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Life

“Until Death or Distance Do You Part”

An interview with historian Tera Hunter on the history of black marriage before and after the Civil War.

Gif by Louisa Bertman

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?

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TH: The fear of separation was especially haunting for couples. Slaves faced the greatest threats of being sold away in their prime years, precisely when they would have been young couples. They were most prized as workers and able to fetch a higher price on the market then. The trepidation loomed large over their relationships, which sometimes made them ambivalent about whether to wed or not. The threat of separation was used as a form of punishment and containment to keep slaves obedient. It also became an issue when the finances of the slave owners lagged or when they passed away and their estates had to be settled. As you have noted, masters were quite blunt in making this clear even in the marital vows exchanged between slaves — “until death or distance do you part.”

AC: My god. And some of those marriages weren’t always voluntary, right? Slaveholders wanted their slaves to marry in the hopes that they would appease abolitionists by appearing to emphasize marriage, and if the couple had children, they too were slaves, thus adding to their own wealth.

TH: Most slave marriages were voluntary, as masters saw the benefits of using coupling as a stabilizing influence on plantations and, of course, encouraging reproduction of their property. Masters used marriage to lay claim to their benevolence and Christianity, to counter the arguments that abolitionists made about the brutality of slavery. But the use of force was common, as masters often paired slaves together against their will. This was a gross form of sexual violation of both women and men. Not to mention, the marital beds of voluntary couples were often exploited by the masters themselves, using their prerogative to molest female slaves.

AC: How did a marriage work when one person was free and another still enslaved?

TH: Mixed-status marriages were similar to enslaved marriages in the sense that they were not legally recognized. Free persons’ rights were thus restricted because of their close ties to enslaved relatives. In some cases, couples lived together in the cabins of the enslaved person. In other cases, the free person might live elsewhere and visit back and forth with the enslaved spouse. (The latter were called “abroad” marriages, though slaves married to one another often used the same arrangement when each person had a different owner.) Mixed-status relationships existed because slave and free black communities intermingled through work and leisure activities. This was especially true in urban places, where the boundaries of caste were more fluid. These relationships also existed as some enslaved people gained their freedom and maintained ties with those still enslaved.

AC: I imagine that slaveholders would find that quite threatening.

TH: Some states, like North Carolina, even prohibited them by law, though they were not so successful in enforcing it. The law itself shows that it was considered a menace difficult for officials to repress and contain.

AC: There was so much violence, chaos, and confusion during and after the Civil War. What happened to slave marriages during that transition?

TH: The Civil War opened the door to both chaos and unforeseen possibilities. It became an important turning point in the history of African American marriages. Slaves ran away in droves at the sight of the Union Army as battles were fought in Confederate territory. They forced the federal government to reckon with a population that it assumed would be neutral in the war.

AC: Remain neutral! What a crazy thing to imagine.

TH: Contraband camps were set up to house the runaways and to put them to work aiding the United States military. Northern missionaries and abolitionists seized the opportunity to use these sites to cultivate Christian norms and values associated with citizenship in a post-slavery world. They began the process of marrying slaves “under the flag” — that is, formalizing their relationships under the authority of the federal government. Thousands of former slaves were remarried or married for the first time in this context. But it would take winning the war before those relationships would be fully free and legal. The defeated Southern states were forced to pass laws during Reconstruction recognizing the marriages of former slaves.

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AC: Books take a long time to write. When you started this, we didn’t have a president who emboldened white nationalists, openly and repeatedly defending them. How do you think it’s influenced the book’s reception and the kinds of questions you get asked about it?

TH: Yes, books take a long time! I will just say I started it during the Bush years. I worked on the final revisions as Obama was leaving and Trump was coming into the White House, which made it feel like déjà vu. The book is about a tumultuous century of our nation’s history. It opens during the peak of the most profitable slavery era and ends after slavery has been defeated.

Then there was a moment of democratic possibilities that opened during Reconstruction, followed by a fierce backlash of white supremacy in the form of disenfranchisement, lynchings, debt peonage, etc. A lot of readers find the book helpful to reflect on the resonance between those times and ours. Not to mention, we are continually jolted by reminders that proslavery views inform racial stereotypes about black families, without any appreciation for what African American marriages and families have had to overcome.

Alexis Coe is a historian and the author of Alice+Freda Forever.