Women slaves who had many children seem to have been valued by their owners. In 'America's Women' Gail Collins writes:
'During her working life, a female slave spent much of her time pregnant, and most owners put a high value on "good breeders". Thomas Jefferson wrote "A child raised every two years is of more profit than the crop of the best labouring man....what she produces is an addition to capital." the Plantation Manual advised readers to encourage reproduction by giving every woman "with six children alive" all their Saturdays off. Major Wallon, a plantation owner, offered every new mother a calico dress and a silver dollar. More important than the presents to many young women was the fact that if they became pregnant, they were much less likely to be sold away from their husbands and relatives.
Slave owners expected women to do three-quarters of the field-work a man could do, but some did much more. But even though both sexes worked together in the fields, the men did not share much in the housework. "The women plowed just like the men" remembered former slave Henry Baker. "On Wednesday night they had to wash and after they washed they had to cook supper. The next morning they would get up with the men and they had to cook breakfast before they went to the field and had to cook the noon meal at the same time and take it with them." Men hunted for game and tilled the family garden, but even small boys were generally excused from cooking, cleaning, or washing chores.
under slavery, African Americasns led desperately constricted and frequently brual existences. But ordinary life went on as well. For most, the average day was filled with couplings and quarreling, friendship and feuds, moments of silliness, acts of selfishness, and gestures of incredible kindness. They carved out their own worlds as best they could.
Plantation slaves typically lived in one-room cabins. some were substantioal, with plank floors raised well above the ground and solid chimneys. But many were as small as ten feet square, with dirt floors and no windows. Slaves often had plots of land which they gardened, although the work had to be done, as one recalled "On moonlight nights and on a saturday evening." According to oral histroies taken from ex-slaves in the 1930s, many mothers strugged to wash the family clothes every weekend, and women told how, as young girls, they kept their best dress pressed with flowers and herbs so it would smell nice. A white Georgian recalled seeing, on Saturday nights, the roads filled with male slaves on their way to visit wives on other plantations "each pedestrian or horseman bearing his bag of soiled ".
Christmas was the biggest holiday of the year. "Slaves lived just for Christmas to come round" said Fannie Berry "Start getting ready the first snowfall. commence to saving nuts and apples, fixing up party clothes, snitching lace and beads from the big house. General celebrating time, you see, because husbands is coming home and families is getting united again. Husbands hurry on home to see the new babies. Everybody happy." Courtship rituals were much like those of other working-class American girls. Men initiated romantic pursuit, but the chain of approval necessary for courting a slave girl was more arduous than that of an upper-class heiress. "Couldn't spring up, grab a mule and ride to the next plantation without a pass" explained Andy Marion, a former slave who remembered the difficulties for men who couldn't find a desirable partner on their own plantation. "Suppose you get your master's consent to go? look here, the girl's master's got to consent, the gal got to consent, the gal's daddy got to consent, the gal's mammy got to consent. it was a hell of a way!"
It was not unusual for unwed girls to get pregnant, but they generally were married soon after, frequently to their child's father. Most slave communities did not think premarital sex was immoral, although they vigorously disapporved of adultery.
Slaves were not allowed to marry legally, but they almost always celebrated their union with a ceremony. Many prefered religious services - as many as two-fifths of the Episcopalian weddings in the Confederate states in the year before the war involved slaves. But the ministers never said "what God has joined together, let no man put asunder". The white owner could sunder a marriage with the wave of a pen, and in the eyes of the law, slaves could no more marry than they could go to court, own property, or control their children's fate. One black preacher in Kentucky, in a stroke of realism, told his brides and grooms that they were married "until death or distance do you part."
Most slaves married and stayed married to the same person all their lives. But husbands were often a fleeting presence, living on another plantation, arriving on Saturday night and leaving the next evening. In a sense, slave families were matriarchies in which the women were the only stable element. But fathers often made heroic efforts to stay with their children. Mattie jackson, a slave raised in Georgia, said her father and mother originally lived on neighbouring plantations. When her mother's wonder moved twnety miles away, her father continued his weekly visits "walking the distnace every Saturday evening and returning Sunday evening." Charles Ingram ran away from his master and was living and working as a free man when his wife died and his sons were sold to Texas. Ingram gave himself up and voluntarily resumed his life as a slave in order to take care of them.
The threat of being sold hung over every family. One historian estimated that over a typical slave woman's thirty-five year life, she had a fifty-fifty chance of being sold at least once, and would likely see the sale of several members of her immediate family. "Oh my mother My mother!" I kept saying to myself "Oh my mammy and my sisters and my brothers, shall i never see you again?" wrote Mary prince, a former slave recalling the day she was sold away from her family. Sojourner Truth's parents woke up one morning to find their owners bundling their five-year-old son and three-year-old daughter into a sleigh and driving them off to sale. The boy attempted to escape by hiding under his parents' bed, but their owner dragged him out while his mother and father stood by helpless.
Slaves who were being seperated from their families begged their new owners to purchase their spouse or children as well. many slave owners disapproved of breaking up families, and some went to great lengths to keep them intact. William massie of Virginia, who fell into financial difficulties, chose to sell his most treasured property rather than any of his slaves. "To know that my little family, white and black, is to be fixed permanently together would be as near that thing happiness as I ever expected to get" he wrote. But the death of a "good" master or mistress often broke up an estate and led to the sale of the human property. Wills ordering that families be left intact, or freed, were routinely ignored. Southern widows often found that their husbands had left them deeply in debt, forcing them to sell their slaves to pay creditors.
Next to the sale of their children or spouse, rape was perhaps the worst nightmare of slavery. We have no way of knowing how often it happened. At the end of the Civil War, somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of the slaves were beleived to be part white, but how many of those mixed bloodlines resulted from voluntary couplings, and how many womne were assaulted without becoming pregnant, it is impossible to calculate. We do know that white women were haunted by the fear that their husbands, fathers, or sons, were having sex with their slaves. And we know that black mothers nervously watched their daughters to protect them from dangers they could not understand. Harriet Jacobs, who was sexually harrassed by her master, called puberty "a sad epoch in the life of a slave girl." Rather than warning their daughters against dangers they could not really avoid, mothers prefered to shield their girls from learning anything about sex for as long as possible. The white community tended to believe that every African American woman yearned to "bring a little mulatto into the world" but in fact many slave communities resented the half-white children who reminded them that black men were unable to protect their wives and daughters. Masters seldom acknowledged their illegitimate children. Annie Burton, an ex-slave, said that her mistress often told her that her father was a planter who owned a nearby estate. "Whenever mi mistress saw him going by she would take my by the hand and run out upon th epiazz and exclaim 'Stop there! Don't you want to see and speak to and caress your darling child?" Her father would then "whip up his horse and get out of sight and hearing as quickly as possible."
'America's Women: 400 Years of dolls, drudges, helpmates and heroines' by Gail Collins