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Africana Archives: Excerpts
African American Families Past and Present

African American Families Past and Present

The selections offered here give testament to the strength and resilient spirit of the African American family unit through the years of bondage, fragmentation and social upheavals encountered from the Middle Passage through the passage of the Civil Rights Bill.

Down by the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community

1984, by Charles Joyner. Chicago, University of Illlinois Press.
© 1984 by the Board of Trustees, University of Illinois. Used with Permission of the University of Illinois Press

A walk through the slave village in the late afternoon, when the dark pines cast lengthening shadows on the weathered cabins, with their cypress-shingled roofs and broad front porches, was one of the remarkable experiences of the rice plantations. There, after the slaves’ field tasks were done, a visitor could observe not only the sights and sounds of the street – the women in their bright gingham dresses and white headkerchiefs, the men in their indigo-dyed homespun shirts and red jackets combining work with socializing as they went about their various chores – but also smell wood smoke from the cabin chimneys and the aromas of cornbread, peas and rice, pork or fish cooking over open fires in skilletlike ovens and iron cooking pots, stirred from time to time with cedar paddles. An understanding of the material environment of slavery – the food, clothing, and shelter of the slaves – would seem to be an indispensable prelude to comprehending other aspects of their culture. MORE

A Hard Fight for We: Women's Transition from Slavery to Freedom in South Carolina

1997, by Leslie A. Schwalm. Chicago, University of Illlinois Press.
© 1997 by the Board of Trustees, University of Illinois. Used with Permission of the University of Illinois Press

Planters, in using slave women (both biologically and socially) to reproduce the slave workforce, inadvertently reinforced a role through which slave women exercised considerable power in imparting slave culture and survival skills to young slaves. Seizing upon the opportunity created by their dual exploitation as workers and mothers, slave women maintained and strengthened community ties across the generations. They were the primary figures in raising the children of the slave community; in supervising and training children in the work that they would be forced to perform as adults; and in imparting to children the skills with which they, their kin, and their community might survive (and resist) lifelong enslavement. From birth to young adulthood, most young slaves were nurtured and trained by slave women, kin and non-kin, field hands as well as skilled slaves, such as those removed from field labor to care for infants and children. In addition to acts of nurturing, slave women also ensured that the ties that bound them all together in opposition to slavery reached into each new generation. Slave men were not absent from training young people, but their roles as laborers and as fathers did not overlap to the extent that women's did. Slave men dominated in different arenas of work, training young apprentices in the exclusively male-occupied crafts (as coopers, carpenters, and blacksmiths, for example). MORE

The Lineage of Abraham: The Biography of a Free Black Family in Charles City, VA.

© 1998, by Daryl Cumber Dance. Used by permission of the author and publisher. May not be presented in any form elsewhere without permission from copyright holders.

Excerpt From CHAPTER III:
Crawford and His Generation: Abraham's Grandchildren Doing What They Could to Help the Cause

"I fed the soldiers and did what I could to help the cause."
(Warren Cumber, Claim #19208)

The period of the Civil War was obviously a traumatic time for Crawford and his generation. Members of the family were often in attendance at meetings of the Dover Baptist Association when the group considered its stands on matters regarding slavery and abolition. That the hysteria, fear, and suspicion that afflicted the slaveholding South would affect their lives is clear. That they would be particularly vulnerable at this time is also obvious. Crawford's cousin Edmund Collier Brown was charged with a felony for possessing a copy of the Anglo-African in May 1861 (CCC Order Book, 1860-72, 74; see discussion in previous chapter).

When the war started, large numbers of slaves in Charles City deserted their owners, some joining the Yankees. Judge John M. Gregory laments in a letter dated 6/19/1862, "Almost everybody has lost some of their negroes and those that have remained do little or nothing. Every person in my neighborhood has lost some of their negroes. . . . I suppose nearly, if not fully, half of the negro men have gone" (Copland 7). The records of escaped slaves in Charles City is one of the thickest batches in the "Records of Escaped Slaves, 1863" (Auditor's Item 153, Box 17, Library of Virginia), listing large numbers who left varied plantations mainly during General George McClellan's occcupation, and one who "was hired to the Confederate government to work on fortifications at Yorktown and went to the enemy." In the aforementioned letter, Judge Gregory noted that his efforts to get free Negroes to work for him had been unsuccessful: "The free negroes refuse to work, and the demand for labor is so great in consequence of the great number of negroes who have gone from this county to the Yankees, that no labor can be hired." MORE

Slaves in the Family

© 1998, by Edward Ball. New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Used by permission of the author and publisher. May not be presented in any form elsewhere without permission from copyright holders.

The first person in slavery to the Balls who can be identified by name was a woman called Bella. On November 10, 1720, Elias made a note that "Bella had of me 3 yards of negero cloth." It was a Thursday.

"Negro cloth" was a coarse blend of wool and cotton that slaves were given for garments, a fabric manufactured in Europe and distributed by American slave owners. Whites did not wear Negro cloth, whose name and texture separated servers from served. The fabric sometimes took another, more poetic name, "oznaburgs," from Osnabruk, a town in northern Germany known for its textiles. The rough blue or sometimes white cloth was the standard uniform on the Ball plantations from the earliest colonial days until well into the 1800s.

To judge from the small size of her allotment of cloth, Bella must have been young, perhaps ten years old. In the practice taking shape, adults received five or more yards of oznaburgs per year, children about three yards. Bella reappears in the account book several times, always in the context of taking her basic needs for survival - usually cloth but also blankets and occasionally a pair of shoes. According to the slave lists, Bella lived fot at least another thirty years. No record of her birth or death, and no record of children, if she had them, has survived. We know her only as a person trying to clothe herself. MORE

Way Up North in Dixie: A Black Family's Claim to the Confederate Anthem

© 1993 by Howard L. Sack and Judith Rose Sacks. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press

Living With Dixie

In 1993 Smithsonian Institution Press published Way Up North in Dixie: A Black Family’s Claim to the Confederate Anthem. The book tells the story of the Snowdens, an African American musical family whose members had traveled from slavery in Maryland to freedom in rural Knox County, Ohio, in the early nineteenth century. Ellen Cooper and Thomas Snowden were the first recorded marriage of African Americans in the region, in 1835. Farmers by trade, the Snowden parents formed a family band with their six children, who sang, danced, and played fiddle, banjo, guitar, tambourine, and bones for audiences throughout the region from the 1850s into the first decades of the twentieth century.

As remarkable as their musical longevity was, the family has another, more dramatic claim on our interest: They offer insight into the very origins of that complex, often troubling element of America’s musical history known as blackface minstrelsy. For nearly one hundred years, oral history and written records have linked this family of talented African American musicians to a pioneer of blackface minstrelsy, Daniel Decatur Emmett (1815-1905), himself a native of the Snowdens’ hometown of Mount Vernon, Ohio. In particular, community lore asserts that the Snowdens were Emmett’s source for “Dixie,” the famous song now associated with the Confederacy. The song was first performed for a national audience in 1859, during a performance in New York City by Bryant’s Minstrels, a troupe that included Emmett as a musician and composer. In a rural Ohio graveyard not far from Emmett’s own burial site, in the Snowden family plot, a gravestone declares:

Ben Lou


They Taught “Dixie” to Dan Emmett


Preview These Recommended Titles at Google Book Search:

In Search of My Confederate Relatives: A Twenty-first Century Freedwoman Discovers Her Roots by Thulani Davis

The African-American Family in Slavery and Emancipation by Wilma A. Dunaway

Black Families by Harriette Pipes McAdoo

Family Life in Black America edited by Robert J. Taylor, James S. Jackson, Linda M. Chatters

How to Plan Your African-American Family Reunion by Krystal Williams

Read Excerpts from These Recommended Titles at

Climbing Jacob's Ladder: The Enduring Legacies of African-American Families by Andrew Billingsley

Coming Together: Celebrations for African American Families by Harriette Cole

The African American Family Album by Dorothy Hoobler, Thomas Hoobler, Phylicia Rashad

African American Childhoods: Historical Perspectives from Slavery to Civil Rights by Wilma King

A Love No Less: Two Centuries of African American Love Letters by Pamela Newkirk

Read Excerpts of These Recommended Titles from The University of Illinois Press:

Mothering the Race: Women's Narratives of Reproduction, 1890-1930

Explore. Discover. Learn. Teach.

Search Africana Heritage for Related Content


Explore the African American Family Reunion Primer from Afrigeneas

Explore African American Lives, a journey into the past, hosted and narrated by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.


Browse African American Family Histories and Related Works in the Library of Congress

Discover Celebrating the African American Family: A Selected Bibliography from the Chicago Public Library

Visit America's Promise, the Alliance for Youth, an organization dedicated to ensuring that ALL children have five essential resources: caring adults, safe places, a healthy start, effective education and opportunities to help others.


Enjoy Priscilla's Homecoming: A Remarkable Journey, right here on Africana!

Mrs. Thomalind Martin Polite, an African American woman from Charleston, South Carolina, made an extraordinary and historic journey to the West African nation of Sierra Leone, and the USF Africana Heritage Project accompanied Thomalind, to provide you with full coverage of this event.

Thomalind is known to be a direct descendant of a 10 year old girl who was kidnapped from Africa in 1756, placed aboard the slave ship Hare in Sierra Leone bound for Charleston, and sold in the Charleston market to rice planter Elias Ball. What makes this journey so extraordinary is that a 249 year paper trail links Thomalind from the day that the Hare sailed from Sierra Leone, to the present day. This happy accident of historical preservation was brought to light by Edward Ball, author of Slaves in the Family, and anthropologist Joseph Opala, who has spent more than thirty years researching the Gullah/Sierra Leone connection.


View American Families: Portraits of African-American Families, by Frances Pierce, from the Yale-Newhaven Teachers Institute

View lesson plans for African American Family History at African American Lives

View Featured Resources and Lesson Plans for Priscilla's Homecoming, right here on Africana!
Copyright 2004 The University of South Florida and The Africana Heritage Project. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. For more information, contact the Africana Heritage Project via e-mail.