In this column, Alexis Coe, Lenny’s historian at large, conducts Q&As with specialists in archives across the country, focusing on one primary source. For this entry, Alexis spoke with historian Tera Hunter, author of Bound in Wedlock, the first comprehensive study of black marriage, from slavery through emancipation, which was recently named a Lincoln Prize finalist. (Read Alexis’s previous columns here and here.)
Alexis Coe: I read your last book, To ’Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors After the Civil War, in graduate school, and it was a revelation to me. Your new book, Bound in Wedlock, is even more ambitious — and personal. You open the book with a marriage certificate that belonged to Ellen and Moses Hunter, your great-great-grandparents. What did that document tell you about your own family and about the larger story you wanted to tell in this book?
Tera Hunter: The marriage certificate of my great-great-grandparents served as a source of inspiration as I researched and wrote Bound in Wedlock. I kept it pasted above my writing desk. It amplified the stories of the multitudes of anonymous people in the book. It reminded me how the work that I do is quite personal and yet historically relevant and significant beyond my biography.
Ellen Morrison and Moses Hunter were both enslaved people prior to their marriage in 1872. We still have family members who remember Ellen, who was also a midwife, who assisted in their birth. The era of slavery seems far away, and yet we are only a few generations removed from it.
AC: That’s incredible. Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, which means Ellen and Moses should have been free for almost a decade by the time they married. (Slaves in Texas didn’t find out about it until June 19, 1865.) When and how did they meet? When they were freed, how did they decide where to settle and how to build a life?
TH: We do not know the details of their relationship. My paternal family was rooted in the same Georgia/South Carolina region stretching as far back as we can trace them. They were part of a close-knit community. We can only decipher the timing of their coupling by the birth of their first child, just after the Civil War. Moses was born free in 1835 but then enslaved in his youth, which shows how precarious freedom was for African Americans. Ellen was a slave until the institution was abolished. They did not formalize their relationship until 1872, as the marriage certificate indicates.
AC: Why do you think they waited?
TH: There are a lot of factors that may explain the delay. Many slaves, with the help of the Union Army and Northern missionaries, began the process to formalize their unions during the Civil War, when they were in proximity to the occupied troops and contraband camps. After the war ended, it could take some time for ex-slaves to gain access to civil agencies to put their marriages on legal footing. It is noteworthy, too, that the certificate was issued the same year as the arrival of a black minister at the family’s (previously biracial) church. He would have performed the ceremony.
AC: Ellen and Moses had grown up seeing slaves around them enter into intimate bonds they called marriage, but those couples had none of the rights and protections guaranteed after the Civil War. You write about those marriages, in which the benefits were considerable and familiar to us: emotional bonds, intimacy, support, and children. It also made them incredibly vulnerable, as if they weren’t vulnerable enough already, to the whims and cruelties of whites — which was acknowledged in a very blunt and heartbreaking line in their vows. Tell us about that, and the constant threat of separation they lived under?