One of the most callous and tragic aspects of slavery in the United States was the slave owners’ practice of dividing families: children were taken from parents, husbands and wives were separated, brothers and sisters too. Why was this practice initiated? How did it impact families? Did the slave-owners feel any responsibility or remorse? And, after the Civil War, how did families scattered across the south try to reconnect?
Our guest today, Heather Williams, Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania, has written a moving book about on the subject, Help Me Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery.
- Heather Andrea WilliamsProfessor of Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania
- Joan NeubergerProfessor of History, University of Texas at Austin
Our topic today is going to be the family in slavery and in particular the emotional toll it took when slave owners decided to break up families. So could we start by talking about the family itself: how did families form in slave communities, were there restrictions?
Sure, there were lots of restrictions and, just so we understand, slavery meant that people were owned by other people and the people who owned them had incredible power over them. So for instance there was never any legal right for enslaved people to marry. They could not form a legal bond. There was, therefore, no legal divorce, however people got together and formed relationships that they considered marriage and that happened through a number of means. Sometimes two people would be attracted to each other and they would then have to go to their owner or owners to get permission to marry. Many marriages, many of the relationships happened across plantations or properties, so that the woman might be owned by one person and the man owned by somebody else. So the man would have to go his owner to ask permission and then he would have to go to her owner to ask permission. These adult people had to go to other people to get permission to get married and if they lived on different plantations the owners would agree on when the man can go to visit his wife and later the children as well. And typically you see in the sources that Wednesday was the day for this kind of movement and possibly on Sundays.
Other relationships came about because owners forced people together. It’s really important, early in the 1600s in Virginia and then in subsequent colonies and states, laws established the fact that children would belong to the owner of the mother. So instead of the way that would have been in England, where it would have been determined by paternity, here it was determined through the mother. So when a man from one plantation was with a woman from another plantation there was no confusion about who owned the offspring. Slave owners encouraged people to get together and sometimes forced people to get together. There is testimony from women who say that, as a young girl I was put into a room with this man and I didn’t understand what was happening and I didn’t understand what was supposed to happen and he came towards me and I fought him off and then the owner said no you have to be with him. So there were those kinds of forced interactions but there were also consensual loving interactions.
Was childbearing encouraged or discouraged?
Childbearing was very much encouraged because you’re reproducing property. So: I own this woman, and if she has ten children, now I own 11 people. It was very much encouraged and on the bigger plantations you would see that a woman who was pregnant might have some extra latitude. If she said she was feeling sick maybe she wouldn’t to work or maybe she wouldn’t be expected to work for a couple of weeks after the child was born. They really encourage it and they wanted the woman to have healthy children so over working the woman at that stage would not have been wise but still that happened sometimes because people think in the short term: “I need this crop brought in or I need this clothing made,” and maybe a woman would be overworked and would miscarry.
Did religion play much of a role in life cycle events like marriage ceremonies or child bearing?
After, I would say by the mid 1800s, maybe early 1800s, many enslaved people became Christians, so at first they kind of resisted it. Many of them at that point were still coming from Africa and the kind of spiritual practices that they had brought with them. But with the “Great Awakening,” there was more exposure to Christianity and more sort of acceptance of it and the idea that you could have this relationship with Christ, that you could even become an evangelist and become a preacher. I think for some people that created a space within slavery, a space of relative freedom, where you could think about a place where after this life was over, you’d be free. I’ve seen cases in which a woman, for instance, said “I wanted to get married to this man, but I kept holding out because I wanted a minister of the gospel to marry us,” but there was no minister available so, she said, eventually a black man who was a kind of a vendor, moving around the landscape showed up and he performed the ceremony.
One of the things that many former slaves complained about was the fact that during their wedding ceremonies, nobody ever said those words from the traditional marriage vows: “what God has put together, let no man put asunder.” And that was a clear indication to them that their marriages were not legal and that the owners didn’t see them as sanctioned by God. I’ve seen marriage vows that one owner said that he used when he performed wedding ceremonies and he doesn’t mention God anywhere. “I am gathered here with these people,” and he goes through the whole ceremony and he never mentions god, and so they said we don’t get that kind of religious blessing and there’s no observance of the protection that the religious blessing would give us, so that our earthly master substitutes himself for the heavenly master. So religion, I think played out in the sense that people didn’t get the protections that religion might have provided for them.
Before we talk about separating families, were there other ways that owners interfered in family life?
I think that putting people together was the big thing, having the right to say: yes, you can get married or not. Owners called it “abroad marriage,” so if you lived on separate plantations, even though they might just be miles apart, we think of abroad as out of the country, but they called it “abroad marriages” and they really frowned on it because it reduced their control. You have a man from another plantation coming onto your property and some of the owners would write about this. “He’s sitting around and he’s off for more, and then your people, your slaves, are watching this and he’s sending a bad example.”
I think also one of the places where you see conflict is that owners expected obedience from all the people they owned, women, men, children. Parents expected obedience from their children, so you see that kind of conflict where a father would say to a child, “Yes, I know master called you but I called you at the same time and you have to come to me. But they’re walking this tightrope because you want to protect your child so if the child doesn’t respond to the owner, to the overseer, to the mistress, whoever, whichever person in power, that child might be in jeopardy. But the parent also wanted to establish some sense of power, to have some power over somebody. And so you see those kinds of conflicts where children had to make decisions and figure out how to navigate this system, in which the normal sort of family structures were not abided by because there was somebody else who had more authority that the people who normally would in a family.
You’ve written about the separation of families: what kinds of events led to the separation of family members?
Lots of events. Again, thinking about slavery as a property relationship, owners owned, so they owned land and they owned people and that’s where their wealth lay, and it was much easier to get funds from the sale of a person, than from selling some real estate. So you might have a thousand acres, harder to carve it up, just harder to move that property, but if you were in debt, if you owed money, you could sell 10 people or 12 people or 5 people. So sale was one of the big ways and often around debt, like mortgages. Enslaved people could be used for a mortgage. You could go and get a loan from a bank and your collateral could be in people. If you failed to make a payment then the bank could come and seize those people. Just like today they could come and seize your car for instance, and that was another way in which people were separated.
Quite often, starting in about 1820s, you see a great migration from the upper south, places like North Carolina, Maryland, and Virginia, where tobacco cultivation had been the big cash crop and many enslaved people worked those tobacco fields. Well, tobacco fields started drying up, you can only plant tobacco for about 3 years and then the nutrients in the soil get used up and the land has to just lie idle or fallow for 20 years. So you have a lot of expansion but lots of land that you can’t use. When you see this increase in cotton cultivation farther south and people moving from the upper south to the lower south to places like Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, white families, the slave owners, taking enslaved people with them to set up new plantations, new properties that would produce cotton–
And they would take parts of families?
They would break up families. So they might decide to take 100 of the slaves, not the other 100 or the other 50, and often those decisions would be based on age. You might want strong men in their 20s and women in their 20s, but you might not want 60 year olds, and so that would be a way to separate, but also husbands and wives, they just decided who they thought would do the best work, and who they wanted in that place, and so that would separate people.
Also the marriage of the children of slave owners, that was another time when you had separation, because an owner might own 100 people and give 15 of them to his daughter who got married, and she and her husband are moving to a new place, and those divisions would not necessarily be made in family groupings. Sometimes they were, so not everybody experienced separation, but that was not foremost in the owner’s mind. The death of an owner — when an owner dies, slaves knew that there could be serious problems. Now that the person in charge is gone, everybody might be sold and that happened often, so through wills, people might be distributed to several members of the family. The sons come and they make a claim, and they divide people up by their value, so again if you’re a “prime male hand,” and that was the language that they used, a “prime hand,” let’s say between ages 17 and 26, you’re worth more than a 14 year old or a 60 year old, and so that’s how they would balance things out so that each heir would get a balanced proportion according to what the will had established. That meant sometimes that you get to go with your mother and sometimes you don’t. Sometimes the family goes and sometimes not.
Those are some of the major ways in which separations happened but I’ve also seen cases where, for instance, a male cousin of the owner had children with an enslaved woman, and the family, the owner’s family was very embarrassed, and so they sold the mother and the children so that they wouldn’t have to always see that. Or the owner may have children with an enslaved woman and the wife is livid and just upset and to make things easier at home he would sell those people. In one particular case I’m thinking about with a cousin, the mother was sold with her two children, a boy and girl, so they were sold together and they were together for a while, but then they were broken up through another sale. Things could happen at the whim of somebody.
It’s economics in most instances because that’s what this about: property. And you had the right as owner to use your property as you saw fit, to sell your property as you saw fit.
From the owner’s point of view this was an economic transaction. You’ve written very movingly about the emotional toll that this took on children and parents and family members. Could you talk about some of the children that you have discovered, their feelings?
The sources I have are from adults who recalled what their experiences were like as children and they remember becoming aware that something was happening and that was really important for me, because you think children are eavesdropping in families sometimes, you’re looking around the corner you’re hearing adult conversations, they start to hear that there’s more tension in the home or in the slave community, the slave quarters, and people are upset. So for instance when an owner died, there was this increased level of anxiety and children started to realize for the first time that they are slaves, that that had some meaning, and that they could be sold. So the adults would be trying to figure out who’s going to go with whom, what’s going to happen. Then the day of the sale comes, or the day of the division of property for the heirs. People describe just really powerful scenes of pain and anguish as a mother is crying for her children and wishing, begging, pleading that the purchaser purchase her, somebody who is buying one her children to take her with them, or running after the cart as the children are being taken away. Very often the younger children have just become aware that they could be sold. They don’t really know what that means. They don’t know what separation means. They don’t know what it implies, and so they’re just kind of going along. I see children who got into the carriage with other children and the driver gives them candy or somebody is purchasing several children and has an old woman, an enslaved woman, and so they purchased a woman who’s going to take care of these children, and so it’s when the carriage pulls out and the mother is crying and screaming or days later when they get to this new environment and their mother’s not there, there’s nothing familiar, and they start to realize, “oh, something awful has happened.” So you really see the changing circumstances in this kind of parting and they are starting to realize and becoming aware of what their circumstances were.
In some cases somebody took them in, in the slave community. So there might be this woman, there’s one instance where somebody describes being in the carriage and the woman goes but there’s never any sense that she was a caring, loving person, and you can imagine, she had been taken away from her own family, so this is a job for her. In other cases, somebody on the planation, a woman sometimes a man, took a child and said I’ll take care of you. So somebody talks about this man who, I think, had been sold along with him and other people from his plantation, the man knew his father, and so had promised this boy’s father that he would take care of the child. The man was a musician and so he would take the child with him at night when he was performing. So some of them you’d get this sense that somebody cared about them, somebody took care of them. Others, especially on the large plantations, were just sort of maybe living in a slave cabin with another family, not necessarily taken in, and so its hard sometimes to get at the nitty gritty of their daily lives, but you get the sense that it was very, very varied. Some continued to have a sense of love and caring even though they had lost the central people in their lives, and then other people you can sense were just kind of managing and trying to figure out what was going on and trying to blend in.
Do you have sources that describe the parents’ experience of losing their children?
Yeah, a lot of that comes about through the children but also through the people who experience the loss, also descriptions from people who observed the loss taking place. So just really powerful stories. For instance, a woman who was being taken with a big group of slaves south, they called that a “coffee.” The men generally would chained together, sometimes the women were not chained and the younger children, but they’re part of this “coffee” and this was quite familiar.
When you say they were chained together, were they in a carriage or were they chained while they were walking?
No, they were walking and you can go to the museums in the Charleston, for instance, and you can see these chains that were manufactured and produced to hold people around the neck and connect them in that away or the legs, just as you would see prisoners being transported in jail sometimes or in a prison.
They’re chained together so they can’t run away. In the one case that I’m thinking about, someone wrote about the mother of an infant on the coffee, so they’re going to a slave market, but somebody could stop and purchase people at any point, which again relates to separation, you don’t know where the purchaser went. So the purchaser did not want the infant and according to this person who said she observed it, the slave trader took the baby aside and just killed the baby. Apparently the mother kind of lost her mind.
Some people were able to survive emotionally and physically, some people fell apart, so to have any vision of people just being always strong and always resilient is not an accurate vision. Many people are resilient and kept on going but other people just couldn’t stop crying. There’s a woman who said “they took my baby away and sometimes I can hear my son calling me and he says, ‘mommy take me with you, take me with you.’” She says “I put my fingers in my ears because I don’t want to hear him,” and this was years after she had lost the child: “I just keep hearing him saying, ‘mommy take me with you, mommy take me with you.’” People were just haunted by these losses and by this lack of control. I talked about the children of the owners’ cousins, and the mother and her two children who were sold apart; at some point the mother sent a message to her son. Basically she knew a man, another enslaved person, who was going into town and that’s where she had last seen her son. She wrapped up some beads, just blue beads in a piece of cloth, and sent it and said, “if you find my son give him these he’ll know what to do.” Once the son opened it and said this really is from my mother. He had been teaching himself how to read and write; he said I’ve always wanted to write in case I could run away. Because you needed to have a pass, a piece of paper with writing on it that said that you have permission to move about, because if you were black you were assumed to be a slave and you needed permission. So he went and found his mother, and she said, once I found out where you were, I tried to escape but I got beaten and I just can’t do it anymore. He took paper and pen and wrote a pass for her to escape, and she said I just can’t do it anymore. Her owner caught him and he was beaten and he was sent back to his proper owner. And so you’ve got all kinds of stories of a really wide range of experiences. Parents just talking for years about their children and trying to figure out where they were, searching for them, getting someone to write a letter back to where they had left the child to try to find some trace of the child.
Listening to you today talk about these experiences is really incredibly painful to think about, just to listen to you talk about them. Were there any slave owners who had any appreciation of, or how did they explain peoples’ feelings as they stood there and watched as mothers screamed after their children? How did they justify this or did they just simply not understand what was going on? What did they think was going on?
As far as I can figure out, and this is a question that I took into the research, because I was aware that they’re there, they’re present…
They’re doing it… they’re creating this incredible anguish..
I can’t account for everybody but most of them didn’t ever say anything about it. So for instance there’s a letter from a slave trader named Obeah Fields, and he was on the road selling people and conducting business. He wrote a letter back to his wife, he’s headed south, she was in Virginia or Maryland, and at the top of the page, the first half of the letter, he’s kind of telling her business information –so I have sold most of the slaves, the ones that I have left are — and he actually named the people — and so about 6 people, and he put information about the ones he had sold and how much he had sold them for and then something about buying a carriage and that kind of thing. Then at the bottom of the page he turned to more personal matters, and he expressed his deep love for his wife and his children and he sent his love to them, you know you could tell he really cared about them and loved his wife, and he said I’m sending you $20 to buy a new dress for yourself and I hope that I’ll be back home at Christmas, in time for Christmas and I love you and he named children. And so in that document you see this division: he was selling people who inevitably were being separated from somebody unless they had already lost everybody and this was a second or third sale, they’re at least being separated from the people they knew, but he never expressed any concern for them, but at the bottom you see him as a loving person. He was not just some brute. He loved his family, and in his short absence from his family he was missing them and hoping that he’d get back, but it’s a short absence and it’s an absence that he undertook, because it’s business. And there you see that this is a person, this is a human, this is someone who has feelings, but he’s not spending any of those feelings on these other people.
–or even appreciating their situation.
Exactly, he’s not saying, oh they seem so sad when I sell them or the ones that are left just seem demoralized. Nothing. No acknowledgment at all of them as being other than property. He’s eager to sell the rest of them because the faster he sells them, the sooner he can get back to his family. Thomas Chaplain, I think, is the slave owner who presents the most complete complex situation that I have come across. He was a slave owner in South Carolina, on St, Helena Island off the coast of South Carolina. At age 17 he inherited slaves and real estate property from his father, and so he was a young man, became a slave owner, got married. And at the time that I pick him up in 1845, he owns 70 people, but he was in debt and debt means people will be sold very often. So the sheriff was going to come and take possession of some of his slaves to sell them to pay his debts and he decided that instead of doing that he would sneak some people off the island and send them to the Charleston market to be sold so that he could make money from their sale and pay the debts and hopefully have some money left over. He’d be able to set a price for them. And in his journal, he wrote some of his feelings about doing this, and in one sentence he says, “it’s a really terrible thing, it’s an awful thing for me to have to sell some of these people, and it’s no fault of their own and you don’t know where they will end up, and separating families, mothers from children” –it’s as though he’s writing my book—“separating mothers from their children, fathers from their children…”
…He understands that’s painful for them.
He understands very much that it’s painful, it’s going to hurt, but he says, “But i hope that they’ll bring a good price in the market, and that I won’t have to do this again,” and in the journal as you trace his steps you can see that he’s kind of hiding from the people. He names in the journal the 10 people he’s decided to sell, and he brings somebody else in and sends that person down to the slave quarters to pull out those people and take them to the boat to take them to the mainland. He didn’t go. He didn’t go and face them, and then as they’re getting on the boat, he’s somewhere looking at them, but he’s not down at the ship. I’ve actually been to the house that he lived in, and you can almost imagine him peeking through the window, the curtains were there and he had view and he didn’t want to be there. And then a few days later he wrote in the journal that the people who were left behind, the families were disconsolate, they were just sad, they could not be consoled about the loss of these people. And he says but it will soon blow over, maybe they’ll see their children again, and he says something more about money and getting the money and hopefully being satisfied. And so as you go through the journal, you see messages coming back saying that these three have been sold, and then this one has been sold, and you don’t see anymore about the other three, and so they’re in Charleston, the thriving market in Charleston, and being taken probably to a rice plantation or a cotton plantation, but you just don’t know.
So here with Chaplain, you see somebody who in some sense is struggling very much with this idea of selling people, but he’s also struggling with settling with his loss of mastery. He’s not fully in charge of his situation, he shouldn’t be in this kind of position, and you see him going back and forth like that, and some people are skeptical of the ideas that he wrote at that point. His expression of concern about the slaves, but when I go to his original journal, which is in the archives in Charleston, you see that its hand written, he wrote these words in 1845. Then after the Civil War ended and he want back through the journal and annotated certain entries, for those days in 1845 he wrote “if only i had known that the negroes would be so ungrateful, as to leave after the war, I would have, and many of us would have put them in our pockets in the first place, wouldn’t have been so concerned about their feelings.” So here he’s saying during the Civil War, all the slave owners, all the white people from St. Helena fled the island when the Union soldiers were within miles of the place. He turned to one of his slaves and said take care of the place for me, but when he came back after the war, they were all gone, nobody stuck around. They’re now free, what they were waiting for, but he was resentful of that and he says “if i had know that they would not be loyal to me, I wouldn’t have wasted my time in 1845 feeling sorry that I was selling them. I would’ve put them in my pocket, meaning I would have sold them all and had that cash to put in my pocket. So for me that says the feelings of remorse that he expressed earlier were true feelings and that now he was regretting those feelings, but that he had those feelings. All those pieces kind of come together because I’m trying to figure out who these people are, who the enslaved people are, what are they thinking, and who somebody like Chaplain was, and what he was thinking. It can be complicated and sometimes people want to say, well they were just terrible people but here with Obadiah Fields [and Thomas Chaplain] it’s more complicated. They’re people who had feelings — and his case, which really is an extraordinary case — I have not come across somebody else like that. Thomas Jefferson, who of course was the third President, but also a big slave holder in Virginia, wrote that the negroes are not like us, they’re not as intelligent as us, they can’t write real poetry, they don’t feel deeply, their griefs are fleeting, their griefs are transient is what he said. It doesn’t last long. So he’s saying they don’t feel deeply but in a letter when he was president he wrote back to the overseer at the plantation and said one of his slaves who had been accused of I think killing somebody, another slave, and he said “if they don’t lock him up, then I want you to sell him to Georgia, because nothing is more painful to those slaves as being separated from their families. So he knows the pain, he knows that they’ll grieve but in a big tome that he was sending to the world he says, oh but they don’t feel deeply. The things that make white people suffer, it just washes right over them
People are full of contradictions…
You started this project when you discovered a large number of people looking for, searching for their family members they’d been separated from, and they put ads in newspapers?
Yes, that’s what got me started on the project because I was doing research and looking through black newspapers in the south and started coming across these ads. You go through the paper and it’s just like today, you have a section with news, maybe editorials, and then you get to a page with ads, and they’re advertising hoop skirts and tobacco and all kinds of miracle medicines and then you see these ads and they’re just really powerful and poignant. People looking for family members who they had lost decades earlier and they tell you as much information as they had. Her name was Bettie, and we were sold by Colonel so-and-so from Virginia. And I was taken here and very often they named their owner, they named the traders, because they knew that those were more powerful people than they were and so somebody might remember that Col Johnson’s people went to New Orleans or went to Savannah. They’re hoping that you’ll recognize their name, the name of the family members they’re looking for, the names of the people who had sold them or had somehow been involved in the slave trade. Many of them were in a newspaper called the Christian Reporter, which is from the AME church. Especially in those but in some of the others there would be a note that said, “ministers of the church, please read this aloud” because in that way even if only one newspaper came into a community or if only a few people were literate enough to read an ad, if you read it aloud in church, maybe 100 people would hear it and then those people would leave and talk to other people. They’re calling on the mechanisms within their communities to get the word out. They didn’t have the kind of facilities that we have. They didn’t have the internet…
It’s not that different than holding up a picture on the internet saying, “help me find…”
Yeah, September 11th people leaving these pictures and letters and notes in Manhattan because you don’t know where your family member is, you don’t know if that person made it out.
So people paid money to have these ads run in newspapers. These are very poor people; they’re just emerging from slavery. Some offered rewards, not many did, but some did, and when you read you know it’s a husband looking for his wife and his children, it’s a wife looking for her husband, it’s a sister looking for her siblings. One man was just looking for any friends, anybody who might know him because he’s been displaced, sold and sold and sold, so just really powerful. Some people, a woman named Outlaw, she was at that time in Raleigh, and she named about 12 children, so she had lost that many children. She had all the names of the children and she just wanted to hear something from one of them. You see also evidence that some people had managed to keep in touch for a while, had heard word maybe, and then an enslaved person who worked for a slave trader came back up that route and told them you know we dropped that person off in New Orleans. In some of the ads you’ll see, I remember one where it said her daughter had been sold I think from Virginia and had been taken to this place and then had been taken to Cuba and then to Texas and then the trail went cold. At this point she just trying to say you may have seen her in one of these places, can you tell me any information you have. Slavery ended in 1865. The separations had taken place before that, but I see these ads in the newspapers until 1903, so people were still holding on to hope that they could find family members even though I guess they figured I’m still alive maybe that person’s still alive.
Do you have any evidence of people who found family members?
From the ads, I have one notice. It was in a church paper from Dallas, saying that somebody had placed an ad in the paper and had just announced in church that she had found a relative, but when I went to find the original ad I couldn’t find it. Outside of the ads, through all kinds of circumstances, I did see people who found each other. Sometimes people just walked back to the place where they had last seen family and the people were still there, but sometimes they weren’t there. Sometimes somebody recognized someone: do you have a brother in Cleveland, well I don’t know. I used to have a brother but I don’t know where he is because we were sold apart. Then through a series of messages and interventions they were able to find each other, but they were now adults and they had hadn’t seen each other since they were children and one of the brothers had lost a finger at some point and that was the marker that let them know.
When some people did find each other there could be all kinds of complications. If you had been married and you’re still looking for your wife or your husband, and you find the person but the person is now married to somebody else. Or children didn’t recognize the parent because they just didn’t remember them. Or a mother is looking and in her head she has always been looking and thinking about her 8 year old, but now that 8 year old is a 25 year old. How will you recognize each other, and once you do, so much has changed. A child has now been raised by somebody else and the mother might have different kinds of expectations of behavior and so it could be quite complicated. Unfortunately I don’t get many details about what life was like. They tell you about the big moment about reunification, but then they don’t tell you the daily adjustments that had to take place.
This is a story that has a lot of dangling ends, really open ended history. I mean, in a way, as historians all of us are writing stories that aren’t really finished, because the documents just don’t tell us everything we want to know. But this is such an open ended history, I wonder if that made it harder for you to write or more interesting, or if you thought about that while you were writing it?
Yeah, it makes it very interesting, sometimes frustrating, because I get bits and pieces. I get fragments. Somebody enters the record, the historical record, for a moment, and then I can’t find any trace of that person. So I have to put several stories together, but I can’t tell you how this person’s story was resolved. I was talking to some people earlier about fiction, historical fiction, and history, and what some of the difference are, and one of the things that I thought about, is that with fiction you create your story and you can tie up lots of loose ends. You can tell me what happened. This husband’s been looking for his wife for 20 years and they realize… you can tell a story. As a historian it can be frustrating but it’s also maybe, it’s certainly more realistic, that we don’t always know what happens, when we go poking around in the past, but we never know everything. We know what some documents present to us. Even if you’re writing about somebody like Thomas Jefferson or George Washington for whom there are reams and reams of documents, there’s so much that you can never know, so much that they didn’t write down, so much that they were feeling that they never said. We all have behaviors that we can’t explain and so going into the past you can never know everything. I think it’s tempting to want to, and its tempting to pretend that you do but certainly doing this kind of work you’re just very aware that you never can. I can never speak for black people, I can never speak for all white people, I can never tell you everything about everybody. Even with one particular individual I’m aware that there’s just a lot I don’t have access to. Mostly I’m ok with that but sometimes it’s sad, you wish you had more of a person’s story and you just don’t.
You also write about how when you go around talking about your work that people tell you that it sounds like things that they’re familiar with. As a Russian historian the first thing I thought about was after World War II and up until today, on Victory Day you hear on the radio people still looking for each other decades and decades later. You mentioned Native American children who are separated from their families, and Nazi holocaust survivors. I’m wondering if you have thoughts about the differences between those situations and slavery. Is there something different about the situation of North American slavery and the kinds of separations that took place or the kinds of searching that people did or the kind of regime that it was. Are there are things about this story that differentiate it from those or do you see it as a universal?
Well I see forced separations as universal. You’ve named some of the contexts, but I see probably each of the circumstances as different and so certainly say with Nazi Germany I’ve been told that in Israel there was a radio program for many decades where people were looking for family members. But those separations happened within a particular time period. With this it happened in a particular time period, but over a very long period of time and so people who were searching after the war were searching for people whom they’d lost in their lifetimes but their [slaves’] parents may have lost people, their parents may have been sold from one place to another so it was something that was repeating in families but also just maybe not in your particular family. It was part of an experience of these people throughout slavery, escalating in the antebellum period so say the period of the 40 or 50 years before the Civil War and the end of slavery. And so I think it’s something that people in some ways had to adjust to. I think that that’s one of the things about us as humans is we adjust to all kinds of horrible things and so people would be sent somewhere and the assumption was that they would be married for instance, the your husband is essentially dead, you may not even know where he is. There’s a man whose wife had been sent to another part of the state miles and miles away, taken by her owners, he belongs to somebody else. His mistress, or his owners’ wife, was writing letters for him and said that this was probably the last letter because master says it’s only painful for you [the wife] and painful for me to have these letters going back and forth but it’s not going to help anything. He’s not going to send me there to live so I’ll try to get your owner to send you back here with the children. He said master says I should just find another person and he says you know people tell me that many of these colored women would be happy with me, but I’m not interested. But if I should ever do that then I would let you know. So you see him standing at this crossroads in his life: What do I do? Am i ever going to see her again? Am I ever going to see my children again? And that is one of those rare, rare situations where I found that letter documenting the separation and the separation actually took place in 1863, during the Civil War. It was after the Emancipation Proclamation, but the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t free most people, so they were still owned by people. In 1870, –the war ended 1865 — in the 1870 census, I found him, Tate is his last name, living in household with a woman. In the letter he just said my dear wife, he never called her by name, but it’s a woman who’s about his age. Then he named his children in the letter, he said give my love to my children, he named them, and those children were also in the household. So that’s a place where I see reunification take place because the separation had occurred so close to the end of slavery. But at the time he didn’t know, she didn’t know, that slavery was going to be over. They didn’t know who was going to win the war. So I think making these kinds of adjustments and deciding to go on living, for most people. Some people as I said just fell apart and could not go on, went into a deep depression. I’ve seen descriptions of that, they didn’t use that language, but what they described is called depression.
So it’s hard to compare to these others situations but I think the long term nature of it is significant. Stories passed down in families about separations that had taken place before, show that was part of what people knew could happen. Once you leave childhood, it just kind of looms. As a young child you’re not aware of what’s going to happen, what could happen, and, as I said, separation did not occur for everybody but it was always a possibility because they did not control what would happen.
You’ve really given us a good sense of how pervasive the threat of separation was and how much it was woven into the culture of the experience of an enslaved people. Thank you so much for coming in and talking to us about this.
My pleasure, thank you.