Property Owning Free African American Women in the South, 1800- 1870

UNCG Author/Contributor (non-UNCG co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Loren L. Schweninger, Emeritus Professor (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG )
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Abstract: Until recently, historians have paid little attention to the subject of property ownership among African-American women (or any women for that matter) during the nineteenth century. Early studies of slavery concentrated primarily on their role as "matriarchs" of slave families, while later investigations during the 1970s often focused on "black culture" and "black consciousness," emphasizing how, despite being sexually exploited by their white masters, African-American women played an important role in passing down a unique set of cultural values from one generation to the next. 2 Similarly, the literature on free African-Americans—from the early twentieth century university studies, to Carter G. Woodson and his followers, to the growing number of dissertations, articles, and books written during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s—contains information on a broad range of subjects but only fleeting references to the special economic role of women. 3 During the 1980s, this has slowly begun to change as scholars have turned their attention to the "internal slave economy" and free blacks in an urban setting. In their articles on slave property holding and market networks, historians Philip Morgan and Lawrence T. McDonnell have showed how some female slaves became actively engaged in buying and selling various goods. In her important analysis of free women of color in Petersburg, Virginia, Suzanne Lebsock noted that among the free blacks who managed to accumulate property, "a high proportion-40 to 50 percent—were women." In their studies of urban free blacks, Leonard Curry and Whittington B. Johnson discovered that black women were "quite visible" as property owners in Charleston, Louisville, Baltimore, Savannah, and other cities. In addition, Morgan, McDonnell, and others have examined the motives that prompted women to acquire property: slaves could provide better shelter and clothing for their children, add fruits and vegetables or store-bought items (coffee, tea, sugar, liquor) to their diets, travel by horse or wagon to visit relatives; a few could achieve a measure of autonomy within the "peculiar institution" or save enough to purchase themselves or loved ones out of slavery; free women of color could better defend themselves against the oppressive laws and institutions, seek legal redress within the court system, and sometimes secure white guardians and "protectors." They, too, were sometimes able to purchase loved ones out of bondage.

Additional Information

Journal of Women’s History 1 (Winter 1990): 13-44
Language: English
Date: 1990
African American women, Property ownership, 19th century

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