Slave Descendants Face Struggles
SHARON TATE MOODY firstname.lastname@example.orgIt's hard to find ancestors who, in the eyes of the law, were property rather than persons. Descendants of American slaves must be tenacious to overcome the many obstacles imposed by their families' years in bondage.
Published: October 26, 2008
Published: October 26, 2008
Although they could not marry under the law the way white couples or what were called at the time "free colored" couples could, slaves could pledge themselves to one another in some ceremony or arrangement approved by their owners. These arrangements varied from simply moving into the same cabin - with the owner's permission - to elaborate festivities in the slave quarters to a formalized ceremony attended by fellow slaves and, often, the owners.
Sometimes the marriage was formalized by "jumping the broom," a tradition in which the couple literally stepped or jumped over a broom. Although knowledge of this tradition is widespread, its origin is debated. It is generally believed it started in Africa.
Since no state recognized unions between slaves, no official marriage records were created. In some cases, owners might have written the slave marriages into their plantation journals or ledgers. Even when those journals survived, they are hard to locate. For the majority of descendants, however, finding proof of slave ancestor marriages is a true challenge.
Court records are among the most informative official evidence of slave marriages. During the 1860s and 1870s, children and grandchildren of former slaves frequently went to court to prove their right to inherit what the freed slave ancestors managed to acquire before their deaths.
Slave Owner Sues For $1,700
The story of Henry Page is a good example of what can be found in these court cases. He was a free colored man living in Tennessee, where in December 1857, he purchased his wife, Dilly, and their two children, Bill and Britt. Page gave their owner, William Andrews, a down payment of $1,500, took his family and absconded, still owing Andrews $1,700.
In 1861, Andrews sued Page and won a judgment. In 1864, Page was injured in a sawmill accident and died, still owing the debt. He had done well for himself, and at the time of his death, he owned several hundred acres of land in Smith County, Tenn. In 1866, Andrews got another judgment against Page's estate, ruling that the land should be sold to pay the debt.
During this time, when a landowner died, his widow had a right to dower, or the use of one-third of his property for her lifetime. No debts owed by the estate could deprive her of this. Henry's widow, Dilly, fought Andrews' attempts to get his debt from her dower. Her ability to claim this dower hinged on whether she was a free person - and therefore legally capable of inheriting - when Henry died.
Dilly and her children claimed that Henry had taken them and escaped the county not to avoid paying his debt but out of fear that his family would be returned to slavery. The suit showed that Henry and Dilly had first gone to Ohio but then returned to Tennessee and settled near Nashville, where Henry had died.
Various testimony in the court proved that Henry and Dilly had married in 1825. The testimony of another former slave established they had married in a traditional ceremony among slaves, but did not give details.
Other testimony established that they had 11 children and numerous grandchildren, who all were listed by name in the case.
Initially, the courts ruled that Dilly was a slave, not a free woman, at the time Henry "married" her, so the marriage was not recognized by law. This meant she could make no claims to his land as his widow. Since the court ruled that the marriage was not legal, Henry had no legal heirs. The stage was then set for Andrews to collect the $1,700 he alleged Henry still owed him and it would come from selling Henry's land.
Court Rewards Boldness
But Dilly stood her ground and appealed the decision. She alleged that Henry had not purchased her to keep as a slave but to make her a free woman, since she was his wife. She believed she had acquired a right to freedom when he purchased her.
Rewarding her boldness, the courts ruled that she was Henry's lawful wife because the owner assented to the union and because they subsequently lived together as man and wife. Their children, therefore, were legitimate and could inherit property.
The courts also ruled that when her husband purchased her, she acquired the right to freedom and, therefore, had a right to her husband's land. The courts did say that part of the land could then be sold to satisfy the debt to Anderson and that the children would inherit anything valued above the debt owed.
Court records in which the marriages of former slaves were proved or disproved usually provide slave owners' names, allowing researchers to pursue other white men's records in which their slave ancestors might be mentioned. They almost always contain at least an approximate date of the marriage and where it occurred. Since legal issues often surrounded inheritance challenges, dates that the former slaves died usually are established and the names of their heirs - either their siblings or children - will be established.
Records of these cases may be located in local courthouses in probate or chancery courts files. When matters were appealed to higher courts - usually a state's supreme court - the original records will be in the state's archives at the state's capital.
Appeals court cases also are published in books called "reporters." These books usually are found only in law libraries. City and county governments usually have law libraries, as do colleges with law schools. Most are open to the public for research.
Finding a law library and using the published court cases is a good first step, but I strongly encourage you not to settle for the printed information. For example, in Henry's case, the printed decision stated only that his 11 children were identified in court testimony, but it did not give the names.
To get those names, a researcher needs to see the actual court files. This requires either a trip to Nashville to see the original files in the Tennessee State Library and Archives, or a call or e-mail to the facility about getting the files copied and mailed.
Write to Sharon Tate Moody in care of The Tampa Tribune, 200 S. Parker St., Tampa FL 33606.