The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925. By Herbert G. Gutman. New York: Pantheon Books, 1976.

            Published in 1976, Gutman’s volume, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, is a study of African American culture as it developed before and after the Civil War from the years 1750 to 1925.  Gutman states that his work is mainly in response to the controversy created by Daniel P. Moynihan’s book The Negro Family in America: The Case for National Action published in 1965.  Moynihan, drawing on the conventional views of African Americans at the time, claimed that slavery was the root of “the deterioration of the Negro family” and that the state of African American families in the mid-twentieth century was a direct result of this lack of family structure.  Gutman’s intention is to prove Moynihan and other historians of the era wrong and that African Americans, in fact, possessed remarkable capacities to adapt and were able to establish strong and extensive ties to their families even while enslaved.

             The book is divided into two parts.  The first eight chapters deal principally with African American familial and kin relationships prior to emancipation.  In his study, Gutman uses several different slave communities from various regions as sources of information on African American culture.  The most prominent communities include the Good Hope Plantation in South Carolina, the Stirling Plantation in Louisiana, the Cedar Vale Plantation in Virginia, the Watson Plantation in Alabama, and the Bennehan-Cameron Plantation in North Carolina. He looks at the birth registers of each of these communities to construct lineages of the slave population in each area.  He also examines the personal accounts of African Americans and surveys taken by the Freedman’s Bureau after the Civil War.    

            After looking at each of these communities in detail, Gutman uses several chapters to look at the broader implications that his findings have on the history of African American families.  He draws on information from all of these sources to substantiate his thesis.  By comparing the figures and stories from all of these communities, he is able to construct theories about slave family life that could be applicable to slaves from all regions of the South.  He looks in detail at slave naming practices as evidence of family relationships and of complex methods of keeping track of biological and fictive kin groups.  He also takes into account other cultural phenomena including informal marriage practices, forced separation of spouses, runaway slaves, and Southern paternalistic ideology.

            The second part of The Black Slave Family deals with the families of ex-slaves and how they and their descendants adjusted to freedom.  In these final chapters Gutman examines first-hand accounts and census data to get an idea of the experiences of slaves after the Civil War.  In addition to how ex-slaves were abused and exploited and their migration patterns away from the dangerous South, Gutman also points out the lengths these newly freed people went to locate their family members. Slavery was no doubt an intensely oppressive situation, but those enslaved in the South managed to make choices that allowed them to maintain extensive family networks that persisted into their freedom.  As for Moynihan’s thesis about the deteriorating African American family, single-parent households for instance, Gutman concludes that economic status was a far likelier source than the inability to form attachments to family.

            To help illustrate his points, Gutman includes numerous tables and charts throughout his book.  He adds thorough genealogies of the slave families at each site he studies along with copied portions of the original birth registers to which he frequently refers.  Gutman makes a well-supported argument by using these many excellent examples.  In my opinion, he definitely succeeds in accomplishing his goals of bringing attention to the complexity of the family life of African Americans and of correcting inaccurate beliefs of the time. 

Colby Bosher 


The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925. by Herbert G. Gutman. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1976, Pp. xxviii, 664.)

In his 1976 study of the origins and development of Afro-American slave culture and familial development from 1750 to 1925, Herbert Gutman seeks to uncover an accurate paradigm of the black family’s growth in North America. Gutman, a former professor at the City University of New York, responds to Daniel P. Moynihan, author of the 1965 book The Negro Family in America, who saw black unemployment in urban areas after World War II resulting from a deterioration of the Negro family, starting with the earliest African slaves.  Moynihan and several other writers’ theories of a fatherless, disorganized black family (xviii), Gutman stresses, misjudges the role of the Afro-American father in black families and underestimates the adaptive abilities of blacks both before and after emancipation. 

      In the first part of the book, Gutman begins to realize that strong bonds overcame many the obstacles to personal choice, inherent to enslavement, to exist in black families.  To further study family and kin network development, he first looks at records from the Good Hope plantation in South Carolina.  Its detailed slave birth register lists over two hundred slave births.  In addition to providing the date of birth for each slave baby, the register also lists the name of both parents, even though the mother’s status as slave or free determined the child’s status. The record of the father’s name strengthens his argument that fathers also played a role in children’s lives.  Good Hope records reveals a high percentage of lengthy slave marriages and reveals commonplace sexual practices of slaves, such as prenuptial intercourse and childbirth before marriage.       

            Next, Gutman focuses on five other plantations’ slave familial arrangements. These five plantations, located across the South, vary in size, ownership, and crop production, all possessed similar domestic arrangements to Good Hope’s slaves. Occurrences such as slave parents naming their children for blood kin and the larger kin network applying pressure to enforce slave marriage norms happened in most slave communities. The naming of slaves for grandparents, uncles, fathers, and aunts linked slave children to a wider kin network, the social basis for the slave community. Surnames also served an important role in connecting slaves.  Whether adopted from a former master or forbearer, many slaves used last names to symbolize close ties between their immediate families.  These cultural norms overcame disruptive plantation events, such as the sale of slaves to different plantations, which further spread this common slave culture that began to develop when the first African slaves landed on American soil.    

            Gutman shifts his focus from the precise study of plantation life of slaves to the many inaccurate perceptions, he believes, of slave behavior and the black family by contemporary historians, such as Frazier, Elkins, and Eugene Genovese. Gutman insists that the old models of slave behavior provided by these and other writers need revision. He discounts Frazier’s argument that the poor treatment of slaves fully explains slave behavior as Frazier ignores the impact of slave socialization and relations with family and kin on slaves’ actions. Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll and Elkins’ works both emphasized owner control over the slaves.  Gutman strongly believes that blacks largely made their own ways and feels that these earlier authors do not understand that social and cultural processes, developed by the earliest slaves, formed into traditions that passed down to later generations, creating an Afro-American culture.      

Finally, Gutman provides a short analysis of ex-slaves in their first years of freedom and their descendants in the early twentieth century.  Although emancipated, Gutman recognizes that ex-slaves in their first few years of freedom continued to face difficult challenges like Black Codes, abuse, and exploitation from whites.  Even through these problems, black marriage rates remained consistent, a testament to the strong slave culture that developed during their time as slaves.  Looking to the 1880s and up to 1925, as many blacks migrated North in search of better jobs and safer living conditions, Gutman’s research indicates no actual breakdown in black familial ties and society during or after emancipation, disproving the standard ideas and arguments found in much of the applicable historiography up to his study. 

            In compiling data for this extensive research project, Gutman accessed materials from southern and northern rural and urban areas, households in Buffalo and New York City, and plantations throughout the South.  Combined with census figures, birth and marriage registers, and many published books, Gutman’s sources aptly help him disprove that black females commonly ran their households alone.  This work enlightens readers about the ability of slaves to sustain vital familial associations and revises the ideas of several previous historians concerning Afro-American culture.  All readers should enjoy this aggressive revisionist work, which traces the development of the black family in America and their relationships, which served as the foundation of Afro-American communities.         

Heather L. Yeargan   

Texas Christian University



The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925. by Herbert G. Gutman. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1976, Pp. xxviii, 664.)

 In this groundbreaking work, Herbert G. Gutman responds to the controversial work of Daniel P. Moynihan’s The Negro Family in America: The Case for National Action (1965). Moynihan argued the troubles experienced by African-Americans with the migration to northern cities and the problems experienced in adapting to northern urban life was rooted in the deterioration of the African-American family beginning with the enslavement of Africans in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He believed that distortions existed in family life and basic family organization was not allowed to survive; only the mother-child family could persist. Gutman responds by examining African-American families between 1750 through 1925 and the early development of the family structure and culture. In The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, Gutman addresses the African-American family before and after general emancipation by looking at the cultural beliefs, behaviors, and adaptive capacities of the family. As a reply to historians who maintain that family and familial ties were not important within the slave experience, Gutman examines several factors of the family experience. He draws his evidence from plantation records, county census schedules, and Freedman Bureau records.

 During and after the Civil War, the last generation slaves tended to live in long marriages and most children lived within double-headed households. Gutman uses birth and marriage records kept by the slave owners, focusing on the Good Hope plantation in South Carolina and the Stirling plantation in Louisiana. Long-term marriage was not the exception, but the norm within the slave societies studied. Marriages lasted as long as thirty plus years. Another factor observed within this study is that of premarital sex. There has long existed the belief that the slaves had a particularly strong sex drive that could not be controlled. Gutman argues against this school of thought. Prenuptial sex did exist among slave society, but its roots can be found in Africa and other pre-modern cultures. Slave owners also encouraged reproduction by slaves for economic purposes, but prenuptial sex within slave society was congruent with established marriages. There were often births before marriage or pregnant brides, but the records Gutman studies shows that lifelong marriage between couples that experienced this phenomenon occurred more often than not. He makes the distinction between prenuptial sex and promiscuity, something that was not common among slaves.

 Double-headed households were dominant as opposed to the single-headed households and this prevailed through emancipation and up until the Great Depression. This was usually the norm on the Good Hope plantation, and though there were more occurrences of single mothers on the Stirling plantation, with fathers not recorded in the birth records, the double-headed household was still the norm. The double-headed household could be found among both the field hands and the more privileged house servants.

 Naming practices among slaves was a manner in which slaves could distinguish themselves from their masters. After the War for Independence, many slaves took the surnames of their masters to develop a family identity, indicating the importance of the enlarged family group, but by the nineteenth century, slave names were patriarchal based and indicates a separation from the masters identity over time. Slave children were commonly named after their father, almost fifty percent of the time, or they were given the name of an uncle or grandfather. This shows the generational ties that exist between the slave families and the attachment to the enlarged kin group.

 The methods used in choosing a marriage partner are particularly fascinating as they are absolutely unlike the methods used by the planter class. Slaves held deep-seated exogamous beliefs and adhered to this practice for many generations. Close blood marriages were considered taboo, unlike the endogamy frequently practiced by the planter class. This practice fashioned the way slaves chose their spouses.

 Gutman also looks at the other aspects of slave life, such as slaves who were sold off their plantations with which they held familial ties. On the Cedar Vale plantation in Virginia, fathers sold off from their families separated slave families, but Gutman contends that because these fathers were sold to nearby plantations, the familial ties were still close. In this area, he seems to gloss over the problems that could develop because of separation of family.

 All of these practices are looked at in a bigger context, spanning a period much greater than just that after 1830. Many of the roots of these practices were developed long before then and carry over into the post-Civil War era. The Great Exodus of African-Americans from the South to Kansas that took place in the 1880s consisted primarily of families. One of the prominent reasons stated by African-Americans for this exodus was to protect the women and girls from being harassed and worse by white males. The family ties were still strong and of primary importance within the African-American community.

All of the families looked at within the period of this study share the common characteristic of being poor, second-class citizens, but this did not contribute to household organization among African-Americans. The African-American family did not disintegrate after emancipation or because of the great northern migration before 1930. This completely disregards the early twentieth century academic view of the African-American family life as disorganized because of circumstances that existed in slavery. By 1900, male-absent households and subfamilies increased, but the long marriage was still common among African-American families. Gutman argues the twentieth century migration to northern cities did not splinter the African-American family. It was able to remain stable and functionally successful as a familial structure within slavery, and survived the transition to freedom and into the black, urban, northern ghetto until at least 1925.

 Though this piece is sometimes difficult to follow as Gutman uses an abundance of names to show how his research is developed, he also provides useful charts and information for the reader to explore for further clarification. It is an important work in the history of the African-American family as its approach and perspective is unique from any previous work done in this area.

Sharon Romero