Historical Flashback: Marriages of enslaved Africans in the United States

Historical Flashback: Marriages of enslaved Africans in the United States

Dilemma X takes this time to reflect on the institution of marriage during the time of the enslavement of Africans in the United States of America. Historical newspaper articles reflect the conversations that were taking place across this nation.

First, reflect on the time period by reading information from The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

Freedmen’s Bureau Marriage Records
By Reginald Washington
African American genealogy specialist at the National Archives and Records Administration

Marriages of enslaved people of African descent
Marriages of enslaved Africans had neither legal standing nor protection from the abuses and restrictions imposed on them by slaveowners. Enslaved husbands and wives, without legal recourse, could be separated or sold at their master’s will. Couples who resided on different plantations were allowed to visit only with the consent of their owners. Enslaved Africans often married without the benefit of clergy, and as historian John Blassingame states, “the marriage ceremony in most cases consisted of the enslaved simply getting the master’s permission and moving into a cabin together.”

The Freedmen’s Bureau Issues Marriage Orders
On May 30, 1865, Maj. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard (founder of Howard University and establisher of Fayetteville State University), who was appointed by President Andrew Johnson as commissioner of newly formed Freedmen’s Bureau, issued orders to his assistant commissioners—who were responsible for the daily operations of the bureau in the former Confederate states, Border States, and the District of Columbia—on the conditions for solemnizing former marriages of enslaved Africans. Continuing the practice started by military and civilian officials at government camps, Howard told his subordinates, “In places where the local statutes make no provisions for the marriage of persons of color, the assistant commissioners are authorized to designate officers who shall keep a record of marriages, which may be solemnized by any ordained minister of the gospel.” Howard’s orders also required ministers to report on marriages they performed, including “such items as may be required for registration at places designated by assistant commissioners.” Marriages that had been already recorded by military officers were to be preserved.

Assistant Commissioners Respond to Howard’s Orders
Although Commissioner Howard’s marriage orders provided important guidance for solemnizing ex-slave marriages, his instructions and the several ways in which assistant commissioners responded to them led to variations in the kind of data collected about freedmen couples. Because of these variations, the quantity of bureau marriage records differs for each state, and for some states there are no marriage records. In such instances, researchers will need to search in state and county sources for information regarding ex-enslaved unions.

On April 19, 1866, formerly enslaved Benjamin Berry Manson and Sarah Ann Benton White received an official marriage certificate from the Freedmen’s Bureau, officially known as the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands.

The Wilson County, Tennessee, couple had lived as enslaved man and wife since October 28, 1843, and for the first time in more than two decades their marriage had finally received legal recognition. The Freedmen’s Bureau—established in the War Department by an act of Congress on March 3, 1865—was responsible for “the supervision and management of all matters relating to the refugees and freedmen and lands abandoned or seized during the Civil War.” With duties resembling those of a modern-day social services agency, the bureau provided freedpeople with food and clothing, medical attention, employment, support for education, help with military claims, and a host of other socially related services—including assisting ex-enslaved couples in formalizing marriages they had entered into during slavery.
Freedmen's Bureau Marriage Record

Historical newspaper articles from the 1800s
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Marriages- Enslaved Africans 1839

Marriages- Enslaved Africans 1845

Marriages- Enslaved Africans 1846

Marriages- Enslaved Africans 1852

Marriages- Enslaved Africans 1855 Aug Marriages- Enslaved Africans 1855 Oct

Marriages- Enslaved Africans 1858

Marriages- Enslaved Africans 1884

Marriages- Enslaved Africans 1888

Marriages- Enslaved Africans 1890

Marriages- Enslaved Africans 1896

Early Slave Codes
Massachusetts became the first English colony to legalize slavery in 1641.

The first legislative enactment making reference to blacks was the Virginia statute of 1639:

Act X. All persons except Negroes are to be provided with arms and ammunition or be fined at the pleasure of the governor and council.

As early as the late 1630s, however, English colonists began to distinguish between the status of white servants and enslaved Africans.

In 1639, Maryland became the first colony to specifically state that baptism as a Christian did not make an enslaved African a free person.

In 1650, Connecticut legalized slavery.

In 1660, Elizabeth Key won the first freedom suit in Virginia. After this case, the colonial legislature adopted the principle of partus sequitur ventrem saying that all children born to enslaved mothers were enslaved, regardless of paternity.

A 1662 law decreed that the children of enslaved Africans took on the status of their mother, in contrast to common law, which conferred the father’s status on a child. The law was intended to enslave the increasing number of children fathered by white European men.

Maryland legalized slavery in 1663 and attempted to pass a law that would enslave free blacks and require that all blacks be enslaved regardless of their mother’s status.

In 1864, Maryland punished marriage between a white woman and enslaved African man by requiring that she serve her husband’s master during her husband’s lifetime and that their children would be enslaved.

Maryland became the first English American colony to make marriage between white women and black men illegal.

In 1699, slave laws stipulating whippings and other forms of corporeal punishment as the standard practice for dealing with slaves were the rule in Virginia.

At first, in the 1660s, the first laws in Virginia and Maryland regulating marriage between whites and blacks only pertained to the marriages of whites with enslaved blacks (and mulattos) and indentured servants. In 1664, Maryland enacted a law which criminalized such marriages. The 1681 marriage of White Irish-born Nell Butler to an enslaved African was an early example of the application of this law.

In 1691, Virginia became the first English colony in North America to pass a law forbidding free blacks and whites to intermarry, followed by Maryland in 1692.

Just a few Examples in North Carolina
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North Carolina Black Codes

Just a few Examples in the District of Columbia
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District of Columbia Black Codes

District of Columbia Black Codes

District of Columbia Black Codes

District of Columbia Black Codes

See related articles:
Religion of former enslaved Africans after slavery ended in the United States

History Flashback: The Dual Mandate in British Tropical Africa

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