Most Americans are shocked by the increasingly frequent scenes of wailing mothers and babies being torn apart by government officers at the Mexican border. The Trump administration has ratcheted up the separation of children from parents as a way to deter migrants from Central America.
Some critics denounce this practice as “un-American.” It is certainly immoral and violates human rights. But it’s not unprecedented. Indeed, for long stretches of American history, it was commonplace for children to be snatched from their families.
Solomon Northup, a free black man living in New York, was kidnapped into slavery in 1841. In his memoir, “Twelve Years a Slave,” he described a slave auction where a woman named Eliza and her little daughter, Emily, were sold to different buyers. “Never have I seen such an exhibition of intense, unmeasured and unbounded grief,” he wrote.
Emily’s parting words were forever seared on Eliza’s mind: “Don’t leave me, Mama! Don’t leave me!” Another child of Eliza’s was sold at an earlier auction, and the wound of knowing that she would not see her children again would never heal. “In the cotton field, in the cabin, always and everywhere,” Northup observed, “she was talking of them — often to them, as if they were actually present.”
Enslaved African-Americans often experienced nightmares like these. The likelihood that slaves would be separated from kin increased as slavery expanded west into the cotton- and sugar-producing lands acquired through the Louisiana Purchase. Scholars estimate that more than one million enslaved people were “sold down the river” from the Upper South to the Lower South from 1790 until the outbreak of the Civil War.
The historian Ira Berlin calls this the “Second Middle Passage,” following the original “Middle Passage” by sea that brought Africans to the Americas. This trade became big business in the slaveholding states, second only to plantation slavery itself.
The impact on slave families was devastating. Slaves who had lost loved ones were punished if they dared to cry, complain or fight back. To justify their brutality, slaveholders used the perverse reasoning, articulated by Thomas Jefferson in the 1780s, that slaves were incapable of expressing sentiment or love.
The end of slavery after the Civil War did not end family separation.