In August 1619, a Dutch man-of-war came to Virginia shores with about twenty Africans. The Virginia colony was starved for labor. The sailors were starved for food, and so it began.
By 1850, the US census reported over 3.6 million black and mulatto people. In all that time and among all those people, there were technically very few brides. Because technically speaking, there was no such thing as a slave marriage. There were free blacks and they had brides, but only 11% of that 3.6 million were free (Debow), so for most little black girls, the future did not hold a white dress, a ring, or a handsome groom.
The absence of slave marriage was not just an unfortunate happenstance, it was foundational to maintaining chattel slavery at all.
All the vows, rights, or obligations in a traditional English wedding ceremony were completely at odds with slavery. A bride could not promise to be faithful until death did them part, for parting did not require death. Just a sale. She couldn’t promise obedience to her husband because she owed her obedience to her master. She couldn’t even promise physical faithfulness before a sale. If the master wanted her himself, she could not say no. If he chose another slave to father her children, she could not say no.
If you remember from a few episodes ago, the purpose of marriage was to ensure legitimate children who could inherit citizenship and property from their parents. Well, blacks weren’t citizens, so there would be no inheriting that. For the most part they didn’t have much property either, so no inheriting that. Instead, they were property and you couldn’t have a slave father claiming rights to his children. It was up to the master to determine how those children would be raised, not to mention where. Black fatherhood was erased out of existence. A father had nothing to either give or get from his children.
Black motherhood was different. Society was super patriarchal, but it turned out you could inherit one thing through the matriarchal line. You could inherit was slave status. If your mother was a slave, so were you. You belonged to her owner, and she could do nothing if he decided to sell you. So no legal slave marriage because a slave could accept neither the rights nor the responsibilities of marriage.
And yet a great many slaves said they were married. If I run through the women I covered in series 3, women who escaped slavery, you can see it. Ellen Craft, Elizabeth Keckly, and Harriet Tubman were married. Elizabeth Freeman may have been married; she certainly had a child. That leaves only Harriet Hemings who slipped away from slavery before she was old enough to marry.
So people are people, and they form relationships, it’s just that none of these marriages had any legal validity.
Everyone who enters a relationship knows that untimely death could strike at any time, but imagine what it does to your relationship if you know all along that your relationship might also end because of the whims or financial dealings of someone else entirely.
There are a variety of possible responses to that. One was to not even pretend. Some slaves had “sweethearts” (their term for it, not mine). Having a sweetheart contained no promise of stability or monogamy (Hunter, 31).
Then there was “taking up” with someone, which was supposed to be monogamous, but not necessarily lifelong. There was no ceremony about this. If the master allowed it you might move into the same cabin, but you could just as easily move back out (Hunter, 32).
Then there was slave marriage, which was intended to be monogamous and lifelong. You introduced yourself as husband and wife. You might share a surname (Hunter, 32).
But they knew it wasn’t the real deal. It wasn’t the marriage white brides got.
William Craft wrote of his wife Ellen, saying:
My wife was torn from her mother’s embrace in childhood, and taken to a distant part of the country. She had seen so many other children separated from their parents in this cruel manner, that the mere thought of her ever becoming the mother of a child, to linger out a miserable existence under the wretched system of American slavery, appeared to fill her very soul with horror; and as she had taken what I felt to be an important view of her condition, I did not, at first, press the marriage, but agreed to assist her in trying to devise some plan by which we might escape from our unhappy condition, and then be married.
But, after puzzling our brains for years, we were reluctantly driven to the sad conclusion, that it was almost impossible to escape from slavery in Georgia, and travel 1,000 miles across the slave States. We therefore resolved to get the consent of our owners, be married, settle down in slavery, and endeavour to make ourselves as comfortable as possible under that system”William Craft. Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom : The Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery, Part 1
The Crafts did not explain what exactly they meant by getting married.
Some slaves had what they called a Parson Blanket marriage, which meant simply that the husband brought his blanket and laid it down next to his new wife’s. That was it (Howard, 10).
The most commonly mentioned wedding ritual was called jumping the broom. The master or some other slaves would hold a broom low down. The bride and groom would then hold hands and jump over it together with both feet, so they could start their new life together. Some descriptions say they jumped forward and back. Others say they jumped forward for marriage, backward for divorce (Hunter, 46).
I initially assumed that this tradition was from Africa, but actually jumping the broom was what the poorest Europeans did, the ones who couldn’t afford a church wedding. So even this ritual must have been sort of imposed on the African-Americans by the dominant culture (Hunter, 46).
Some masters or preachers would consent to read a few scriptures over the ceremony, and since most of our records come from the white men, we know that they weren’t too scrupulous about it. Multiple sources attest that they grabbed any old book and read whatever from it. An illiterate slave with little to no religious instruction had no way of knowing if the book was the Bible or not (Hunter, 46).
If there were any vows, they were either blatantly dishonest or heartbreakingly truthful. Some promised to be faithful until “God or the master do you part.” And the line “What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder?” Yeah, that wasn’t in there.
Voluntary and Involuntary
Among free people, the idea was that a woman would only be a bride twice if her husband died. Not so for slaves.
If one partner was sold away, a master might provide a replacement spouse, consent not required. One slave man William Grose was sold from Virginia down to New Orleans. He later wrote that his new owner “sent for a woman, who came in, and said he to me, ‘That is your wife.’ I was scared half to death, for I had one wife whom I liked, and didn’t want another,—but I said nothing. He assigned one to my brother in the same way. There was no ceremony about it—he said ‘Cynthia is your wife, and Ellen is John’s.’” (Drew, 84)
We are left to imagine how Cynthia and Ellen felt about being brides in this manner. Also how Cynthia felt when William’s free wife from Virginia showed up a year later, hoping to live near him.
Even if no replacement was forced on you, a sale was the same as a death. If you were both slaves, you would never see that spouse again. So it was common to remarry in your new location. The majority of slaves had successive partners over the course of their lives, the beginnings and the endings were a mix of voluntary and involuntary (Hunter, 33).
This fact prompted Thomas Jefferson to write that “love seems with them to be more an eager desire, than a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation. Their griefs are transient” (Jefferson, 148). Which is without a doubt one of the most offensive and self-serving misperceptions of his life.
It was self-defense for slaves to hold themselves aloof from love they knew could be cut short at any moment. And if they did not withhold their hearts, they could not show white people their grief. As one mistress said to a slave woman in despair:
Stop your nonsense; there is no necessity for you putting on airs. Your husband is not the only slave that has been sold from his family, and you are not the only one that has had to part. There are plenty more men about here, and if you want a husband so badly, stop your crying and go and find another.Elizabeth Keckley. Behind the Scenes; or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House, pages 24-25
Harriet and Dred Scott
The most famous slave bride of the antebellum era was not famous at the time, but she became a national controversy. Her name was Harriet Robinson. She was owned by an Indian agent named Lawrence Taliaferro. He took her to what we now call Wisconsin, where slavery was illegal. Taliaferro officiated at her wedding to Dred Scott, also a slave, but owned by Dr. John Emerson. As justice of the peace, it was Taliaferro’s opinion that this wedding freed Harriet. They were in free territory. Also, they signed a marriage contract, and slaves could not enter contracts. And thirdly, he “gave” her away as part of the wedding ceremony. Taliaferro made no further claim to own Harriet.
But Emerson behaved as if Harriet had been given to him, a thing that was never formalized with any bill of sale. For ten years and many moves the Scotts lived as hired out slaves. They found work for themselves and sent part of the money to Emerson.
When he died, they were transferred to his wife and the Scotts got worried. They sued for their freedom. Their case rested on the fact that they had lived in free states and territories. But also on the fact that they were married. Really married. In a civil ceremony. With a Justice of the Peace. Only free people could do that. Ergo, they were free.
Unfortunately, the State of Missouri and the US Supreme Court disagreed. In 1857, they handed down one of their most infamous rulings of all time, in which they said that black people “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect” (Wagner, Hunter 61-83). Northern abolitionists were furious. The case had a great deal of press and definitely played a big role in bringing on the Civil War.
Civil War Marriages
When the war finally did come, there was an explosion of African-American brides. Everywhere the Union Army went, slave couples came forward to be married by the army chaplain. They called it getting married “under the flag” The first such bride was Mary McIntosh who married her husband Moses on September 22, 1861 (Hunter, 128).
Most of these brides, no doubt, had not much ceremony about it, though it was enormously more official than anything they’d ever had before. But some did get more than the bare minimum. Missionaries might loan the bride a dress. One bride in South Carolina wore a tulle tunic over white silk with flowers and ribbons in her hair (Hunter, 130).
These ceremonies very pointedly did include the phrase “What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder” (Hunter, 130). Southern slaveholders were not pleased.
But what displeased the chaplains and the missionaries was that human relationships are messy at the best of times and these were not the best of times. Army camps saw many refugees reunited after a sale years before. So it was super awkward when one or both had remarried. Which wife is the real wife? Or which husband is the real husband? It went both directions. Neither bigamy nor abandonment seemed quite right (Hunter, 132). These disputes would continue for years, especially after widows’ pensions for black soldiers became a thing (Hunter 180-181).
After the war, the government had a great interest in promoting the Christian ideal of marriage. Partly, that was about the dominant ideals of morality. Also getting black men to provide for black women and children, because no government likes dealing with a lot of destitute people. That’s just asking for problems.
So the question was what to do about all of those millions of informal slave relationships. In 1865, North Carolina decided to make all slave marriages retroactively valid from the time of cohabitation. Which was problematic because not all of those slave marriages had any voluntary component. Plus, you still had to come in and register and if you didn’t you were guilty of fornication, which was a crime, and each passing month in which you did not register was a separate punishable offense (Hunter, 243). The other states eventually did something similar, which meant a whole lot of African-American women became legal wives without ever being a bride.
For black men, legal marriage was unquestionably a win. Black fatherhood now existed. They had rights to a wife, to children, a thing which had been so unfairly stolen from them for so long. For black women, the picture was more mixed. Brides of all colors still promised to obey their husbands. Wife beating was still legal. Divorce was hard. Fathers had more legal rights to children than mothers did. So there was a sense in which a black wife had just been transferred from belonging to a white man to belonging to a black man. Whether that was an improvement depended on the man in question. White feminists had been quick to point out that for some women, marriage was very much like slavery.
The African-American family has often gotten a bad rap, and often without full acknowledgement of the stresses on it, so I will just hasten to add that in the latter part of the 19th century, the vast majority of African Americans did get legally married. And the vast majority of black households were father, mother, and children, just like the culture said they were supposed to be. By this point there were many African-American brides who had the full deal: ring, white dress, cake, and church bells, and the same vows as white folks.
To be sure, they still faced discrimination. By the early 20th century bridal stores were now selling ready-made bridal dresses, but could a black woman try it on first? No, she could not (Howard, 152). And black couples couldn’t stay in white hotels for the honeymoon or hold a reception there. But by the mid-century, blacks had more money and a host of businesses were rushing to capture the black bridal market. The magazine Ebony featured black brides in white wedding dresses, and there were black-bridal consultants specifically to help them plan the big event (Howard, 152-153).
As the problem of slave marriages faded into a not-so-distant past, another issue rose to trouble the minds of society at large. African-American marriage was okay now, but what if one of the principal parties was not African-American? Oh, horror and calamity.
Actually the question of interracial marriage was not new. America has two founding stories: one is the Mayflower at Plymouth. The other is Pocahontas, who married Englishman John Rolfe and many a Virginian was proud to say they were descended from her. At the same time, they would have been highly offended by the suggestion of any other non-white elements in their family tree. I know, it makes no sense.
In 1705 Virginia passed the nation’s first slave code. It specifically said that “whatsoever English shall intermarry with a negro or mulatto man or woman, bond or free, shall, by judgment of the county court, be committed to prison, and there remain, during the space of six months, without bail or mainprize; and shall forfeit and pay ten pounds current money of Virginia, to the use of the parish” (General Assembly of Virginia).
The minister or other person who presumed to marry them was not off the hook either. For every such marriage they were to pay “ten thousand pounds of tobacco; one half to our sovereign lady the Queen, her heirs and successors, for and towards the support of the government, and the contingent charges thereof; and the other half to the informer” (General Assembly of Virginia).
The reasoning is clearly laid out too. It was “for a further prevention of that abominable mixture and spurious issue” (General Assembly of Virginia).
So there it is. Spurious issue. That’s the problem.
But you see, marriage isn’t actually necessary for the production of spurious issue. That can be accomplished just by interracial sex, with or without marriage. Interracial sex was also forbidden, but there is one class of people consistently held immune from prosecution and that was the slave masters themselves (Hunter, 53). There was plenty of interracial sex and also plenty of spurious issue. Some masters were indiscriminate, demanding sex from any slave woman they chose at any time. Others were more constant, like Thomas Jefferson with Sally Hemings. That was a long-term relationship. And possibly a monogamous one, it’s hard to say for sure.
But marrying such a woman. Nope, that was beyond the pale. Many had mistresses, but few dared to call such a woman a wife. One who did was Senator Richard Mentor Johnson, vice president to Martin Van Buren. He lived openly with Julia Chinn, a slave who was all of one-eighth black. They had two daughters, which he educated and treated as free. Julia managed his estate when he was in Washington. She presided at his table exactly like a wife. He did not legally marry her, but it was probably because of the Kentucky laws against interracial marriage. Kentucky did not actually define the racial designations, so there was no way to know if being one-eighth black counted as being non-white according to the law.
When his political opponents criticized his de facto wife, Johnson said “Unlike Jefferson … and others I married my wife under the eyes of God and apparently He found no objections” (Cashin, 71). But that was a rare response. The far more common scenario was for the master to have a white wife and carry on with his slaves anyway, a situation that was degrading to all the women involved.
Obviously black women were hurt the most, no question. But white women felt it deeply too. Mary Chesnut, a married upper-class slave-owning white woman who kept a diary during the Civil War, wrote:
God forgive us, but ours is a monstrous system & wrong & iniquity. Perhaps the rest of the world is as bad. This only I see: like the patriarchs of old our men live all in one house with their wives & their concubines & the Mulattoes one sees in every family exactly resemble the white children — & every lady tells you who is the father of all the Mulatto children in every body’s household, but those in her own, she seems to think drop from the clouds or pretends so to think.”Mary Chesnut. The Private Mary Chesnut: The Unpublished Civil War Diaries, page 42
The end of slavery helped, but it was not enough. Some black women continued to be mistresses of white men. But brides? No.
The black bride to change that was born in Caroline County, Virginia, in 1939. Her name was Mildred Jeter.
Mildred and Richard Loving
Caroline County had a long history of unofficial racial mixing, not just white and black, but also Native American. It was poor and rural, and the schools were separate and unequal. White kids rode a bus to a large modern school with five or six teachers per grade. Colored kids like Mildred walked to a two-room schoolhouse with no indoor plumbing, electricity, or heat and only one teacher for all seven grades (Cashin, 101-102).
Mildred was still just a kid when she met Richard Loving. Richard was white and also from Caroline County, and he had lived in this mixed-race community and didn’t think this race stuff was a big deal. A few years passed, and he liked Mildred. He also liked his black buddies on his racing car team. “Everybody looked alike to me,” he later said (Cashin, 105). Both Richard and Mildred dropped out of high school. Richard worked as a brick mason.
When Mildred was pregnant with their second child, they decided to marry. They knew they couldn’t do that in Virginia, so they went to DC, where interracial marriage was legal. On the license Mildred listed her race as Indian, but that would not have helped her in Virginia. Virginia did define the racial designations. Whites could not marry non-whites, and the only exception was if you were less than one-sixteenth Native American. That exception was there for the benefit of those who wanted to claim Pocahontas as an ancestor (Cashin, 113).
Mildred was a lot more than just one-sixteenth non-white. They got married in DC, and they came back home, man and wife. After one month of wedded bliss, a sheriff and two deputies broke into their home one night and arrested them both. Their marriage license was hanging on the wall, but it made no difference. In fact, it made it worse. Richard could have gotten away with having Mildred as a mistress. It was having her as a bride that had to be punished. Both were taken to the county jail.
Richard was released the following day on $1,000 bail. He tried to post the same for Mildred, but the authorities wouldn’t accept it. She was six months pregnant and they kept her in a 5 by 7 cell for five days. They even threatened to send in a white male prisoner with her. The rape implications were clear (Cashin, 109).
Five days after giving birth, Mildred and Richard were indicted. The judge knew they wanted to be with their children, so he convinced them to plead guilty in exchange for a suspension on their sentence. As long as they left Virginia, they didn’t have to serve jail time. They were strictly instructed to never return to Virginia together for the next 25 years.
So they moved to DC and they hated it. Mildred and Richard were country people. They didn’t like the city with its noise and traffic and strangers. They wanted to live with their friends and their family in the same community they had grown up in. After four years, their oldest son was hit by a car. He recovered, but Mildred was done, done, done with this horrible place where she couldn’t even let her child play outside safely. She wanted to go home.
She wrote a letter to Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, who could not help her, but told her to write to the ACLU. So she did, and this is what she said:
I am writing to you concerning a problem we have.
5 yrs. ago my husband and I were married here in the District. We then returned to Va. to live. My husband is white, I am part negro, and part Indian.
At the time we did not know there was a law in Va. against mixed marriages.
Therefore we were jailed and tried in a little town of Bowling Green.
We were to leave the state to make our home.
The problem is we are not allowed to visit our families. The judge said that if we enter the state in the next  yrs., that we will have to spend 1 yr. in jail.
We know we can’t live there, but we would like to go back once and awhile to visit our families and friends.
We have 3 children and cannot afford an attorney.
We wrote to the Attorney General, he suggested that we get in touch with you for advice.
Please help us if you can. Hope to hear from you real soon.
Mr. and Mrs. Richard LovingQuoted in Larry Dane Brimner’s Finding a Way Home: Mildred and Richard Loving and the Fight for Marriage Equality, page 32-33
The ACLU found two young lawyers who were willing to take the case for free. The Lovings quietly moved back to Virginia. On legal advice, they opened their home to reporters, photographers, and a film documentarian. This material can still be seen today, and it is beautiful. They look so ordinary. Just three kids with a devoted mother and father, a working-class family.
Loving vs. Virginia was not the first interracial marriage case to come before the courts, but Mildred and Richard did have a couple of things going for them. One is that they were not activists. They were not radicals. They hadn’t done protests or sit-ins or marches or anything to set white people’s teeth on edge. For them it was just about family. And the other thing was the perfect last name. Loving was exactly who they were and the only argument they had to make. They didn’t attend the Supreme Court arguments, but Richard did send a message through the lawyer. “Tell the Court that I love my wife,” he said “and it is just unfair that I can’t live with her in Virginia”(Cashin, 115). That was it. The only thing he really had to say.
The opposition mostly argued that mixed race marriages were psychologically bad for the children. I mention this mainly because it is the clearest example I can think of to show how far marriage had changed. The Lovings’ argument about love and fairness was not one that would have resonated with most of humanity throughout most of history. Marriage was not about either love or fairness. It was about having the “right” kind of legitimate children to inherit property and citizenship. In that vein, the opposition’s argument actually made more sense. Their psychology was misguided (mixed race kids do just fine), but the argument about what’s best for “right” kind of children was entirely traditional. But we are a long way past Jane Austen, and love and fairness for the parents was now a very compelling argument.
Chief Justice Earl Warren had already presided over Brown vs. Board of Education. As in that one, he assigned himself to write the opinion and in it he said that “under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual, and cannot be infringed by the state” (Warren).
The vote was unanimous. Mildred Loving, an African-American bride, returned home to Virginia to live legally as a wife.
Race relations in this country are far from perfect, but even so, I think it would have been a proud day for Ellen Craft, Cynthia Grose, Harriet Robinson Scott, Mary McIntosh, Sally Hemings, Julia Chinn, and so many other brides who only got part of the real deal.
My sources today include the fabulous Bound in Wedlock by Tera Hunter and Loving: Interracial Intimacy in America and the Threat to White Supremacy by Sheryll Cashin. Next week we move to a different type of bride. The kind that one commenter said was almost as repulsive as the interracial bride. Yes, it’s the Mormon polygamous bride. Thanks!
Brimner, Larry Dane. Finding a Way Home: Mildred and Richard Loving and the Fight for Marriage Equality. New York, Calkins Creek, An Imprint of Boyds Mills & Kane, 2020.
Cashin, Sheryll. Loving : Interracial Intimacy in America and the Threat to White Supremacy. Boston, Beacon Press, 2017.
Chesnut, Mary Boykin, et al. The Private Mary Chesnut : The Unpublished Civil War Diaries. New York, Oxford University Press, 1984.
Craft, William, and Ellen Craft. Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom : The Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery. London, William Tweedie, http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/585/pg585-images.html. Accessed 1 Feb. 2023.
Debow, JDB. Statistical View of the United States. US Census Bureau, 1854, http://www.census.gov/library/publications/1854/dec/1850c.html. Accessed 27 Jan. 2023.
Drew, Benjamin. A North-Side View of Slavery. John P. Jewett and Co., 1856, docsouth.unc.edu/neh/drew/drew.html. Accessed 1 Feb. 2023.
Edelman, Marian Wright. “Loving Words from the Past Still Carry Weight.” The Philadelphia Tribune, 1 July 2016, http://www.phillytrib.com/commentary/loving-words-from-the-past-still-carry-weight/article_3ddc2442-4477-5929-85da-8a51644cdeb0.html. Accessed 2 Feb. 2023.
General Assembly of Virginia. ““An Act Concerning Servants and Slaves” (1705) – Encyclopedia Virginia.” Encyclopedia Virginia, Oct. 1705, encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/an-act-concerning-servants-and-slaves-1705/. Accessed 31 Jan. 2023.
Howard, Vicki. Brides, Inc. : American Weddings and the Business of Tradition. Univ Of Pennsylvania Pr, 2008.
Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia. Prichard and Hall, 1781, docsouth.unc.edu/southlit/jefferson/jefferson.html. Accessed 30 Jan. 2023.
Keckley, Elizabeth. Behind the Scenes; or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House / Elizabeth Keckley. New York, GW Carleton and Company, 1868, docsouth.unc.edu/neh/keckley/keckley.html. Accessed 30 Jan. 2023.
Wagner, Ella. “Harriet Robinson Scott (U.S. National Park Service).” Www.nps.gov, http://www.nps.gov/people/harriet-robinson-scott.htm.
Warren, Earl. “Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1 (1967).” Justia Law, 2006, supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/388/1/. Accessed 31 Jan. 2023.