History Stories

Loved ones could be sold away at any time. Here's how married couples coped.

For enslaved African Americans, the ideal of marriage as an enduring lifelong bond was rarely an option. When couples stood before clergy or other officiants, they couldn’t share the traditional, age-old promises of permanent fidelity because their vows had a built-in asterisk: “Do you take this woman or this man to be your spouse—until death or distance do you part?”

Understanding those altered words, couples married with trepidation, fully aware of the turmoil that might result from trying to maintain and nurture their ties while enslaved. Still, they continually took leaps of faith, driven by burning passions to form families of their choosing—and create fundamental human bonds that could help soften the harsh conditions of human bondage.

These leaps were necessary because, for nearly 250 years, the vast majority of African Americans were considered chattel property. Within this system, white slaveholders made all the decisions: They determined whether and when enslaved people could wed. They split them apart when finances dictated. They sometimes chose who would marry who. Or brazenly violated enslaved couples’ marriages by forcing the women to serve as their own concubines. And those in political power set laws that made it exceedingly difficult for freed black people to reside for long near their still-enslaved families without being sucked back into the harrowing state of bondage themselves.

Since marriage was both a civil right and a religious rite afforded only to those with legal standing, enslaved people, who had no recognizable standing in society, could not make contracts of any kind. Their marriages were neither legally binding, nor sanctified by the Christian church, which routinely allowed one of its holiest rites to be tarnished by power, money and whim. Property owners were its leading constituents, and their rights prevailed over human rights. So enslaved people were forced to settle for conditional unions that could be torn asunder at any time.

The chronicle of African American marriage under slavery is one of twists and turns—of intimate bonds being formed, sustained, broken and repeatedly re-created under the strains of an oppressive system. Below are three stories of how enslaved people were affected by, and coped with, the challenges of following their heart.

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A dramatic escape inspired by family loss

Henry Box Brown

Henry Brown, popularly known as Henry "Box" Brown, who escaped slavery by having himself shipped in dry goods crate from Richmond to Philadelphia.

Henry “Box” Brown is not a household name. But he is remembered to history as the enslaved man who mailed himself to freedom. In 1849, he fled Richmond, Virginia, via a custom-made dry goods box that was only big enough to hold his six-foot, 200-pound frame curled up into a fetal position. He arrived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, met by abolitionists awaiting his delivery, 27 harrowing hours later.

But less widely known is why he fled: His family bonds had been ripped to shreds.

Even though Brown’s mother had warned him of the inevitability of family separation when he was a young boy, nothing could prepare him for the trauma of the actual experience. First, his siblings were split among the heirs of their deceased enslaver. Then he was forced to leave his parents behind to work in a tobacco factory.

He must have thought about these incidents when he began to ponder starting a family of his own. But he put rationality aside when he met Nancy, fell in love and they decided to marry. Their nuptial harmony ended abruptly within a year’s time, however. As Brown later recounted in his memoir, The Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown, his enslaver’s “conscientious scruples vanished,” and he sold Nancy to “an exceedingly cruel man” and to a “still more cruel” woman.

They were sold several more times before ending up in the hands of a prospective buyer who offered Brown a deal: If he would pay a portion of Nancy’s sale price, the man would keep her nearby and sell her back to Brown once he had saved enough money. This was a dicey, but tantalizing offer he couldn’t refuse if he had any hope of having a domestic life with his wife and, by then, three children. The new purchaser took advantage of his vulnerability by escalating demands for more money like a hostage taker—and then sold his family anyway.

READ MORE: The Shocking Photo of 'Whipped Peter' That Made Slavery's Brutality Impossible to Deny

The departure of Brown’s family marked the most excruciating days of his life. His wife and young children were caged overnight in a local jail before being auctioned off and marched out of town in ropes and chains. He could do nothing but stand by, watch and listen to their agonizing cries. He chronicled these last moments in his narrative:

I looked for the approach of another gang in which my wife was also loaded with chains. My eye soon caught her precious face, but, gracious heavens! that glance of agony may God spare me from ever again enduring!... I seized hold of her hand while my mind felt unutterable things... I went with her for about four miles hand in hand, but both our hearts were so overpowered with feeling that we could say nothing, and when at last we were obliged to part, the look of mutual love which we exchanged was all the token which we could give each other that we should yet meet in heaven.

After the devastating loss of his family, Brown entertained suicide. Instead, the experience inspired his remarkable escape. Desperate to flee bondage and tell the world about the sufferings of his fellow slaves, he risked bodily injury and death by mailing himself to freedom in the North.

READ MORE: How Sally Hemings and Other Enslaved People Secured Precious Pockets of Freedom

The entangled intimacies of involuntary couples

Slavery Reparations

Slave family on the plantation of Dr. William F. Gaines in Hanover County, Virginia, circa 1862.

Not all enslaved people were allowed to make their own decisions about who to mate with and marry, as Henry and Nancy did. Men and women could be forced to live as husband and wife against their wills, which provoked a range of emotions. Some involuntary couples complied, others fought back and many defied their enslavers by secretly pursuing relationships of their own choosing.

Ellen and Charley Carter and Walker and Alice Wade, who were enslaved in Kentucky, offer a revealing example of the messiness created by unfulfilled love. As we know from Ellen’s Civil War widow’s pension file, Ellen and Charley were thrust together without their consent. Ellen had her eyes set on Walker Wade, but her enslaver, and possibly his, objected to their marriage. Walker had also gotten another woman, Alice, pregnant, and “as he had gotten her into this fix, he married her to save her.” Alice felt the pressure of her slaveholder, who threatened to sell her for having a baby out of wedlock. The reluctant twosome obliged and built a family together.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, it opened up new opportunities. Walker ran away to join the army, but when he later returned home to Alice, their relationship began to fall apart. Alice “was a drinking woman,” Walker complained. He said that he “stood it as long as he could.”

Meanwhile, the other reluctant couple, Ellen and Charley, also had children. When Charley left to join the army, they had one child; when he returned to Ellen at the end of his service, they had another. But the two would soon part. Ellen had never forgotten Walker Wade. She said, “Walker waited on me when we were young & my owners made me take up with Charley Carter, but I never loved Charley & I did love Walker Wade as a girl & on up to today & I never cared for any other man.”

Walker and Ellen did manage to hook up on the side. Alice wanted to legalize her marriage to Walker, which became possible after slavery ended in 1865. She said Walker refused her because of his relationship with Ellen—and that’s what drove her to drink.

Alice and Walker finally split, but not before they had another child together years after the war. Ellen and Walker reunited and legally married soon after. Alice tried to prevent the nuptials but was told there was nothing she could do. She wasn’t Walker’s legal wife, as the terms of freedom newly defined.

This story dramatizes the dilemma of enslaved people who chose to pursue their true love that had been denied to them through no fault of either party. It also illustrates the turmoil that resulted when they were forced to form involuntary unions—and the determination they often felt to follow their hearts, when they were able to do so once freedom came.

READ MORE: Meet Elizabeth Freeman, the First Enslaved Woman to Sue for Her Freedom—and Win

A Faustian bargain: family or freedom

Five generations of slaves on Smith’s Plantation in Beaufort, S.C., circa 1862.

Five generations of slaves on Smith’s Plantation in Beaufort, S.C., circa 1862.

Imagine a free person re-entering slavery—and all its horrors—for the sake of love. It sometimes happened because the families of enslaved people were often tethered to free African Americans in marriages of mixed-status couples. And these unusual arrangements compromised the status of the free person, sometimes posing unique dilemmas that put their families’ safety and security in opposition to their liberty.

In the antebellum South, lawmakers showed naked contempt for free black people, reflected in a tidal wave of legal restrictions designed to box them in or force them to leave the region. In the 1850s, many laws were passed to expel free blacks and to encourage them to submit to so-called voluntary slavery, in which freed people petitioned states to be re-enslaved to avoid expulsion or other dire circumstances.

These maneuvers most often affected mixed-status families, who were put in the position of having to choose between staying together or having one or more members submit to re-enslavement. Some of them had already tried and failed to get legislators to exempt them from laws that forced them to leave their home states. Submission to legal slavery was the last resort. Their families were already constrained by the lower status of their enslaved kin since they were likely to live and work alongside them on the same plantations under the same rules. The privileges that free people in this context experienced were more often abstract than real.

It’s hard to underestimate the gravity of their sacrifices. The willingness to submit to so-called “voluntary” slavery signified that some free blacks were prepared to prioritize their marital and family ties at any costs. Even families already separated by manumission often reconsidered the relative costs of being free. One man left the state of Virginia and moved to Ohio after being freed—forced out by law—but grew to regret it more and more. He returned to Virginia because he said he “would prefer returning to slavery to losing the society of his wife.”

READ MORE: How Slavery Became the Economic Engine of the South

This amplifies how free African Americans did not experience freedom as an absolute condition or right they could take for granted. The increasingly harsh tactics used by Southern states pushed more free people to weigh the costs of being forced apart from family members or remaining intact, even if meant returning to bondage.

Still, despite the reign of terror that slavery spawned and no matter how much it altered and disfigured black marriages, it did not and could not annihilate them—or the love that sustained them. African Americans proved relentlessly creative and resourceful in building marriages and kinship ties that functioned for their survival. We should never lose sight of the depth of feelings and affection that undergirded these relationships and the sacrifices they were willing to make for the sake of preserving them.

Tera W. Hunter is professor of history and African American studies at Princeton University and the author of Bound in Slavery and To Joy My Freedom, among other books. Follow her on Twitter: @TeraWHunter.

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