The Slave Family in Arkansas

By Moneyhon, Carl H. | The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

The Slave Family in Arkansas


Moneyhon, Carl H., The Arkansas Historical Quarterly


THE INSTITUTION OF SLAVERY is central to the history of the United States and especially the South. As Ira Berlin recognizes in his recent study, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America, slavery shaped Americans'definition of race. Since race remains a major force in our society today, understanding the basis of our racial thought continues to be critical. The earliest scholars of slavery tended to look at it as an institution the slaveholders made, but in the last thirty years researchers have turned toward understanding slavery from the perspective of the slaves themselves. What might be called revisionist historians have examined in detail the development of the various social dimensions of the slave community.1

This new scholarship, however, has had little impact on our understanding of slavery in Arkansas. Orville Taylor's Negro Slavery in Arkansas remains the standard work and was exemplary for its time. Published in 1958 before recent research developments, it contributes little to the current discussion of the nature of slave life.2 This study seeks to rectify that deficiency with a look at one aspect of the slave community, the family. The slave family has been of particular interest to scholars, since understanding it has been considered critical to explaining the basic dynamics of the master-slave relationship and thus the character of the institution.

Serious scholarly study of the slave family began with the work of one individual, E. Franklin Frazier, who published The Negro Family in Chicago in 1932 and The Negro Family in the United States in 1939. Frazier, concerned with what he considered to be the instability of the African American family in the 1930s, located the roots of that instability in slavery. He concluded that the slave family was little more than an accommodation to the institution. It never had the capacity to tie together households into units of common interest and purpose. The reason for this failure, Frazier hypothesized, was that the slave family could not be protected by its adult members and, often dispersed by owners, seldom existed over any length of time.3

Later historians, such as Kenneth Stampp and Stanley Elkins, followed in Frazier's wake, agreeing with him that even where the slave household existed it lacked cohesiveness. The frequent breakup of families by masters prevented the development of strong bonds among family members. In the end, Stampp and Elkins concluded, as Frazier had, that the slave family reflected little more than the slave owner's desire to create stability within the plantation community. These conclusions became the textbook history for a generation and even the basis for public policy. Daniel P. Moynihan's book, The Negro Family in America: The Case for National Action, published in 1965, integrated this analysis into his explanation of modern problems of the African American family and his proposal for their solutions.4

Scholarship in the 1970s, by looking at the slave family from the viewpoint of the slaves, developed a different and revisionist interpretation. Examining new sources that ranged from the reminiscences of ex-slaves to plantation records, historians found an institution not simply shaped by the interests of the master but also by the interests of the African American slave community. They discovered stability rather than instability. The idea that slaves sought to create two-parent nuclear families that then became the vehicle for the formation of a larger and uniquely African American culture first appeared in 1972 in John Blassingame's Slave Community. It received subsequent support in Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman's controversial Time on the Cross and Eugene Genovese's Roll, Jordan, Roll. Herbert Gutman carried the idea further in his Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, concluding that the two-parent family was the norm among slaves.5

By the 1990s the revisionist model had displaced that of Frazier, Stampp and Elkins. …

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