Enslaved Children should NOT be pawns for political purposes!

This past week, media outlets have been buzzing regarding a gross historical error that was spun into a modern political context by a group who proclaims their value of traditional marriage between a male and a female. Republican Presidential contenders Michelle Bachmann and Rick Santorum signed “The Marriage Vow” which was crafted by a conservative group, Family Leader. While this blog is not a political one, the inclusion of a section in this vow regarding slavery and bearing the signatures of these politicians makes it obvious how politics and history are often not in separate spheres.

First, this vow stated:

Slavery had a disastrous impact on African-American families, yet sadly a child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than was an African-American baby born after the election of the USA’s first African-American President.” [Please note this has now been removed by Family Leader in the wake of the outrage. Therefore, I do not credit their Monday morning quarterback civil rights.]

While I’m not sure how President Barack Obama has anything to do with children of any race not being raised in a two-parent household; the problem most people have had with this comment (I, not being alone) is that enslaved children were NOT more likely to live in a stable environment in 1860. Stable in being protected by loved ones or stable in even having loved ones around them.

Henry Bibb, born a slave in Kentucky in 1815 wrote in his memoirs about his early childhood:

My mother was known by the name of Milldred Jackson. She is the mother of seven slaves only, all being sons, of whom I am the eldest. She was also so fortunate or unfortunate, as to have some of what is called the slaveholding blood flowing in her veins. I know not how much; but not enough to prevent her children though fathered by slaveholders, from being bought and sold in the slave markets of the South. It is almost impossible for slaves to give a correct account of their male parentage. All that I know about it is, that my mother informed me that my fathers name was James Bibb. He was doubtless one of the present Bibb family of Kentucky; but I have no personal knowledge of him at all, for he, died before my recollection.

The first time I was separated from my mother, I was young and small. I knew nothing of my condition then as a slave. I was living with Mr. White, whose wife died and left him a widower with one little girl, who was said to be the legitimate owner of my mother, and all her children. This girl was also my playmate when we were children.

I was taken away from my mother, and hired out to labor for various persons, eight or ten years in succession; and all my wages were expended for the education of Harriet White, my playmate. It was then my sorrows and sufferings commenced. It was then I first commenced seeing and feeling that I was a wretched slave, compelled to work under the lash without wages and often, without clothes enough to hide my nakedness.

Bibb’s father was white, and so he said his seven siblings were also born of liasons between his mother and white men. Furthermore he acknowledged that his mother was of mixed racial heritage and while he does not say it explicitly, his mother didn’t know who her father was any more than he knew of his. He said exactly that male parentage is hard to puzzle out under the yoke of bondage.

See Henry Bibb, Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, an American Slave, (New York: Author, 1849), 14-15.

John Brown, born a slave in Virginia and then ended up in Georgia before escape to England recalled in his memoir:

My mother belonged to Betty Moore. Her name was Nancy; but she was called Nanny. My father’s name was Joe. He was owned by a planter named Benford, who lived at Northampton, in the same State. I believe my father and his family were bred on Benford’s plantation. His father had been stolen from Africa. He was of the Eboe tribe. I remember seeing him once, when he came to visit my mother. He was very black. I never saw him but that one time, and though I was quite small, I have a distinct recollection of him. He and my mother were separated, in consequence of his master’s going further off, and then my mother was forced to take another husband. She had three children by my father; myself, and a brother and sister, twins. My brother’s name was Silas, and my sister’s Lucy.

Brown’s mother re-married and even his stepfather was owned by someone else and thus the children lived with their mother in a one-room, mud-floored, poorly constructed slave quarter. His mistress, about 70 years old, whipped slaves (including children) herself with a blue painted whip these enslaved people called the blue lizard.

For more on John Brown see Slave Life in Georgia: A Narrative of the Life, Sufferings, and Escape of John Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Now in England (London, 1855), 1-2. 

Next, I point to the terror enslaved children faced while living in these situations that NO ONE should be touting as in ANY WAY better than being born in the United States without slavery. William Wells Brown recalled about his early life:

I was born in Lexington, Ky. The man who stole me as soon as I was born, recorded the births of all the infants which he claimed to be born his property, in a book which he kept for that purpose. My mother’s name was Elizabeth. She had seven children, viz.: Solomon, Leander, Benjamin, Joseph, Millford, Elizabeth, and myself. No two of us were children of the same father. My father’s name, as I learned from my mother, was George Higgins. He was a white man, a relative of my master, and connected with some of the first families in Kentucky.

For more on William Wells Brown, Narrative of William W. Brown, An American Slave (London: Charles Gilpin, 1849), 13. 

William W. Brown also recalls how a mixed race enslaved woman, Cynthia, attempted to thwart the advances of a bachelor slave owner. Eventually she gave in as he threatened to sell her into the fields and Cynthia became the man’s housekeepr and had two children by him. Then this slaveholder legally married a white woman and sold Cynthia and his children into “hopeless bondage.” Brown, Narrative of William W. Brown, 44-45.

Lastly, we must remember that children were sold away from their parents, siblings, grandparents and other family members. Thus was the case for a Petersburg, Virginia enslaved woman, Mary. William Still, an operator on the Underground Railroad wrote:

About the 1st of March, 1855, Mary was presented to the Vigilance Committee. She was of agreeable manners, about forty-five years of age, dark complexion, round built, and intelligent. She had been the mother of fifteen children, four of whom had been sold away from her; one was still held in slavery in Petersburg; the others were all dead.

At the sale of one of her children she so affected with grief that she was thrown into violent convulsions, which caused the loss of her speech for one entire month.

For more on William Still and this particular story see William Still, The Underground Railroad. A Record of Facts, Authentic Narratives, Letters, &c. (Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1872), 75.

Ms. Bachmann has issued a statement regarding this matter.


I leave it to you to decide whether her statements are legitimate and heartfelt; but, so far as the historical record goes: enslaved children did NOT have a grand and easy time with or without their one or both of their parents. Anyone who suggests otherwise is obviously ignorant of American history.



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3 responses to “Enslaved Children should NOT be pawns for political purposes!

  1. Great post. I’ll only add that the pledge in question was followed by a page and a half of notes and citations, to make it look all authoritative-y PDF here). However, the source that was supposedly used to make that assertion about slave families in 1860 (PDF here) made no such claim, and indeed, only cited other works that traced marriage and household patterns back to 1880. The original data reported in the source cited was based on surveys only going back to 1972. In other words, the authors of the pledge made it up.

    There really should be a mechanism under civil law by which academics could recover damages from pols who willfully misrepresent their work so.

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