The Family Life of the Enslaved

Advisor: Heather Williams, Professor of History, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, National Humanities Center Fellow.
Copyright National Humanities Center, 2011

How did slavery shape the family life of the enslaved in the American South?


The slave family did all the things families normally do, but the fact that other human beings owned its members made it vulnerable to unique constrictions, disruptions, frustrations, and pain.

Group of 'contrabands', 1862
“Cumberland Landing, Va. Group of ‘contrabands’ at Foller’s house,” photograph by James F. Gibson, 14 May 1862 (detail).


Selections from the WPA interviews of formerly enslaved African Americans, 1936–1938 , from The Making of African American Identity, Vol. I
Secondary Source:How Slavery Affected African American Families” by Heather Andrea Williams in Freedom’s Story from the National Humanities Center

Text Type

Narrative non-fiction with a clear purpose, slightly complex structure and knowledge demands, and moderately complex language demands.

Text Complexity

Grades 4-5 complexity band. Note: due to the subject matter, transcribed dialect, and one instance of cursing, the selections are more appropriate for middle and high school students.
For more information on text complexity see these resources from

Click here for standards and skills for this lesson.


Common Core State Standards

  • ELA-LITERACY.RI.9-10.2 (Determine a theme or central idea of a text…)
  • ELA-LITERACY.RL.9-10.4 (Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text…)

Advanced Placement US History

  • Key Concept 4.1 (3-C) (Enslaved and free African Americans…created communities and strategies to protect their dignity and their family structures…)

Teacher’s Note

To prepare to teach the WPA narratives on family life under slavery, first read Professor Heather Andrea Williams’s essay “How Slavery Affected African American Families” in Freedom’s Story from the National Humanities Center. Professor Williams notes that although most enslaved men and women formed families, these families were always vulnerable. Explore with your students the nature of this vulnerability. Parents and children could be the property of different owners. Separation was always a threat as family members could be sold or sent away according to the needs and wishes of the slaveholder. However, when teaching this material, it is important to keep in mind the first part of this lesson’s understanding: “The slave family did all the things families normally do.” Like all families, those of the enslaved created a private world in which individuals could be mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, grandparents, etc. Slave families provided love and companionship, taught values, offered solace, imposed discipline, constructed histories, bestowed identities, and generally gave the enslaved a space in which they could they could assert themselves. Emphasizing this “normality” will help students overcome the stereotype of slaves as helpless, passive victims.

Sarah Graves, ca. 1937

While the first passage, Malindy Maxwell’s reminiscence of her wedding, does not address all of the nurturing aspects of family life, it does offer insight into the terms upon which a degree of stability and even a modicum of happiness could be established under slavery. Nonetheless, it also illustrates the extent to which enslaved families existed at the sufferance of owners. That the members of a slave family were owned by others gave people outside the family the absolute right to intrude upon the family’s private world and profoundly disrupt it at will.

In the second passage, the testimony of Sarah Frances Shaw Graves illustrates the threat of separation under which slave families lived. It also highlights the slaveholder’s ability to force slaves into marriages, to isolate them, and to control their knowledge of and access to the wider world. At the same time, though, it illustrates how slaves could subtly turn the conditions of their bondage into resistance.

The final passage, Robert Glenn’s account of his separation from his family, offers additional insights into slave life. While the institution enabled some highly skilled slaves to earn money — their owners hired them out and allowed them to retain some of the money their work brought in — it curtailed what they could do with their savings. They could not, for one thing, own slaves. Hence, they could not keep their families intact by purchasing kin. The passage illustrates how the vagaries of the slave system abetted by prejudice shattered the family lives of even privileged slaves.


Contextualizing Questions

  1. What kind of text are we dealing with?
  2. When was it written?
  3. Who wrote it?
  4. For what audience was it intended?
  5. For what purpose was it written?

Between 1936 and 1938 the Federal Writers Project of the Works Project Administration, a New Deal agency, sent field workers, most of whom were white, into seventeen states to interview former slaves about their lives in bondage. They compiled over 2,000 accounts, which now reside in the Library of Congress. For many years scholars discounted their reliability as historical evidence. They were, of course, subject to the lapses and biases that distort all memories. Moreover, scholars suspected that the particular circumstances of their collection made them especially susceptible to concealments and evasions. Would elderly African Americans, who passed from slavery to Jim Crow, be completely forthright with white strangers asking probing questions about a painful subject?

Despite such concerns, contemporary scholars have come to realize the value of the interviews. When using them, teachers and students should keep three considerations in mind. First, they are, in the words of the Library of Congress’s website, “highly impressionistic.” Second, they yield insight into only certain aspects of the slave experience. As the Library of Congress notes, “if one wishes to understand the nature of the ‘peculiar institution’ from the perspective of the slave, to reconstruct the cultural and social milieu of the slave community, or to analyze the social dynamics of the slave system,” then the WPA narratives “are not only relevant; they are essential.” Third, the interviewers transcribed oral testimony and used words and punctuation that sometimes seem to reflect their own expectations rather than the way people actually spoke. In some cases the spelling and punctuation reveal more about the interviewer than the interviewed.

In volumes 1 and 2 of the teaching anthologies The Making of African American Identity, the National Humanities Center has made the WPA Slave Narratives highly teachable by excerpting brief key passages and organizing them thematically. Click on the links below to explore the listed themes.

Capture | Accounts of enslavement
 | Being sold
 | Plantation life | Plantation labor
 | Sexual abuse of slaves
 | Slaves’ resistance | 
Running away
 | The enslaved family
 | The plantation community
 | Slaves’ religious practice | 
Running away | 
Transition to freedom | 
Pursuit of learning 
| Suicide as freedom
 | Slaves in the Civil War
 | Fighting in the Civil War | 
Emancipation, 1864–1865
 | Reflections on Slavery
 | The moment of freedom

Text Analysis

Excerpts from the WPA Slave Narratives, 1936-1938

Close Reading Questions

1. From this passage what can you surmise about Malindy Maxwell’s status on the Shans plantation? What evidence leads you to this conjecture?
Malindy was the daughter of slaves who were probably well treated and considered “close” to their white owners. Two different owners allowed her parents to be married by a white minister and provided her mother with a wedding dress and wedding dinner.

2. What evidence in this passage suggests that Mrs. Maxwell and her husband achieved a degree of stability in their family life?
They had seven children.

3. On what conditions did that stability depend?
The stability depended upon her parents remaining fairly close to each other geographically.

4. How does this passage suggest the precariousness of family life for the enslaved?
The stability depended upon the parents’ geographic proximity to each other; either could have been sold or willed to others by his or her master. The fact that they belonged to two different masters contributed to the precariousness. Her parents had no personal control over where they lived.

1. Malindy Maxwell: I was born close to Como and Sardis, Mississippi. My master and mistress was Sam Shans and Miss Cornelia Shans. I was born a slave. They owned mama and Master Rube Sanders owned pa. Neither owner wouldn’t sell but they agreed to let ma and pa marry. They had a white preacher and they married out in the yard and had a big table full of weddin’ supper, and the white folks et in the house. They had a big supper too. Ma said they had a big crowd. The preacher read the ceremony. Miss Cornelia give her a white dress and white shoes and Miss Cloe Wilburn give her a veil. Miss Cloe was some connection of Rube Sanders. They had seven children. I’m the oldest — three of us living. After ’mancipation pa went to see about marrying ma over agen and they told him that marriage would stand long as ever he lived.

5. How does this passage illustrate a slaveowner’s power to disrupt the family life of slaves?
This passage tells of a married couple being separated, with the wife moved to a different state. The wife intentionally was prevented from knowing the whereabouts of her husband.

6. How does it illustrate a master’s power to isolate and control slave’s knowledge of and access to the wider world?
By moving her to another state and not allowing Sarah’s mother to know the whereabouts of her husband, the owner wishes to control Sarah’s mother and force her to remarry (she would not remarry if she knew her first husband was alive) in order to have more children and produce more slaves. By limiting her knowledge of the wider world the owner sought to control Sarah’s mother’s life.

7. How does Sarah’s mother transform her family life into an act of resistance?
She refuses to remarry a man by whom she can have children. Instead she marries “Tattle Barber” who was sick and could not father children.

2. Sarah Graves: I was born March 23, 1850 in Kentucky, somewhere near Louisville. I am goin’ on 88 years right now. I was brought to Missouri when I was six months old, along with my mama, who was a slave owned by a man named Shaw, who had allotted her to a man named Jimmie Graves, who came to Missouri to live with his daughter Emily Graves Crowdes…. We left my papa in Kentucky, ‘cause he was allotted to another man. My papa never knew where my mama went, an’ my mama never knew where papa went… They never wanted mama to know, ’cause they knowed she would never marry so long she knew where he was. Our master wanted her to marry again and raise more children to be slaves. They never wanted mama to know where papa was an’ she never did…. Mama said she would never marry again to have children,… so she married my step-father, Tattle Barber, ’cause he was sick an’ could never be a father. He was so sick he couldn’t work, so me and mama had to work hard. We lived in a kitchen, a room in a log house joined on to the master’s house. My mama worked in the field, even when I was a little baby. She would lay me down on a pallet [small wooden platform] near the fence while she plowed the corn or worked in the field.

8. What evidence suggests that Glenn’s family enjoyed a degree of stability?
The parents were together when the son was auctioned.

9. What does the passage suggest about the status of Glenn’s father? Cite specific evidence to support your conjecture.
The father was allowed to be hired out, and had saved enough money to try to buy his son. He was aided by some whites and this suggests that he was trusted and had standing.

10. What forces prevent Glenn’s father from keeping his family intact?
Laws that prevented slaves from owning slaves prevented his father from buying him outright and keeping his family intact. The speculator’s unwillingness to sell the boy to a black man prevented the father from putting up the money for the child and letting whites hire him out.

3. Robert Glenn: [My owner] died when I was eight years old [1858] and I was put on the block to be sold…. I was bought by a Negro speculator* by the name of Henry Long who lived not far from Hurdles Mill in Person County. I was not allowed to tell my mother and father goodbye. I was bought and sold three times in one day. My father’s time was hired out and as he knew a trade he had, by working overtime, saved up a considerable amount of money. After the speculator, Henry Long, bought me, mother went to father and pled with him to buy me from him and let the white folks hire me out. No slave could own a slave. Father got the consent and help of his owners to buy me and they asked Long to put me on the auction block again. Long did so and named his price but when he learned who had bid me off he backed down. Later in the day he put me on the block and named another price much higher than the price formerly set. He was asked by the white folks to name his price for his bargain and he did so. I was again put on the auction block and father bought me in, putting up the cash. Long then flew into a rage and cursed my father saying, “You damn black son of a bitch, you think you are white do you? Now just to show you are black, I will not let you have your son at any price.” Father knew it was all off, mother was frantic but there was nothing they could do about it. They had to stand and see the speculator put me on his horse behind him and ride away without allowing either of them to tell me goodbye. I figure I was sold three times in one day, as the price asked was offered in each instance. Mother was told under threat of a whupping not to make any outcry when I was carried away.
* Editor’s note: Long is a white man who speculated in the buying and selling of Negroes.

Follow-Up Assignment

Have your students extend the list of things that families normally do, then send them to the collection of WPA Slave Narrative excerpts on family life found in The Making of African American Identity, Vol. 1 and have them identify ways in which slave families did those things.

Using the same collection of slave narrative excerpts, have your students identify specific sources of the chronic instability that plagued slave families. Also see the complete WPA Slave Narrative collection from the Library of Congress.

Images courtesy of the Library of Congress:
– Photograph of newly freed slaves, including men, women, and children, captioned “Cumberland Landing, Va. Group of ‘contrabands’ at Foller’s house,” photograph by James F. Gibson, 14 May 1862 (detail). Civil War Glass Negative Collection, LC-DIG-cwpb-01005.
– Portrait photograph of Sarah Frances Shaw Graves, former slave, age 87, Skidmore, Missouri, ca. 1937 (detail). WPA Federal Writers’ Project Collection.

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