Family  /  Q&A

'Until Death or Distance Do You Part'

African American marriages before and after the Civil War.
Mural of a wedding on a plantation, while African Americans working in fields.
James W. Rosenthal/Wikimedia Commons

TH: Most slave marriages were voluntary, as masters saw the benefits of using coupling as a stabilizing influence on plantations and, of course, encouraging reproduction of their property. Masters used marriage to lay claim to their benevolence and Christianity, to counter the arguments that abolitionists made about the brutality of slavery. But the use of force was common, as masters often paired slaves together against their will. This was a gross form of sexual violation of both women and men. Not to mention, the marital beds of voluntary couples were often exploited by the masters themselves, using their prerogative to molest female slaves.

AC: How did a marriage work when one person was free and another still enslaved?

TH: Mixed-status marriages were similar to enslaved marriages in the sense that they were not legally recognized. Free persons’ rights were thus restricted because of their close ties to enslaved relatives. In some cases, couples lived together in the cabins of the enslaved person. In other cases, the free person might live elsewhere and visit back and forth with the enslaved spouse. (The latter were called “abroad” marriages, though slaves married to one another often used the same arrangement when each person had a different owner.) Mixed-status relationships existed because slave and free black communities intermingled through work and leisure activities. This was especially true in urban places, where the boundaries of caste were more fluid. These relationships also existed as some enslaved people gained their freedom and maintained ties with those still enslaved.

AC: I imagine that slaveholders would find that quite threatening.

TH: Some states, like North Carolina, even prohibited them by law, though they were not so successful in enforcing it. The law itself shows that it was considered a menace difficult for officials to repress and contain.

AC: There was so much violence, chaos, and confusion during and after the Civil War. What happened to slave marriages during that transition?

TH: The Civil War opened the door to both chaos and unforeseen possibilities. It became an important turning point in the history of African American marriages. Slaves ran away in droves at the sight of the Union Army as battles were fought in Confederate territory. They forced the federal government to reckon with a population that it assumed would be neutral in the war.

AC: Remain neutral! What a crazy thing to imagine.