«Volume Title: Strategic Factors in Nineteenth Century American Economic History: A Volume to Honor Robert W. Fogel Volume Author/Editor: Claudia ...»
Analysis of the factors affecting slave household structure shows that the integrity of the family was most secure on large plantations in both importing and exporting regions. Because small farms grew by slave purchase and, if they moved, were more likely to disrupt divided-residence families, the slave child was much more likely to face family disruption if he or she lived on a small farm.
It has been widely accepted that the slave family was characterized by a dual structure of two-parent and female-headed families. The narrative sample suggests a two-to-one ratio of these types. While there has not been as much discussion of the importance of the divided-residence family, its existence does not alter the accepted interpretation of a strong slave family.
The narratives also provide some quantitative measures of the permanence of slave families. Slavery disrupted the family through the separation of husband and wife and the sale of slave children. On the latter issue, it is important to note the existence of a group of slave children separated from their families who were repeatedly sold. The disproportionate sale of these slave children could indicate that owners tended to avoid disrupting families if possible.
It is in the controversy over how a stable dual family structure came into existence that the narratives have been less helpful. Because of the nature of the source, it can support many interpretations. And even the quantitative data are open to numerous interpretations when combined with other primary and secondary sources on slavery.
The study of the slave family shows that slave owners benefited from encouraging the family through increased fertility. It is also possible, but unsupported by the narratives, that stable family life encouraged higher productivity. The effect could operate through the positive incentives associated with families or the negative incentive of the threat of selling family members. The role of strong, viable, and effective family life has been inadequately studied.
It is key to what I believe is the proper interpretation of the development of the slave family structure. Stable families grew out of the economic interaction of the slaveowner’s desire for the growth and productive use of his labor force and the slave’s desire to improve the living conditions for kin.
Elsewhere I have examined the effect of family type on diet, housing, clothing, and the probabilities of sale and punishment to show that slave children fared differently across family types.23The differences are most pronounced
23. See Stephen Crawford, “Quantified Memory: A Study of the WPA and Fisk University Slave Narrative Collections” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Chicago, 1980). chap. 6.
Stephen Crawford when comparing children alone in the quarters to all other children. A slave child living separately from his family and alone in the quarters faced the greatest risk of harsh treatment. And a slave child was less likely to be sold away from a family that had two parents, even if the parents resided on different plantations.
The two-parent family, whether consolidated or divided-residence, also tended to provide the basic necessities of life more effectively than did oneparent families. While the differences are not always large or statistically significant, two-parent families have lower levels of inadequate treatment. The similarity among the three family types is, however, more surprising than the differences, The slave narratives suggest that slave women effectively provided for their families. The quality of life in their families might have been marginally below that of a comparable family with two parents, but their children lived at levels far above those of children alone in the quarters.
Both slaveowner and slave had incentives to create and maintain the family structure identified in this study. The master may have encouraged two-parent families because of their higher fertility or, possibly, because their members were more productive in the field. The slave’s incentive was the higher living standard obtained by those in two-parent families. Slaveowners did sell husbands from wives, but they did so, I believe, only after weighing the penalty of such actions. Slaves chose not to create or maintain two-parent families but, again, they may have done so knowing the consequences. This essentially economic interaction created a dual family structure of two-parent and single-parent families. The sheer volume of information about the family in the narratives attests to the importance ex-slaves placed on family in recalling and defining their slave experience. The reader of the narratives cannot help but recognize the bonds of many slaves to their families and the horrible emotional loss slaves endured in trying to hold family together. Quantifying the narrative information brings solid measure to both sides of this equation. One facet of slavery’s inhumanity was that it added to the normal strains of family through the fear-and often reality-of family breakup and through sexual relations between white men and black women. While slaveowners, we may presume, were inclined to maintain slave families because of increased fertility and productivity, there were other conflicting incentives that often rendered the slave family vulnerable and fragile. A history of the slave family reveals the struggle between the slave’s desire and need for a viable family with the