23 (1981): 651; Stuart Schwartz, Sugar Plantations in the Formation of Brazilian Society: Bahia, 1550-1835 (Cambridge, 1985), 393.

(34) Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, 36.

(35) Olmsted, The Cotton Kingdom, 458.

(36) Quoted in Olmsted, The Cotton Kingdom, 471.

(37) Quoted in Perdue, Barden, and Phillips, eds., Weevils in the Wheat, 209.

(38) Quoted in Blassingame, Slave Testimony, 375.

(39) Alabama Narratives, vol. 6, pt. 1, 423.

(40) Perdue, Barden, and Phillips, eds., Weevils in the Wheat, 118.

(41) Texas Narratives, supplement, series 2, vol. 8, pt. 7, 3209.

(42) Herbert Gutman, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom (New York, 1976), 21.

(43) Maryland Narratives, vol. 16, pt. 3, 38.

(44) Arkansas Narratives, vol. 8, pt. 1, 106.

(45) Hudson, To Have and to Hold, 158.

(46) Benjamin Drew, ed., A North-Side View of Slave04 the Refugee: Or the Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada Related by Themselves with an Account of the History and Condition of the Colored Population of Upper Canada (Boston, 1856), 56-58, quoted in Stevenson, Life in Black and White, 231-32.

(47) Alabama Narratives, vol. 6, pt. 1, 382.

(48) William Wells Brown, “Narrative of William Wells Brown” in Puttin’ on Ole Massa: The Slave Narratives of Henry Bibb, William Wells Brown, and Solomon Northup, ed. Gilbert Osofsky (New York, 1969, 214.

(49) Lunsford Lane, “The Narrative of Lunsford Lane” in Five Slave Narratives, ed. William Katz (New York, 1969), 11.

(50) Moses Grandy, “Narrative of the Life of Moses Grandy,” in Katz, ed., Five Slave Narratives, 11.

(51) Quoted in John F. Bayliss, ed., The Black Slave Narratives (London, 1970), 98.

(52) Quoted in Olmsted, The Cotton Kingdom, 357.

(53) Quoted in Perdue, Barden, and Phillips, eds., Weevils in the Wheat, 129.

(54) Kentuck? Narratives, vol. 16, pt. 2, 72.

(55) perdue, Barden, and Phillips, eds., Weevils in the Wheat, 153.

(56) Texas Narratives, supplement, series 2, vol. 8, pt. 7, 3362.

(57) Arkansas Narratives, vol. 8, pt. 2, 33.

(58) South Carolina Narratives, vol. 2 of The American Slave, pt. 2, 47.

(59) Quoted in Perdue, Barden, and Phillips, eds., Weevils in the Wheat, 134.

(60) Alabama Narratives, vol. 6, pt. 1, 257.

(61) Perdue, Barden, and Phillips, eds., Weevils in the Wheat, 245.

(62) Arkansas Narratives, vol. 10, pt. 5, 302.

(63) Oklahoma Narratives, vol. 7, pt. 1, 322.

(64) Quoted in Blassingame, Slave Testimony, 525.

(65) Blassingame, The Slave Community, 86-87; Reverend Alexander Glennie Parish Diary, “Selections from the South Carolina Historical Society” in Stampp, ed., Records of Antebellum Plantations, series B, reel 9.

(66) Mississippi Narratives, supplement, series 1, vol. 6, pt. 1, 262.

(67) Quoted in Perdue, Barden, and Phillips, eds., Weevils in the Wheat, 231; Texas Narratives, supplement, series 2, vol. 8, pt. 7, 3232.

(68) Blassingame, Slave Testimony, 639.

(69) Alabama Narratives, vol. 6, pt. 1, 103-4, 214

(70) Maryland Narratives, vol. 16, pt. 3, 7.

(71) Alabama Narratives, vol. 6, pt. 1, 214.

(72) Arkansas Narratives, vol. 10, pt. 5, 57.

(73) Oklahoma Narratives, vol. 7, pt. 1, 134-35.

(74) Quoted in Perdue, Barden, and Phillips, eds., Weevils in the Wheat, 231.

(75) Arkansas Narratives, vol. 10, pt. 5, 57, and vol. 8, pt. 1, 308.

(76) Kentucky Narratives, vol. 16, pt. 2, 64.

(77) Quoted in Perdue, Barden, and Phillips, eds., Weevils in the Wheat, 36.

(78) Hudson, To Have and to Hold, 161; Malone, Sweet Chariot, 226.

(79) Texas Narratives, supplement, series 2, vol. 8, pt. 7, 3232; Alabama Narratives, vol. 6, pt. 1, 103-4; Malone, Sweet Chariot, 226.

(80) Ranajit Guha, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India (Delhi, 1983), 28, 75; Rosalind O’Hanlon, “Recovering the Subject: Subaltern Studies and Histories of Resistance in Colonial South Asia,” Modern Asian Studies 22 (1988): 205-06; David Arnold, “Peasant Revolt and Indian Nationalism: The Peasant Movement in Awadh, 1919-1922,” in Ranajit Guha, ed., Subaltern Studies, vol. 1., Writings on South Asian History and Society (Delhi, 1982), 131.

(81) Kenneth Stampp, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Antebellum South (New York, 1956), 329.

(82) Perry Anderson, “The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci,” The New Left Review 100 (November 1976): 20-25.

(83) E. G. Baker Diary, 28 December 1852, quoted in Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll, 90.

(84) Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll, 89-91.

(85) Stampp, The Peculiar Institution, 329.

(86) George Fitzhugh, Sociology for the South, or the Failure of Free Society, in Harvey Wish, ed., Antebellum: Three Classic Works on Slavery in the Old South by Hinton Rowan Helper and George Fitzhugh (New York, 1960), 83; see also Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll, 89.

(87) Max Gluckman, Custom and Conflict in Africa (Glencoe, Ill., 1955), 109-16; Ranajit Guha, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency, 30-33.

Thomas E. Will is a Ph.D. candidate in American history at Pennsylvania State University.3

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